When it comes to Texomaland’s early teal season every September, it’s usually all about the weather.
And this year, for an annual season known for local hit-and-miss shooting prospects while dodging heat, snakes and mosquitoes, the weatherman couldn’t have delivered any better scenario for waterfowlers waiting for the law to come off of the 2020 early teal season a half-hour before sunrise on Saturday morning.
In a word, this year’s Texas early teal season, which features a six teal daily bag limit (comprised of blue-winged teal, green-winged teal and/or cinnamon teal) looks to be all but perfect as it prepares to run its course from Sept. 12-27.
And that prediction of perfect wingshooting prospects isn’t just true here in Texomaland, it also appears to be the case all across the vast Lone Star State as wingshooters head to duck blinds and look to the skies for flocks of early migrating bluewings pushing rapidly down the Central Flyway.
"If everything works out right, I think we could have an excellent teal season, as good a season as we’ve potentially ever seen," said Kevin Kraai, the waterfowl program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The reason for Kraai’s enthusiasm during our Thursday interview stems partly from good news on the northern prairie breeding grounds earlier this year, despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual spring habitat and waterfowl breeding population survey.
Kraai said that despite the cancellation of the annual USFWS biological work, other state-level studies done last fall and earlier this year have helped to keep Central Flyway biologists from flying blind as the 2020 early teal season approaches.
"We’re basically looking at two consecutive years of some of the better bluewing breeding conditions that we've seen," said Kraai. "In fact, the conditions up north in North and South Dakota are such that some of my colleagues up there are calling them epic."
Some of those colleagues were in North Dakota, where the state conducted its own survey work for the 73rd time this spring, albeit with some crew alterations brought about by the coronavirus outbreak.
As those biologists got out into the field in North Dakota, they liked what they found in general concerning this spring’s breeding duck population figures, and specifically they liked all of the bluewings they were finding across the very wet Dakota landscape.
"Their bluewing estimates were 55% higher this year as compared to the previous year’s estimate, which was pretty high," said Kraai. "And we know from our own surveys last year in Texas, including where we look at wings of harvested birds, that there were a lot of mature bluewings on the landscape as we headed into this spring.
"So, with all of the pieces of the puzzle that we have been able to put together this year, there seems to be a big spike in bluewing breeding numbers and that’s prior to production," he added.
"And biologists out in the field this year doing banding work and other things in the northern parts of the flyway said they’ve never seen as many broods of bluewings as they’ve seen out in the field this year."
If plenty of bluewings are part of the seasonal equation for Texas wingshooters, so too is good habitat. And thanks to good rainfall across the state this past spring, summer, and early fall, and Kraai says that much of the state looks wet and rich with vegetation and protein-rich invertebrates, food resources vitally important as migrating teal replace their feathers and head towards annual wintering grounds.
"Yeah, it would be tough to find a better scenario," said Kraai. "Even yesterday (Wednesday), we had ample rainfall — flooding rains, in some places — across portions of central Texas. And today (Thursday), there are storms in East Texas, which is helping with water conditions there.
"Sometimes, the reservoirs in East Texas can get pretty low for September teal season and can be pretty hard to hunt. But that doesn’t seem to be the case this year since most reservoirs are doing well. About the only real dry spot in the state right now is out in the Panhandle where the rainfall this week wasn’t enough to put any more water on the landscape out in the Playa Lakes region."
The good news on habitat includes the Red River Valley where Lake Texoma is near capacity (98.7 percent full) and Lake Ray Roberts is at capacity (100 percent full) as of this writing on Thursday.
And local stock tanks — a very important part of the early teal equation for Texomaland hunters — are at or above normal capacity after an inch of rain at midweek, 4-5 inches around September 1st, and 2-3 inches in portions of Grayson County after mid-August thunderstorms. That should mean plenty of water for the birds that quickly push through the Texoma region over the next two weeks.
While Kraai admits that things are abnormally dry in the Panhandle, conditions are good on the important marshes, flooded fields, and small irrigation reservoirs that dot the Texas Gulf Coast. While previous seasons have seen hurricanes like Rita, Ike and Harvey swamp the landscape and leave water standing everywhere, the TPWD biologist notes that there’s a good supply of water in southeastern Texas this year.
But not too much, mind you.
"Conditions throughout the Texas coastal region are above average with respect to teal habitat," said Kraai. "There’s not a huge push of natural water this year from the tropics, so the teal are going to be concentrated on the available water that hunters and land managers have put out there.
"It’s really the perfect scenario for those hunting that landscape this year because the ducks are going to be where the hunters are."
The final ingredient for a successful 2020 Texas teal season is the weather, and so far, that looks perfect too.
"In Amarillo, we were in the low 40s on Wednesday and I think the low temperature was 35 degrees," said Kraai. "Up in the far northwestern part of the Panhandle, I want to say that I saw where they actually dipped below freezing near Dalhart and there were even a few snowflakes in the air. That’s amazing, because it was 104 to 105 degrees in that same region just a few days ago."
With unseasonably early snowfall across portions of Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota this week, Kraai is anticipating a big push of blue-winged teal roaring towards Texas, just in time for this weekend’s season opener. And that’s after above normal numbers of early teal have been seen pushing into the state in recent weeks after the September 2 full moon.
Already, North Texas Outfitter owner and head guide Dakota Stowers has seen a few bluewings pushing through southern Oklahoma. And before Hurricane Laura devastated portions of southwestern Louisiana, land managers near the famed Hackberry Hunting and Fishing Camp and Grosse Savane Lodge were already seeing early flocks of bluewings pushing into the area’s marshes.
With another full moon — the so-called Harvest Moon — coming on Oct. 1 just after the end of the early teal season, along with the potential for more rain and cool fronts across the state over the next two weeks, and it’s hard to imagine a better teal season recipe, in Texas, anyway.
"Without the habitat and breeding survey information from earlier this year, we don't know exactly what the overall numbers are for these ducks as they head this way," said Kraai. "But it could very well be that we’re near record numbers of bluewing teal right now."
And with some timely luck in the local backyard, some of those bluewings could be roaring into a decoy spread sitting in front of a pre-dawn Texoma duck blind in the coming days.
If you happen to be sitting there when they do so, enjoy the show, because it could be about as good as early season teal hunting can get in Texas. And in a crazy year like 2020, that’s really saying something, isn’t it?