WINNIE, TX -It's estimated that only 20 percent of Texas waterfowlers take advantage of the state's early teal season. Gauging from what we've seen this morning- the next-to-last day of the one-week-long 1997 season-the remaining 80 percent are missing out big-time.
As we rode to the blind atop the Polaris ATV, startled flocks of small-bodied ducks erupted loudly from the thinly-flooded grass field and adjacent reservoir. Raspy and abrupt, their collective chatter echoed sharply through the pre-dawn haze. Teal-primarily bluewings, along with a tiny smattering of their green-winged brethren-streaked overhead unseen but heard, their small but sturdy wings audibly slicing the moist morning air as they repeatedly circled and regrouped.
Will Beaty shot me an "I told you so" look while his partner Troy Coleman, Trophy Quest¨ winner Buddy Gorski, his father, Jim, Polaris dealer Gene Anderson and I settled down in the brush-laced duck blind and prepared for the shoot.
Ten minutes later-exactly a half-hour before sunrise-it began. And now, two hours later, we're only two birds shy of our 4-teal-per-hunter legal limit-a fact that has more to do with the wingshooting abilities of persons who shall remain unnamed than it does the abundance of opportunities.
Teal can humble a hunter in a hurry. Which, among other things, is what makes them such wonderful game birds.
Success prerequisite No. 1 hinges on habitat-an aspect of the hunt that Beaty, 33, and Coleman, 35, more than took care of early last month. Water and food are the foundation of every good teal hunt. The duo turned the water loose on the grass, and by the third week of August the place was already congested with bluewings.
Without blue-winged teal, there wouldn't be an early teal season. The September teal-only season began with a 3-year experimental run in 1965-67 and was finally offered as a regular feature in '69. Despite some subsequent "ups and downs" in the breeding population that temporarily halted the early season (in 1968 and from 1988-1991), thanks to much-improved conditions on northern nesting grounds, Texas' teal season is now more firmly entrenched than ever.
Vernon Bevill, director of wetland ecology and migratory game bird programs for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, says teal breeding populations have been at record numbers for the past three springs. "The long-term breeding population average is 4.7 million birds," Bevill tells Texas Fish & Game®. "For 1998, we're looking at an all-time-high breeding population of 6.7 million birds."
According to Dave Sharp, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service's (USFWS) representative to the Central Flyway Council, under the teal regulations framework approved by the Service's Regulations Committee, states which offer the September teal season have the option to schedule a 16-day season with a 4-teal bag limit when the breeding population meets or exceeds the aforementioned average of 4.7 million birds-which, I'm happy to report, is exactly what is happening this year.
For the first time in the 30-year-plus history of early-season teal hunting, the 1998 Texas season will run a total of 16 days, from Sept. 12-27. Better yet, it might well be the most productive September season ever. Take into account not only the record numbers of birds, but also the fact that hunters can now take advantage of three separate weekends of shooting, and the promise of this year's early teal season is more than apparent. Altogether, it's almost too good to believe.
Get out on a well-managed property with the right basic set-up, and you'll quickly discover that seeing is believing when it comes to gunning for September teal-which also explains my deep appreciation of hunting with the colorful fellows at Central Flyway Outfitters (CFO).
Beaty and Coleman formed CFO two years ago. Business has doubled every year, due in large part to professionalism in the field, an abundance of well managed property, top-notch gear and ATVs and, of course, the camaraderie and overall quality of the hunting experience. Hunting with this bunch isn't just productive; it's fun.
"We've been able to secure some of the best land in Southeast Texas, a total of approximately 30,000 acres," Beaty says. "Much of it is natural coastal marsh, along with a good bit of 'high country' rice fields."
Again, CFO's preparation for teal hunting begins well before the season opener. "We go in and flood 'set-aside' weed fields, which make unbelievable attractants for teal," says Coleman. "The birds love freshly-flooded grass-Coastal Bermuda, Johnson Grass, you name it-anything that carries any type of seed."
"We also flood rice fields," Beaty adds. "Typically, the rice around the Winnie area is harvested during the first and second weeks of August, which is perfect timing for teal season. As soon as the combines leave the fields, the water goes back in. By getting water on the rice and fallow fields early enough, the birds come in during mid-August and quickly open up the areas. They're literally grazed."
The fast-traveling bluewings are there as soon as the water hits the ground. "We've shot birds on opening weekend that were banded a week earlier in Canada," Beaty points out.
"We try to position our hunters so as to keep the birds moving," he continues. "With such large blocks of land and 30 or so blinds, we can continually alternate. We hunt 10 groups a day, and as such hunt each blind every three days on the average. Rotating like that makes for a great scenario."
"We usually have no problem getting limits," Coleman adds. "Our typical opening week, and certainly on opening day, I can almost guarantee you decoying flocks of 100 to 150 birds. If you're a good enough shot, you can take your limit in 10 minutes or less."
Who wants to hurry, though? Matter of fact, patience pays when the undersized ducks rocket into the pocket at 35 mph.
"You don't want to be the first one to shoot," Beaty says. "When the birds are alerted, they fly straight up (a tendency that led sporting clays designers to come up with the challenging "springing teal" station). Wait 'til they flare, and then take your shots."
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