ROANOKE, La. -- If it weren't for the heat, you'd think this was Thanksgiving weekend in Stuttgart, Ark., site of the annual "Wings Over the Prairie Festival." That party signals the opening week of duck season in the "mallard capital of the world." But this was September in southwest Louisiana.
Duck hunters were everywhere you looked, if your eyes were open at 4 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 15. In the early morning gathering that is a 24-hour convenience store off Interstate 10 between Lake Charles and Lafayette, camouflage-clad hunters grabbed cups of caffeine, breakfast biscuits and a few sweet snacks. They'd exit most often to a pickup truck with an occupied dog box in back and a trailer carrying an ATV in tow.
Click image for photos of the hunt
It was opening day of the early-season teal hunt. Louisiana hunters killed almost 300,000 blue-winged teal during this 16-day season last year, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimations. That's almost 25 percent of the U.S. total for blue-wings in the entire 2010-11 duck season.
"Like everybody else, they come here for the food," Dennis Tietje said.
Tietje (pronounced "tee-jay") represents the third generation in a family of rice and crawfish farmers near Roanoke, located just west of Jennings, La. Cajun cuisine is probably more famous than any other trait of this state. But it seems that more and more people have heard about the September teal hunting.
"I could lease blinds for teal season," Tietje said. "But I don't. I take care of my buddies. This is a family deal. Always has been."
"Always will be," said Logan Tietje, right on cue. Logan is Dennis' son, who would celebrate his 14th birthday on the second day of teal season.
Blue-winged teal numbers in North America rank second only to mallards, according to USFW current estimates. But, unlike mallards, few U.S. hunters have opportunities to shoot blue-wings. They fly south earlier than any other species of North American-bred ducks. And they do it in a hurry. One blue-wing banded in Alberta, Canada, was shot a month later in Venezuela.
Blue-wings winter from the U.S. Gulf Coast to South America. Few bother to stop in Arkansas, the state bordering Louisiana to the north. Only about 20,000 blue-winged teal were killed there during the entire 2010-11 season, according to the UWFS. That included a 16-day early teal season in September and a 60-day all-species waterfowl season from late November through January.
Green-winged teal, on the other hand, are commonly found in all states of the Mississippi Flyway throughout duck season. It seems blue-wings like the heat more than they dislike the cold. The temperatures reached near 90 degrees on opening weekend, and the blue-winged teal, with their distinctive slate-blue wing patch, were abundant.
Roanoke is only about 50 miles, as the teal flies, from Louisiana's Gulf Coast. The Texas Gulf Coast also attracts good numbers of blue-wings. But southern Louisiana is the place to be for teal in mid-September, even though the mosquitoes remain summertime thick.
"Mosquito Population Up With Heavy August Rainfall," stated the banner headline on page one of the Jennings (La.) Daily News Sept. 14 edition.
"The mosquitoes are so big around here they've got ticks on them," said Dale Logan, Dennis Tietje's longtime friend and frequent hunting companion.
"I thought those were teal coming, when I saw them out of the corner of my eye," said Logan Tietje in the early-morning hours of Sept. 15.
It's an easy mistake to make when giant bloodsuckers are hovering around your head in a rice field. That peripheral vision makes your trigger-finger itchy, though not as itchy as the red welts rising on any exposed skin.
You can put that out of your mind when the blue-wings seem to dot every inch of the sky at shooting time. The primary problem here isn't killing a daily limit of teal (four), it's failing to stop at four. It seems you've just got started, then it's over.
"How long did it take you guys to limit-out?" Cyrus William Tieje, better known as "Cy Bill," was asked.
"Five minutes, maybe seven," he said, speaking for himself and two others, as hunters gathered at the barn behind Cy Bill's house at 8 a.m. on opening day.
Cy Bill, Dennis's father, grew up on this farm after his father bought 400 acres here in 1938. Now only a month from his 78th birthday, Cy Bill estimated he was 10 years old when he killed his first ducks on this farm.
"I saved my money and bought a Winchester Model 12 (pump shotgun) when I was 12-years-old for sixty-six dollars," Cy Bill recalled.
By the 1950s it was common for south Louisiana farmers to re-flood their rice fields after harvest to produce a second crop: crawfish.
It was crawfish farming that sent Dennis Tietje scurrying into professional bass fishing, and almost ended that career too. Tietje pointed out a pile of pyramid-shaped wire mesh crawfish traps piled in the corner of a rice field, as we were scouting the day before the season opened. It had hard work written all over it, like a bale of hand-picked cotton.
With a re-bar anchoring pole stuck through the middle of each one, these traps weigh only about a pound apiece. But when you bend over to lift one out of a flooded rice field, dump two or three pounds of crawfish from it, re-bait it and poke it back in the mud - as many as 3,500 times a day - that's a recipe for back trouble.
And that's exactly what Tietje got after years of hard work on the family farm. He earned an agriculture business degree from Louisiana Tech in 1987. But while at college, Tietje did most of his studying about the bass fishing in Toledo Bend Reservoir. There's nothing like a college degree, a taste for tournament bass fishing and a bad back to make you figure out a way off the farm.
Tietje qualified for the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2010, but back surgery forced him to take a medical leave of absence in 2012. By working as a fishing guide on Toledo Bend this year, post-surgery, he's helped keep the bills paid for his wife, Trudy, and their two children.
But he doesn't live far from the place where his mother and father still reside at this now 1,000-acre farm. Especially during teal season, he's happy to be back.
"I hate to choose between hunting and fishing," Tietje said. "I choose not to (choose)."
Seldom has a better table been set for migrating waterfowl, by man or Mother Nature, than with the combination of rice and crawfish farming in southern Louisiana. In addition to re-flooding fields after the rice harvest, some crawfish farmers will leave a rice field flooded and un-harvested simply to grow crawfish. Blue-winged teal are omnivorous feeders. Their diet includes wild seeds, farmed grain, like rice, and the aquatic invertebrates that thrive in shallow wetlands and flooded rice fields.
As a bonus, blue-winged teal enjoy eating mosquito larvae too. You can't have too many skeeter-eaters around here.
Teal are small ducks, weighing an average of one-pound. A mallard drake, in comparison, averages 2 1/2 to 3 pounds. "Little ducks," is what waterfowl hunters commonly call all species of North American teal - blue-winged, green-winged and cinammon, as opposed to "big ducks," like mallards, gadwalls and pintails.
This early in the fall, you can't tell a drake from a hen blue-wing. The males aren't in full breeding plumage yet, so the distinctive white crescent hasn't emerged between the bill and eyes.
In addition to its ranking for blue-wings, Louisiana might also be No. 1 in combining family with the outdoors, especially fishing and hunting. Logan, representing generation No. 4 of duck hunters on the Tietje farm, probably had more fun than anyone on opening weekend. A few days later, he'd add to his excitement about duck hunting when he killed a leg-banded blue-wing on a hunt before school. It was banded in North Dakota two years ago.
Logan was hardly the only youngster on the Tietje farm opening weekend. Eight-year-old Charley Logan killed his first ducks ever - two blue-winged teal - on Sunday. No matter how many mosquitoes are buzzing around you, it's difficult to keep a smile off your face when you see everything involved with the early teal season here: abundant birds, plenty of shooting, dogs retrieving and youngsters getting their first taste of the sport.
The bonus of this blue-winged teal bonanza is that it lasts all season long. Louisiana hunters will bag another 200,000 or so blue-wings during the 60-day season that begins in November. But by then gadwalls, green-winged teal, shovelers and mallards will have arrived to diversify the opportunities.
No other state approaches the annual duck harvest in Louisiana, estimated at 2.8 million last season. They don't call it Sportsman's Paradise for nothing.
For unique tip on how to wax off feathers, click here.
For video on how to call in teal, click here.