October 02, 2023
We ripped across the marsh, mud motor blaring as our guide Nathan Blondiau expertly navigated the narrow canal’s winding turns. With each successive turn, I waited for our flat-bottomed boat to go careening sideways into the six-foot-high Roseau cane, but we never did. Instead, we seemed to skirt the edge each time and surge ahead down the canal. It was a strong testament to Blondiau’s familiarity with the marsh and his boat’s capabilities.
Earlier, after we had pulled out of the historic Venice Marina—about as far south in Louisiana as you can go by vehicle—he regaled us with a story about a bass angler who had boated down from New Orleans during a tournament and caught the winning bass in the very canal we were puttering through. And moments later, he lit up the cypress-lined banks with his spotlight to show a string of red beady eyes staring back at us, a squadron of alligators lying in wait along the shore.
"Definitely don’t want to go swimming here," he’d said matter-of-factly in a distinctive Creole accent.
Everything Blondiau did or said seemed to showcase his comfort with and knowledge of the area and the creatures that inhabited it. Later, as we sped across an open swampy area and disturbed a flock of white birds roosted in a big cypress, he pointed and called out their name in Creole. These white birds, which I later learned were American white ibis, were one of many species that calls the marsh home.
In fact, the entire area surrounding the Mississippi River Delta in southern Louisiana is incredibly ecologically diverse. Almost 40 percent of the coastal marshes in the continental U.S. are found here, and the array of interconnected habitats, including freshwater, brackish and saltwater marshes, play home to millions of birds, fish and other wildlife.
Of particular interest to us, however, were the migratory birds. And, more specifically, still, the thousands upon thousands of blue-winged teal descending on the swamp in September as part of their annual migration.
A NEAR-RELIGIOUS AFFAIR
In my home state of Missouri, our early teal season runs through much of September. It’s a fun time to knock off the rust of the off-season and a brief preamble to regular waterfowl seasons further down the road. Last year, hunters in Missouri harvested an estimated 15,496 blue-winged teal in September. But, because blue-winged teal are particularly affected by cooling weather patterns and well known for their quick migrations to wintering areas, action is often sporadic, with birds here one day and gone the next.
In Louisiana, however, teal hunting is a much bigger deal. A cursory look at harvest estimates bears this out.
Hunters killed an estimated 76,998 blue-winged teal in the 2022 early teal season—almost five times the number killed in Missouri—and 115,531 the year before that. Because blue-winged teal also winter in Louisiana, hunters kill a bunch during the regular waterfowl seasons, too. An estimated total of 163,854 blue-winged teal were taken in Louisiana last season, or roughly 39 percent of all those taken in Mississippi Flyway states (14 states).
Culturally, the opening day of teal season is also important in southern Louisiana. It reminds me, in some respects, of the dove season opener in South Texas or the traditional pheasant opener in South Dakota. There’s a collective excitement amongst area hunters, as well as a predictable rush of out-of-staters, like me, eager to join in on the experience.
HOME ON THE MISSISSIPPI
Our group of seven hunters arrived in West Point a La Hache the evening before our hunt. We’d be staying at the historic Woodland Plantation, situated on the west bank of the Mississippi River, roughly an hour south of New Orleans. Built in the 1830s by Captain William Johnson, believed to be one of America’s first chief river pilots, it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1998 and is the last remaining of 65 plantations that once existed south of New Orleans. A rendition of the plantation even appeared on the label of Southern Comfort’s bottle from 1934 to 2009.
Jacques and Claire Creppel, and their son Foster, purchased the plantation in rough shape in 1997, renovated it and reopened it in 1999 as a bed and breakfast and event venue. Foster is now the sole proprietor, and even cooks for guests. The 50-acre property is sprinkled with lush trees and precisely manicured vegetation and lawns and has several houses—each with numerous luxuriously outfitted bedrooms—as well as a large common area for meals that’s also equipped with its own fully stocked bar.
To say it was one of the finest basecamps I’ve had on a hunt would not be an understatement. We ate a five-course Cajun- and Creole-inspired dinner, had a few drinks and then headed to our rooms to organize our gear and get some rest ahead of an early morning departure.
The first morning, I hunted with George Thompson, then the director of product management with Benelli USA, and Frank Watson, a local guide. Thompson—and our whole hunting group, really—was here to learn more about Benelli’s then-new 28-gauge Super Black Eagle 3 and to use it and some Boss Shotshells 3-inch No. 7 bismuth loads to hunt teal.
Thompson and I drove about 30 miles south from Woodland Plantation to meet Watson at the Fort Jackson boat launch in Buras-Triumph. In the pre-dawn darkness, we settled into his small boat, puttered out of the protected launch and then—once we were sure no cargo ships were coming—gunned it across the pitch black, churning waters of the Mississippi River. The big, muddy river moves the equivalent of 166 semi-trailers worth of water roughly every second according to some estimates and is the economic and ecological heart of the region.
To say I felt utterly and completely safe crossing it in a small johnboat would not be entirely accurate. Yet, we managed the journey fine, and after tightly maneuvering the marsh’s many canals and hairpin turns, we arrived at our hunting spot for the morning, a decent-sized hole in the otherwise expansive swamp.
We started tossing out decoys, including Watson’s secret weapon: mallard decoys painted black. As Watson explained, the area had a sizeable population of resident mallards, and the black decoys mimicked their summer colors and acted as confidence decoys. We set out a couple spinning-wing decoys, deployed the brushed-in cover flaps on the boat and got ready for action.
We didn’t have to wait long. Bluewings were already buzzing us before dawn, and once we hit legal shooting hours, the action didn’t stop, or really even slow down, most of the morning. We had large groups of teal flying into the decoys, as well as singles and doubles.
I peeled a few birds from the smaller groups, but my shooting was otherwise horrendous. When the larger groups whizzed through, I found myself firing at one bird, then jumping to another and missing both. Or I’d stay on one, miss, raise my cheek off the stock and then miss one or two more times.
As we neared the end of our hunt, I was the last one pecking away at my limit. A decent-sized group came screaming in. Three shots. Three misses. It was a pathetically poor showing in front of the man who’d help produce the very gun I was using, and all I could do was sheepishly look down at the bottom of the boat afterward. Eventually, I did finish off my limit, and we ended our morning around 8:30 a.m.
If there’s any bird that can reveal a lack of off-season shooting practice, it’s the blue-winged teal. It may seem like it’s because they move fast, but that’s not it. Despite their reputation as speedsters, they’re actually one of the slower ducks, with a max speed around 30 mph (a red-breasted merganser earned top speed honors after being clocked at 100 mph by a plane following it).
No, rather it’s a teal’s erratic flight pattern that often flummoxes hunters. I’ve heard teal (of all varieties) referred to as "winged rockets" and "bats on crack," and I think the latter description is most accurate. Their zany antics certainly made me look like a fool that morning. Still, I had two more mornings left to redeem myself.
We ate lunch back at the Woodland Plantation and then enjoyed some inshore fishing for redfish and sheepshead in the afternoon. However, all day, in the back of my mind, I was already fixated on the next morning’s hunt.
A STRONGER SHOWING
Day 2 began like the first morning, but we mixed up hunters and guides a bit. I hunted with Blondiau, friend and fellow writer Nathan Ratchford and Jacob Eaton, marketing manager for Media Direct Creative. We’d also be hunting with two boats, and in the other boat was guide Josh Galt, Jim McConville and Lee Kjos, of Boss Shotshells.
As we did the previous day, we rendezvoused at a boat ramp on the Mississippi—this time a little farther north at the Riverside Launch in Buras. Then we made our pilgrimage across the big river without any issues (two hulking, boxy cargo ships had thankfully already passed upriver) and followed Galt’s boat into the marsh’s maze of canals. We eventually came to an open swamp and blazed our way across it, including an area with vegetation so thick that it looked like solid land in the moon’s scant early morning light.
We reached our spot, part of the same open marsh we had just crossed, and immediately began setting out decoys and spinners. Once accomplished, we pulled both boats nose-to-nose in a pre-built, yet rudimentary blind made from Roseau cane. The hole itself wasn’t massive, but there was lots of shallow vegetation present, which bluewings love.
Not long after setting up, we started seeing birds, and once legal shooting began, we made the most of our opportunities. Early on, we had lots of singles and pairs come into the spread. We made quick work of everything that came in. The birds kept decoying from the right side, and Nathan, positioned to my right on the far end of our boat, got lots of shooting early.
I also had some solid shot opportunities, and—unlike the previous day—I was connecting on almost all of them. This included a nice passing shot between 35 and 40 yards. I was doing my part today, as was the gun and ammo.
A few groups did decoy for us, while a couple others zoomed through our spread before we could shoulder our guns. However, we spent most of the morning pecking away at singles, pairs and small groups of bluewings.
The morning wasn’t as fast-paced as the prior day’s hunt, but my shooting was much improved. Overall, though, it was a fun hunt, made even more so by getting to watch Galt’s dog, Legend, retrieve a few birds that we would’ve otherwise lost.
We eventually called the hunt at 11 a few birds short of our limit and headed back for lunch. Later that evening, Creppel would serve up some of the teal we shot that day in a savory homemade sauce piquante. It was a solid conclusion to an exciting morning of hunting and a relaxing afternoon and evening.
THE GRAND FINALE
The third and final morning, Nathan, Jacob and I were with Blondiau again. This time, we made the longer haul from Woodland Plantation south to Venice Marina on Highway 23, the main drag running through Plaquemines Parish. Just past the marina on Tidewater Road is the Southernmost Point in Louisiana that you can reach by car, and Venice has even been nicknamed, "The End of the World."
It seemed fitting, as after a short ride through the marina and a couple canals (including the one with all the gators lining the banks), we were out into the marsh proper. Blondiau tried to get us into a particular pond he wanted to hunt, but the falling tide had made it too shallow to reach in his boat. Instead, we headed to his backup spot.
We eventually pulled into a relatively small opening amongst a bunch of Roseau cane in one direction and in the other some of the tallest millet I’ve ever seen, extending several feet out of the marsh. The result was essentially a wall of millet on one side of us and a wall of Roseau cane on the other.
We quickly tossed out some teal decoys and spinners. One spinning-wing decoy was placed on a normal-sized pole, while the other was placed on a giant pole extending roughly 10 feet into the air. Blondiau said the larger pole was to get the spinner higher than the millet so it was visible to passing teal and could draw them to our spread.
Honestly, as we were tossing out the last few decoys, I was a bit skeptical of our setup. First, it was Blondiau’s backup option. Second, the hole didn’t seem large enough to land large groups of teal. And, lastly, as of yet, we had no blind.
Turns out, I had no reason to worry. Blondiau was about to school me on a southern Louisiana trick.
He steered his mud boat directly into the Roseau cane, and we pushed the canes around the boat as the motor pushed us farther into them. Blondiau then went to town on the cane with a machete, knocking down the tops that could potentially block our shots. Voila. Now we had a blind.
As I also soon discovered, I had no reason to question the spot either. We were into the action as soon as legal shooting hours began, with singles, pairs and small groups of bluewings offering us shots. The elevated spinner was drawing in teal like moths to a flame, and we were knocking down virtually everything that came in with the 28-gauge SBE 3 and Boss loads.
We retrieved our first seven birds with the boat, then scooted back into our makeshift blind. The action picked back up right where we had left off. We downed a few more birds from some singles and pairs. Unfortunately, when a group of 10 came in, we were a little late in shooting, and the birds broke hard to the left. We only dropped two out of what should have been a prime opportunity, but we were still seeing lots of birds, so we knew we’d have more opportunities.
After knocking down some more bluewings, just a couple teal shy of our limit, we decided to retrieve our birds. We’d seen a 10-foot-long gator puttering around the area all morning, and we’d joked several times about whether the big reptile was snatching up a teal or two as they drifted with the wind.
Thankfully, however, this was not the case, and we were able to collect every bird we had shot. A short while later, we finished off our limit, collected the decoys, took a few photos and enjoyed the marsh’s sprawling beauty one last time before speeding back to the marina.
I was happy. I’d redeemed myself for the poor shooting my first day and experienced some excellent hunting in a truly exceptional place. For me personally, there seemed no better way to have begun my fall hunting season.
I was fortunate enough to use some great gear on my hunt in the southern Louisiana marsh. The shotgun and ammunition proved to be a nearly perfect combo, putting the hammer on any teal offering up a shot. Meanwhile, my apparel kept me dry and comfortable, even in the humid environment of the sprawling coastal marshes.
ONE SWEET SHOOTER
Benelli’s Super Black Eagle has been synonymous with hardcore waterfowl hunting ever since its inception in 1992. Its proven Inertia-driven operating system has been one of the most reliable for hunters for more than three decades.
Yet, the new SBE 3 has been made even more reliable in recent years with the development of Benelli’s Easy-Locking Bolt System. This system addresses the issue of inertia guns failing to fully lock up when the chamber is eased shut instead of being allowed to slam home. It’s also virtually impossible to knock a gun out of battery. No more infuriating "Benelli click" to contend with.
New SBE 3s also feature Benelli’s Easy Loading System, which includes a beveled loading port, redesigned carrier and new two-piece carrier latch. This makes it easier to focus on birds and your environment while your hands do the work of reloading.
To similarly help with operating the gun, the bolt release and safety have also been enlarged, and the usual drop lever is now angled outward. We weren’t wearing gloves on our September hunt in the Louisiana marsh, but these changes would’ve certainly made operation easier if we were.
The new SBE has an improved version of its classic Comfort Tech stock (Comfort Tech 3) and adds a new cheek comb pad (Combtech), which both help with felt recoil. Again, not a huge deal with the 28 gauge we hunted with, but I’ve also shot the 12-gauge version, and these features are nice to have. Beyond recoil reduction, the gun itself has also been redesigned for improved ergonomics with a sleek forend and a palm-filling grip, both of which feel great in the hands and yield an easy-handling, smooth-swinging shotgun.
Lastly, of specific note on the 28 gauge is its 3-inch chamber. This is a nice addition because it lets hunters utilize some of the newer 3-inch 28-gauge non-toxic loads that several ammo manufacturers, including Boss Shotshells, are offering. This 5.5-pound 28-gauge is perfect for early season teal; however, it could also excel when hunting tight-quarters environments like flooded timber, cattails and more. ($1,899; benelliusa.com)
A LETHAL LOAD
With small, erratic-flying teal, you want a pretty wide pattern with lots of smaller pellets, and on our hunt, Boss Shotshells’ 3-inch 28-gauge loads performed exceptionally well. The 1 1/16-ounce payload contained plenty of No. 7 shot to reliably knock down any teal we hit. The Boss shells’ copper-plated bismuth hit hard and provided sufficient patterns to score hits on the aerobatic teal. ($37/box of 20; bossshotshells.com)
Dryshod’s Destroyer Boot was a solid choice for our trip to the marsh. These boots protect against an assortment of things, including brush, thorns, snakes and more. The built-in wicking airmesh lining with micro-dot perforations also helped wick away sweat and keep my feet cool in southern Louisiana’s 80-degree temperatures and humidity. The molded outsole similarly provided plenty of grip on the boat and on virtually any terrain I encountered. The boot comes with an adjustable gusset, too. ($204.95; dryshodusa.com)
On our teal hunt, most of us wore Drake’s EST Camo Flyweight Wingshooter’s Long-Sleeved Shirt and their EST Waterproof Over Pant. The lightweight long-sleeved shirt was perfect for early season teal. It was lightweight and breathable due to its polyester construction and vented mesh back. It also had ample pockets—including a spacious vertical pocket with a magnetic closure—wicked away moisture and even contained UPF 50+ sun protection. The pants performed admirably, too, allowing in no water while remaining pretty comfortable, even in the south Louisiana heat. ($69.99/shirt, $99.99/pants; drakewaterfowl.com)