Why the "other ducks" — such as teal, wigeon, gadwall and spoonies — should not be ignored.
By Scott Sommerlatte
I can still remember it like it was yesterday. It was back in the early '80s, some 20-plus years ago, and I was on my first airboat trip across Espiritu Santo Bay to the marshes of Matagorda Island. As we wound our way through the marsh ditches and across the backcountry lakes of the island, I could not believe the number of ducks, mainly pintails, that took to the air as the roar of the propeller reverberated across the marsh — more ducks than I would ever see again. Back in those days, we often passed on species such as redheads and wigeon. Why? Because the king of all Gulf Coast ducks, the pintail, was a 10-point duck and a hunter could harvest 10 pintail drakes a day on the point system. Over the last 20 years, things have changed. These days, flights of redheads and widgeon, as well as gadwall, teal, scaup and spoonbills are a welcome sight.
As the years have passed, the duck population has seen its ups and downs and, with these, changes in regulations and limits. When I first started hunting, limits were governed by the point system, which allowed hunters to accumulate up to 100 points. Each species was assigned a different value. Once a hunter took a bird that brought the total to, or just over, the 100 mark, a limit had been acquired. This system would allow an individual to vary the number of ducks taken with the value of the species and the order the birds were brought to the bag. In the days of the 10-point pintail, a hunter could take 10 to equal 100. Not too long after I started, I believe in 1985, pintails made the jump to 35 points, which allowed for a bag of three, which brought the total to 105, or two to equal 70, which would allow a hunter to add two 20-point ducks to the bag and the total to 110. It seems complicated now, but to the hunter of those days, it was just another day in the field.
Sometime in the late '80s, when, according to biologists, the duck population hit a major low, the point system was abolished and a three-duck limit was put in place. Under this new system, hunters could have only one pintail in their bag; however, they could finish or fill their limit of three with other species of ducks, such as a single redhead, two wigeon, two teal, two gadwall or any one of a number of species. During this period, the ideal bag consisted of a pintail, a redhead and a wigeon. At least that was my goal when I set out to the duck blind. Of course I would never complain if I had to substitute a second wigeon for the redhead, but I never wanted to give up my chance at a bull sprig.
Some 15 years later, the rules and regulations have changed several times, and the massive flocks of pintails have dwindled. Hunters are still allowed to take one pintail (for the last half of the season) and two redheads, which is a very successful outing on its own, and more than enough for a meal; however, the hunter in search of a limit of six must turn to other species. And, in some areas where pintails and redheads are scarce, the bag must be filled with a combination of the other ducks. So it was with the one day this past season that I was able to go duck hunting where I had no responsibilities other than to just have fun.
Every duck season, I look forward to one phone call. The call usually comes in the middle of the last week of duck season and it is from my best friend and mentor to the outdoors, waterfowl guide Burt Moritz.
"Are you guiding tomorrow?" I hear through the receiver of my cell phone.
"Nope," I quickly reply. "What about you?"
"No, but if you want to go in the morning, be here at five. Bring your dog if you don't mind. Rosco needs to rest."
"I'll be there. Is Kelton going too?"
"I think so."
"See you then."
Flash forward to the next morning.
"You ready?" I shout at Burt.
He gives me the thumbs up, and I shove the bow of the airboat away from the dock and into a dense fog. As I take my place next to our friend Kelton Thompson and my overeager pooch, Sonny, I hear Burt's customary, "Clear prop!" prior to cranking the engine, and we're off.
The boat ride into the marsh seemed like a dream as the glowing bubble that was our running lights in the fog slid through the marsh. I do not think I ever noticed the roar of the prop. I do not know if it was the sound of Pat Green coming from the earpieces of my MP3 player underneath the headset designed to protect my hearing, or if it was the excitement I was feeling, but regardless, I was in the zone.
Upon arrival at the blind I quickly went to setting the decoys while Burt and Kelton readied the blind.
Minutes after settling in, the whistle of wings could be heard through the fog and darkness. We still had a few minutes until legal shooting time, which allowed for some coffee and small talk. Shortly before game time, a flight of 10 or so teal slid into the decoys and began to paddle, webbed feet frantically trying to figure out what was wrong. It did not take them long and they were off. I glanced down at my watch and announced, "Game on!" This was followed by the sound of the breeches of our shotguns jamming shells into the chambers and the whimper of an overenthusiastic 70-pound puppy.
The first pair of birds to pitch in to the dekes was a pair of gadwall. Kelton and Burt each took one, and before Sonny had the first, a flight of teal tried to run him over. Burt swung on the birds but had to pull off at the last second to avoid hitting the dog. When both gadwalls had been brought to hand, the shoot continued.
Before long, a large flight of 75-100 teal began working the far shoreline of the marsh flat on which our blind was situated. When the flock spotted the decoys, it made one of those incredible, 90-degree-plus uniform turns that only can be accomplished by a flight of teal. When the flight reached the spread, it split. Burt downed two with one shot out of the birds that went left, and Kelton and I each took one out of the group to the right.
Over the next hour, we collected our birds. Burt had three teal, a gadwall and two spoonbills, and Kelton had taken four teal and two gadwalls. As for me, I chose to stick with the teal and took six — a mix of blue-wings and green-wings. To say it was a great hunt would be an understatement.
An hour later, we were sitting on the bank of the Intracoastal Waterway, picking our birds and talking about the season, comparing notes and talking about the old days. Burt asked about the bird situation down in Port O'Connor, and I informed him that it was better than the last few years but still very poor compared to when I started hunting with him there 20 years earlier. Shortly thereafter, we started talking about cooking and eating ducks while we finished cleaning our birds.
Burt was quick to point out, after examining the craw of one of the teal he was cleaning, that it was filled with the little black grass seeds that we always like to see. "These are gonna be some tasty groceries," I commented, excited about the duck dinner that awaited me that evening.
We all agreed and then Burt informed us of a discovery he'd made. "You know how some people frown at eating spoonies (spoonbills)? Look at this," as he pointed down to the two that he had cleaned. "See how this one has fat that is white and the other's fat is sort of orange?" he showed us. "The one with the white fat has been feeding on the good stuff with the teal and pintails. I guarantee that there isn't a person out there that could tell the difference between this duck and a blue-wing teal once it's cooked.
"This other one has probably been feeding in a mudhole and picking up quite a bit of animal matter like snails and crustaceans," he added. "It's probably going to be a little on the strong side."
This is something I had never noticed, but it makes sense. Most of the ducks taken down in the bays, such as pintails, redheads and wigeon, are always feeding on shoal grass and have white-colored fat. And, while I can't say that I have ever eaten one that was anything less than spectacular, I have had some spoonies that were a little on the rough side. As a rule, at least in my book, pintails, redheads and wigeon top the list as far as table fare, with teal running neck and neck with any of them.
In the good old days, say 15-plus years ago, waterfowlers hunting the bays were going to harvest their limit 99 percent of the time. Pintails were almost a guarantee, as were redheads and wigeons. But these days, bay hunters are often limited to taking redheads, their one pintail (during the second half of the season) and the occasional wigeon or gadwall with limits coming rarely.
For the hunters that have moved to the inland marshes where the lack of pintails and redheads are made up for with large flights of teal, wigeon, gadwall, spoonies and the occasional scaup (bluebill), the opportunities for limits increase.
"We are a society of numbers and most people measure success on limits," Burt once said to me when I asked him why he did not hunt the bay as often as he used to. "With a six-duck limit in place, if I had to rely on two redheads and one pintail, for only half the season at that, I would not have the bookings that I do."
He quickly added, "It's a simple equation. By getting away from the bay and hunting in areas that have greater numbers of the other ducks, I increase the chances for my clients to take limits."