There is no telling how many times early-season teal hunters have said they scouted birds one day, but when they went back the next they were not there.
It is a common occurrence on public waters with several causes, probably none of which can be eliminated.
The first blue-winged teal started their migration in mid-August from the Prairie Pothole region of the Dakotas through Texas. It is a journey that will ultimately take them to Central America and northern South America.
Texas hunters get a shot at the earliest-migrating duck during a 16-day season Sept. 14-29, and while the hunting can be hit or miss in Northeast Texas, waterfowlers still look it as a chance to jumpstart their year.
Accustomed to later-season duck hunting techniques, duck hunters like to hit the water and scout for the birds. The problem with that is that Northeast Texas lakes are like way stations for bluewings, nothing more than a resting spot on the way to their final destination. Often any disturbance whether caused by nature or humans can send them on the final 1,500 miles or more of their fall flight.
“The presence of humans scouting, fishing or whatever can cause them to leave,” said Kevin Kraai, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s waterfowl program leader. “What you are seeing more than anything is bluewings that are migrating.”
Showing how much bluewings are on the move this time of year Kraai said he has a friend who shot one of the ducks on opening morning in the Panhandle that had been banded 700 miles away in South Dakota less than 48 hours earlier.
Even undisturbed the birds may only stay a couple of days if they find good water and food. For that reason Kraai said he is more a fan of just showing up to hunt in spots that are good teal habitat.
“If you hit it right they are going to be there. Scouting is typically not as important as with other ducks because (teal) are there one day and gone the next,” the biologist explained.
Finding the right water may be difficult on some Northeast Texas reservoirs this year. Searching for crustaceans and bugs that will provide protein as they are constantly changing from summer to winter plumage, the teal are looking for water that may be no more than an inch or so deep. Because water levels are down from 5 ½ to 11 feet on some of the area’s best duck lakes, there isn’t going to be an abundance of shallow flats. Lake Palestine, which is only down 1 ½ feet, may offer the best option if it doesn’t become overcrowded.
Another spot coming on line this month is TPWD’s Richland Creek Wildlife Management Area North Unit that is reopening with 2,000 acres of shallow water wetlands. The unit will be open to September teal hunters holding an Annual Public Hunting Permit.
This year’s bluewing flight counts are down 16 percent from a year ago because of dry conditions and changing farming habitats in the Dakotas. While that size dip might be a concern some species, it is less than significant with the teal.
“One thing we can say is that bluewings continue to do great. Their numbers are down a little, but they are so far ahead of where they have been before,” Kraai said.
The estimated 7.7 million teal expected to migrate this fall remains 60 percent above the long-term average count. That is the reason September hunters will again have a long season, and more importantly have a daily bag limit that is expanding from four to six birds.
“There are lots of ducks up there. We just have to wait to see if they come through Texas,” Kraai said.
Texas hunters, especially those along the coast where the hunting is often more consistent, also benefit because Texas is a key launching spot for the ducks migration south. Louisiana and to a lesser degree Florida are also major gateways for bluewings.
While the season dates in Texas hopefully are aligned with the peak of the migration, Kraai said at this point the timing is more because of hunter interest to go as late in September as possible.
“Most of it is because of hunter demand, but there are studies on peak migration and it falls within the 16 days,” he said.
The timing has been unchanged for years, but if a time comes that the season is reduced to nine days Kraai said picking the right dates will become more critical.
Hunting hours for teal are 30 minutes before sunrise until legal sunset. Beginning this year hunters may have three day’s possession limits.