The time is approaching for appetizers for many Arkansas duck hunters. It’s called teal season.
From Sept. 10 through Sept. 24, waterfowlers can go after the small swift teal, a variety of ducks, when and where they can find them. This factor is a key to prospects of success on a teal hunt. Find them.
This teal season began more than 30 years ago for one reason. Blue-winged teal, one of the three varieties that migrate to and through Arkansas, were numerous but were usually gone by the time regular duck hunting opened in late November. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved this September early teal hunt for Arkansas and other states after quite a lengthy period of study and negotiation.
For starters in finding teal, think mallards and other ducks later in the year, then make a few adjustments.
Teal are associated with water, like all ducks, but they may be more inclined to use small bodies of water in Arkansas — farm ponds, sloughs, creeks. And yes, some will be found along the Arkansas River because they are in transition.
Arkansas is a stopover for the early migrating blue-winged teal. They’ll go on to south Louisiana and especially to Texas. Some will make it to South America. In parts of Texas, teal hunting is a major event — the entrée, not just the appetizer as in Arkansas. In west Texas where you would least expect to see ducks, small groups of teal often show up on ranch tanks, the term out there for stock ponds.
Blue-winged teal migrate from northern breeding grounds ahead of green-winged teal, which are second in teal numbers in Arkansas. Cinnamon-winged teal are seen here only occasionally.
Blue-winged teal are early birds in Arkansas in more than one way.
"Blue-wingeds tend to fly right at daybreak and not for long afterward," Randy Zellers of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission said.
Some hunters go early and late, sometimes finding the birds in action just before sundown.
A dry year like the current one offers fewer watering places for teal. Rice fields have not been pumped up for ducks yet, and bottomlands have not been replenished by fall rains.
For the early season teal hunting, rules are similar to regular duck season. Both federal and state duck stamps, officially migratory waterfowl hunting stamps, are required. These must be signed across their faces, but they don’t have to be affixed to a hunting license. Shotguns must be plugged to hold no more than three shells.
The daily limit is four teal. Steel or other non-toxic shot is required, and hunters who contemplate doing a double dip of teal and doves need to be careful not to have lead shot loads for doves on their person when hunting teal.
Since teal are smaller than mallards and most other ducks, some hunters use shotgun loads with slightly smaller shot — No. 6 instead of No. 4 for instance.
Blue-winged teal are not found in large flocks as a rule. A flight of teal may be a half-dozen or so birds. Many hunters use decoys, but just a few are required since the teal are roaming around in small groups.
Some hunters like to use female mallard decoys they already have on hand, saying the size difference is not a turnoff for flying teal. Calls imitating the sounds of blue-wingeds are available, and you’ll find waterfowlers here and there that tell you they just work with regular mallard calls.
A caution: Wood ducks live year-round in Arkansas and are only slightly larger than teal. Hunters need to be careful and identify their targets in early morning low light before cutting loose at what they hope are teal.
Teal may be small, but they are good table fare — as good as most dabbling ducks, in the opinions of many wild game cooks.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.