Early teal season is a good time to hone your skills and get outside before the traditional duck opener
By Nick Green
It seemed my eyes had just shut when the irritating sound of my alarm woke me. I never sleep on opening eves — ever. And the teal opener is no exception. The anticipation of what is to come takes hold of me, and I have learned to embrace it rather than fighting it.
The 3 a.m. wake-up call is nothing new to a duck hunter. We pry ourselves from warm beds with our four-legged best friends hoping to hear that whistle overhead at first light. We do it day in and day out because it is a part of what makes us whole.
My friend Abe and I loaded my lab, Annie, into the truck and headed for one of our local state game areas where teal can be found with a bit of work. We met my coworker, Shaun, and were motoring out from the launch at about 4:15 a.m.
The warm air and water comforted me; I knew it would only be weeks before nightly temperatures dropped, my breath would become visible and I would trade my light, T-shirt underlayer for long underwear. Although I loathe the heat most of the year, I don’t mind it teal hunting — it is part of the experience.
We set the blocks out in no particular order — teal don’t seem to mind much anyway. They are going to either swing through like little rocket ships and give you a passing shot or they are going to bomb in — there isn’t much in-between.
Shortly before what would be normal shooting light if it was the regular season, wood ducks and mallards started to fill the sky. The whistle of wings seemed close enough for me to grab the ducks as they skirted over our heads to look at the spread. Some landed but more flew away.
Annie’s excitement was building as little whimpers resonated from her blind. Teal shooting light is at sunrise or one half-hour after normal shooting time for ducks in the regular season. We watched hundreds of ducks, cormorants, egrets and an eagle wake up as the sun peaked over the eastern horizon.
About three minutes before shooting light, we had a group of six teal dive into our decoys. Most duck hunters know this moment of panic and excitement on opening day — will these ducks hang around long enough for the shooting time bell to ding?
Quietly, we loaded our shells as the clock struck 7:04 a.m. I tried to whisper to Annie to keep her calm and quiet. We counted down the shot, and seconds later, four ducks lay belly up. Annie leapt from her stand marking the beginning of our 2020 season.
Teal hunting season in Michigan
For those who haven’t hunted teal, it is a special treat. These early migrators are fast and small. Couple that with early-season jitters and poor shooting, and the recipe is rarely ever in the hunter’s favor.
September 1 marks the opener of early goose season and teal season. Teal prefer shallow mudflats where they can dabble for vegetation and aquatic insects. Generally, they fly low and much more erratic than other ducks. They usually tip the scales at about 1 pound.
Teal will occupy lots of different bodies of water during their early pilgrimage. Many hunters will venture to Saginaw Bay, arguably one of the best teal strongholds we are blessed with in Michigan. However, hunters don’t need a Bay boat and a 150-horsepower motor to find these small rocket ships.
I have harvested and hunted teal on small, wooded ponds, shallow river oxbows and inland lakes. It is all about finding shallow vegetation and then looking for some birds hanging around. Scouting the week before the season pays huge dividends when trying to set up on these fickle birds.
Teal can present frustrating challenges when scouting. First, hunters need to be sure they are identifying teal and not juvenile or molting wood ducks. Looking for the baby blue patch on bluewings or trying to catch the subtle green speculum tucked away on a greenwing when they are cupping in for a landing can help hunters be sure they are after the right quarry. Also, look for a white ring around an eye — a dead giveaway that what you are looking at is a hen wood duck, not a teal.
Look for flocks of small ducks. Usually, wood ducks won’t be in migrating groups during the teal season and tend to hang around in groups of two to six. Teal have usually started their migration and will be in groups as big as three dozen or as small as eight or 10. Wood ducks will have a white underwing; teal have a light-brown underwing.
Early on, one of the biggest identifying factors that helped me differentiate between woodies and teal was their flight pattern. Wood ducks, at least in my experience, tend to fly at a medium height — they don’t fly as high as mallards, generally, but higher than divers or teal. Teal will regularly scream towards your decoys at 10 feet above the water.
Teal also do lots of twisting and turning when they fly. They are acrobatic ducks that can change direction in an instant. Don’t pull the trigger if you’re unsure about your target. Let the ducks land, and be sure to identify the ducks as teal. After a few hunts, you will start to key in on what teal do in the air, their small stature, and start identifying them from greater distances on the wing.
The most frustrating part of scouting for teal happens the morning after you find birds. Often, the birds you found the day before have vanished. Teal are sensitive to cold fronts and photoperiods. This is normal and if you have found a good spot, check it again after a cool night to see if more teal have moved in.
Decoys for teal hunting
My friends and I are not obsessive over our decoy spreads. Generally, we put out around 18 early-season teal decoys, six geese and a spinning-wing decoy. Using hen mallards (almost all ducks are brown in early September) also works well. If you are contemplating only one purchase for teal season and already have a half dozen to a dozen hen mallards, buy some floater geese. For some reason, I find early-season ducks like to land near goose decoys.
Spinning-wing decoys (Mojo or Lucky Duck make a good product) work well in the early season to catch ducks’ attention. I prefer to use a Mojo with a remote so I can turn the decoy off if we hear or see geese — geese will flare away from the spinners sometimes.
Setting decoys is an art that I still have not mastered. For beginners, try to keep the wind at your back or at least have a crosswind. You want the decoys to be on the downwind side and to try and land the ducks just short of your decoys. Teal, given their small size and flying behavior, don’t seem to be as affected by the wind, and rarely ever have I had one perfectly land into the wind like some of the bigger ducks will do. It is good practice to try and keep the wind at your back, though.
We generally set our decoys in family groups of four or six. We will have three or four pods of ducks with a pocket in the middle about 25 yards from our blind. The hope is that they will land in that pocket.
The quickest way to ruin a good hunt is a bad hide. Some folks put on ghillie suits and paint their face — and I presume they are successful. I have found that wearing camouflage similar to your surroundings and staying still works well for teal and early-season ducks that haven’t been pressured.
In some of our spots, I do take a panel blind in and set it in front of us. However, just backing up into the brush and sitting still has also worked well in those spots. Wearing a ball cap, keeping your head tilted down, and scanning the sky just under the brim of your hat is another good way to keep birds from seeing your face — a dead giveaway to birds in the sky that something isn’t normal.
With all of the technology that has gone into duck hunting clothes and camo the last decade, there are jackets, waders and shirts that span from cheap to ridiculously expensive. When I take new hunters in the early season, they generally wear deer hunting camo, and that works just fine.
If only one point comes through from this piece, let it be this: know what you are shooting at. The quickest way to end Michigan’s teal hunting season will be if hunters continually harvest wood ducks mistaking them for teal.
If you are unsure, let the ducks decoy. Look for small ducks in groups flying erratically. And try to spot the baby-blue or green speculum on teal when they bank for a landing.
Take your time if the ducks are on the water. Taking a duck on the water is sometimes frowned upon, but if I have done my job right (scouted, put out decoys and hid well), I consider it a success to land them. If you are going to harvest a duck on the water, shoot lower than you initially think — two-thirds of the duck’s body is underwater.
Pass shooting can also provide exciting teal hunts. Teal’s tendency to group up can make picking out a single bird tough. However, try to pick the lead bird in a flock, take your time and follow through. Be mindful of your lead if the teal aren’t close.
Putting it all together for teal hunting
“You can’t shoot ‘em from the couch” is the old saying. And that’s true in teal season.
Scout beforehand, practice good waterfowl etiquette when other hunters are present and blend in with your surroundings. Before you know it, your plate will be filled with delicious teal. Don’t forget to pluck and save the teal legs — one of the best wild game meals I have had was buffalo teal legs braised on the stove and then quickly pan-fried to crisp up the skin.
Good luck, and shoot straight. You can find the rules and regulations for teal season here.