September 14, 2023
Texas was once the epicenter of snow goose hunting. In the 1980s and early '90s, hunters from across the four flyways flocked to the coastal prairie towns of Garwood and El Campo to sit amongst large white windsocks affixed to wooden dowels with legendary guides like Jimmy Reel as white geese by the hundreds and thousands churned into the rice fields below.
But then Texas farmers lost the water rights needed to grow their rice crop and production shifted east into Arkansas and Louisiana—along with the snows. The mass exodus of snow geese was followed by a blue-winged teal boom. Some of the earliest birds to migrate south, bluewings have become a staple of Texas hunting culture because the state, particularly the coastal prairie and Gulf Coast, holds more than a million birds each September.
Our most acrobatic duck, bluewings dart and flip in every direction, making them one of the most challenging birds to shoot on the wing. Many hunters think teal are the fastest duck, but in fact they are one of the slowest, with a top speed of around 30 mph. However, it doesn't seem that way in the first seconds of shooting light when a pair swings in low, ripping through the decoys so fast you can't shoulder your shotgun. It's an experience (and challenge) like none other in the waterfowl world. The only "problem" is once you hunt teal in Texas, you'll never want to hunt them anywhere else.
Teal season in Texas typically starts on the second Saturday in September and runs for 16 consecutive days. The daily bag limit is six ducks of either species (identifying sex is difficult this time of year because the birds have not reached full plumage). Bluewings are the second most abundant duck in North America (mallards rank first), according to the 2022 waterfowl survey, with a population of nearly 6.5 million birds. If bluewings fall under a certain population threshold, daily limits are reduced and the season is shortened, but for now we are under a liberal framework.
Admittedly, hunting Canada is an experience unto itself, and if you have never been to the western provinces to witness the early-fall migration, then by all means head north to see it. But as someone who has been to Canada in September and October and has hunted Texas teal, the choice for me is easy.
First, hunting Texas is simple. You don't have to cross an international border to get there or deal with all the paperwork required to transport guns and retrievers into Canada. I've been held up on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border for hours for myriad reasons, and several friends have driven to Canada only to find their border crossing of choice closed due to staffing issues, forcing them to drive hundreds of miles out of their way to reach their destination.
Most hunters go to Canada because of the sheer volume of birds, which makes the hunting far more productive than it is at home. But there are few venues in North America where you will see as many ducks as you will in coastal Texas during teal season.
There are 6.5 million of these birds, and many of them fly through Texas starting in late August. There are also more species to hunt and fish in Texas. Once you're done with a morning teal shoot, you can hunt doves (mourning and white wings), shoot a hog or a gator or head to the coast and fish for speckled trout and redfish. And, of course, the Texas bass fishing on inland lakes is legendary.
FIND AN OUTFITTER
A guided Texas teal hunt can cost anywhere from $150 to $450 per day. In Garwood and El Campo, outfits like Garwood Hunting Club (garwoodhunt.com), Rocky Creek Retrievers (rockycreekretrievers.com) and Pintail Hunting Club (pintailhuntingclub.com) will have a hot breakfast and coffee waiting for you and then take your party to a flooded rice or millet field (or loafing pond) to hunt.
For those who want to hunt without a guide, there is also the option of paying a gate pass fee to an outfitter or landowner for access and doing the rest by yourself. This appeals to hunters who are willing to make a call or knock on a door in an effort to spend a little less than the cost of a guided hunt.
Both are great options because you can book with multiple outfitters and hunt in different locations each day. You also have more flexibility in where you hunt and can find cheap motels or even camp out, though the heat, humidity and mosquitoes will be unbearable for some.
The other route to take is to stay at a hunting lodge for a few days, which Pintail Hunting Club offers in addition to day trips. Lance Stancik, a managing partner at Pintail, says the club has more than 30,000 acres of habitat and refuge that is specifically managed for waterfowl. Stancik's goal every season is to acquire more acreage to increase the club's carrying capacity and thereby attract more ducks. He plants wetlands with a variety of foods, manages moist-soil impoundments and creates multiple sanctuaries for birds. Teal aren't as sensitive to pressure as other ducks, but they won't stand for being shot at too often.
"The advantage we have over some others is the number of farms that hold teal. If they all want to go to one place and feed on rice, then we can let them and not disturb the birds. The more refuges you create for ducks, the more they will stick around," says Stancik.
When an outfitter has as much property as Pintail does, they can control the chaos of a morning hunt efficiently. During teal season, it's often better to have multiple hunting groups closer together than it would be during big-duck season.
This is in part due to the fact that there are so many birds, and the way blue-wings are wired, everyone can have more success if you keep the birds moving. That means placing groups strategically close to one another—without being on top of each other—during the hunt. Think of it as playing pinball with 20 balls in the machine.
"That's the name of the game with teal—keep them moving," says Stancik. "Early in the morning, you're going to get ones and two coming in, but as the hunt goes on, they group up. Then you can get them by the hundreds."
Texas gets a bad rap for being a private-land state, but if you're a duck hunter there is ample public access on the coast from the Texas-Louisiana state line all the way to the Mexico border. National Wildlife Refuges and state properties are littered throughout this region, but there is also open water and bays anyone can hunt. If you have a boat (there are walk-in areas, too) and an adventurous spirit, you can find teal.
"There is so much public access along the coast that you could hunt there for 30 years and never come close to touching it all," says Sean Weaver, marketing manager at Lucky Duck. "In my experience, if you use onX and find a few holes on those NWRs and state lands, there will be teal on them as long as there is water."
The learning curve for hunting the coast is steep. Weaver warns that the hardest part of your hunt will be navigating to your duck hole due to tidal flow. The tides play a major factor in where teal go but can also leave you stranded if you don't know when the tides come in and go out.
You also have to know where to scout, which can differ by year depending on drought conditions. An area that looks wet on Google Earth may be bone dry when you arrive. Weaver uses drought monitor maps to pinpoint where the water is in September, but you also must be willing to pack up and head two hours down the road if the teal are scarce.
The Texas Gulf Coast is almost 400 miles long—a massive area to cover.
"Habitat conditions are paramount," says Weaver. "An area that is historically good, where guys are killing eight to 12 teal a day, might have a half-bird-per-man average the next year. You have to be adaptable; you have to be willing to move with the teal."
REMEMBER THE ALAMO CITY
- San Antonio offers unlimited attractions for the entire family.
If you want to extend your trip, or if you intend to bring the family along, be sure to spend a few nights in San Antonio. It doesn't get the fanfare Dallas, Houston or Austin receive, but San Antonio is one of the most vibrant cities in the country—minus the crowds and traffic that plague other metropolitan centers.
The Riverwalk, lined with shops and restaurants (the Mexican cuisine here is unparalleled), is a must-see attraction. You can spend an entire day there or just a few hours. Take a boat ride or enjoy one of the many festivals or parades that take place throughout the year. Because of the heat, the Riverwalk is a little sparser this time of year, but for a hunter who enjoys solitude, that's not such a bad thing.
Must-see boardwalk attractions include the Aztec Theatre with its fine art, Mad Doc’s British Pub and Traders Village. Here, you can trade, buy and barter with the more than 1,000 vendors. For the kids, there’s The DoSeum, a place to power childrens’ minds by exploring exhibits designed to promote joyful learning and invite discovery.