ERIE — Shooting time for waterfowl typically starts a half hour before sunrise, but during teal season — 16 days, beginning Sept. 1 — shooting time arrives at sunrise. It’s easy to see why; as Joe Robison and I slogged our way through the marsh in the pre-dawn, the skies were littered with ducks criss-crossing the sky. But only a percentage (maybe half) of them were teal. There were a lot of wood ducks and few mallards in the mix.

So it’s easy to see why the feds — who have the final say on all things migratory — want duck hunters to wait for good light to start shooting.

As we sat on marsh seats awaiting the appointed time, hunkered behind a veil of dead phragmites, we watched the teal coming in low, sometimes splashing down in the decoys, then getting up and moving again. Shooting time was 7:03 a.m. At 7:04, Robison had a teal dead on the water.

By 8 a.m., we’d killed two each and only one had evaded us, one that was well outside the decoys and zoomed across in front of us, never hesitating.

And that’s when I made a big mistake; I got up and worked my way back to the vehicle to get my cameras. I’d life them behind because I was uncertain about the footing and didn’t want to risk a header. But after getting out there, I determined that I could manage without tripping and the morning light was gorgeous, perfect for photos, so I took a chance. In the 10 minutes I was gone, two small bunches came through.

Robison killed two from the first batch and while he was retrieving them, a quartet barreled straight in over the dekes and though Robison was well off to one side, he managed to scratch down another. So he had just one to go to get his limit and I thought I had plenty of shooting to do.

And, of course, it didn’t work out that way. Over the next hour a single swung wide and dumped in behind a curtain of phrags about 75 yards away, and while Robison worked his way over, hoping to jump it up and finish his limit, a trio came barreling in from nowhere, saw him, and swung wide. Robison hunkered and called; the birds responded and swung back behind me, but close enough to give me a shot. I dumped one, missed another, then used my third shot to finish my first bird which was swimming away posthaste.

That was it; Robison, who is the Department of Natural Resources’ ranking wildlife biologist for southeast Michigan, had a 10 o’clock meeting to attend, so we pulled out at 9.

We’d managed eight, all bluewings. Pretty cool.

This is the fifth year Michigan had been allowed an early teal season by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The feds have always held that “production states,” of which Michigan is one, couldn’t have early teal seasons, but the DNR kept asking for it and finally the feds relented and set up a three-year experimental season on the condition that it be monitored — DNR biologists manned spy blinds to watch the goings-on and when they determined the hunters were actually shooting teal and not other ducks, the feds made it operational.

Most veteran waterfowlers can pick out teal, not only by their size — they’re the smallest of puddle ducks — but by their flight characteristics.

“The big thing with teal is most of the people are looking up in the air,” Robison explained. “They mostly come in low, just over the cattails or phrags, and have an erratic flight pattern.

“The biggest thing in teal hunting is scouting, finding out where they want to be,” he continued. “We’re in ankle-deep water. They like shallow-water mud flats.”

Both species — green-winged and blue-winged — are legal during the early season, though Robison, who is as hard-core a waterfowler as they come, says that 90 to 95 percent killed in the early season are bluewings. That makes sense as they are among the earliest migrators (they winter as far south as Peru) and are usually gone by the time duck season arrives. Fact is, when I lived in the South (Mississippi and Texas) I enjoyed early teal seasons that opened within days of its opening here. Guys here often scout them in late August only to find they’ve left by Sept. 1.

“It really depends on Mother Nature and north winds,” Robison said. “Last year on opening day of teal season we killed a bluewing that had been banded in Pennsylvania in August.”

Robison is a big fan.

“They decoy well, they react to a call, and it doesn’t take a lot of decoys,” he said. “It’s like a gentleman’s hunt.”

Indeed, it was cool — 54 degrees when we left the truck — unlike a lot of duck season, which is often miserable.

Bluewings breed largely in the prairie pot holes, though Robison said he’s found them nesting in the marsh we hunted. Only a small percentage of Michigan duck hunters have caught on to the early season, something Robison attributes to opportunity.

“They aren’t distributed across the landscape like mallards or wood ducks,” he said. “Not everybody has the habitat to hunt them.”

Besides, teal season opens the same time as goose season, which is much more popular with our hunters, and though you can hunt them both, it can be tricky as you generally shoot teal with No. 6 or 7 shot, not No. 2s (or bigger).

But teal, though small, are among the best-eating of waterfowl. Robison recommends wrapping the breasts in bacon and cooking them on the grill, medium rare.

“They’re awesome to eat,” he said. “Great table fare.”

Bob Gwizdz is a longtime outdoors writer and has also worked in public affairs for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

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