The Fontova clan spends their September weekends at the mouth of the Mississippi River filling their limits of blue-winged teal.
The teal opener and it’s a coolish 63 degrees. Could anything be more GLORIOUS?!
Yes, actually. How ’bout some wind?
Well, it’s howling out of the northeast at 16 knots. The roseau dip almost horizontally from the mighty gusts. The willows flutter frantically. Even the elephant ears and duck potato flap feverishly on the edge of the rippled lagoons. Ripples cover the smallest ponds. Little white caps in the passes. The wind pummels our bare faces and bare arms with the cool harbinger of fall.
We’re almost to Main Pass, whooping and high-fiving. Our faces glow with rapture.
There’s nothing like that first front of the year — and that holds even for normal people. For hunters the effects are more intoxicating than anything found in a bottle, more aphrodisiacal than anything at The Gold Club or Rick’s.
Could anything top all these elements?
Yes, actually. Since you’re hunting the Mississippi Delta, you’d better have a high tide too.
Well, the high tide at Head of Passes was for 7 a.m.!!
Top THAT!! EVERYTHING had fallen into place!
Except the teal, I’m afraid. You’ll recall the one-two punch of Isidore and Lili last year? They hammered our coast savagely (and like we needed it).
They pushed the salty Gulf into our fertile and delicate marshes with poisonous effect on everything wild ducks call fodder. The sweet marshes at the mouth of the Mississippi got a double-shot of the killer brew.
It was a horrible thing for a duck hunter to contemplate. Seemed that even from 90 miles away I heard the duck potato, milfoil and widgeon grass gasping in their death throes, wilting, shrinking, collapsing in agony, almost like the Wicked Witch of the West when Dorothy splashes her with that bucket of water: “I’m melting! I’m melting! Oh, what a world! What a world!”
Even worse, from Pecan Island to Lafitte to Reggio, all our chums’ scouting reports were grim. Our own scouting/fishing trips had turned up virtually no teal. The aerial counts were dismal. The season itself had been trimmed. They said blue-winged teal numbers were the lowest in 30 years.
So sure, the weather helped, but we’d come down to Venice the night before full of foreboding for the opener. The brewskies, the ice-cold and scrumptiously salty-sack oysters, the grilled redfish with teriyaki butter sauce, the hunch that regardless of the hunting, redfish limits would be a cinch — all this helped. But there was no masking an undercurrent of gloom.
We’d see these looks again in a few weeks, after the LSU-Alabama game. Our faces registered a mute type of despair. The morning boat ride helped, but there was no denying the smell of dead and rotting vegetation as we turned into Main Pass from the river. The lush, green and vibrant fresh marsh of last month had turned into a reeking graveyard of shriveled brown plants and muck. We all looked at each other and grimaced. Pelayo shook his head sadly. The looks returned. I tried not to notice. But it was impossible.
Suddenly the glow returned to Chris’ face. He jerked up his arm and pointed left.
“That’s them!” Pelayo roared as he followed Chris’s cue.
“Sure it’s not shorebirds?” I snorted.
“No way, man!” he yelled. “That’s THEM….And LOOK! More above them!”
Yes sir, this was a big flock. The birds crossed high and in a big tight bunch over the pass. Then they started dropping and scattering, cupping and circling as they dropped into the wilted duck potato flats. Finally they disappeared behind the wall of roseau and willow. Apparently some duck food remained.
Pow-pow….pow! A flurry of shots.
“Somebody got ’em’” Pelayo chuckled.
We’d just entered the Delta National Wildlife Refuge through Main Pass from the Mississippi River. For teal season, as far as we’re concerned, there’s no other place to hunt. It’s incredible. Since the season re-opened in 1992, we haven’t missed a weekend in this place.
And we haven’t failed to limit out — and I’m talking five- and six-man limits.
Even when other marshes in Southeast Louisiana are barren of teal, we slaughter them. In fact, even when other parts of the Mississippi Delta itself hold few teal, the duck potato and wild- millet flats off Main Pass always pack them in.
I’ve talked to hunters who bombed out on the mini-deltas off South Pass in Pass a Loutre WMA while we were mopping up just north of them in almost identical habitat at Delta NWR. I’ve talked to others who hadn’t fired a shot around the Wagon Wheel and Red Pass while everyone was limiting out near Main Pass. I’ve watched this year in and year out, and confirmed it with dozens of other hunters. I’m sold on this place for teal.
Teal prefer SHALLOW fresh marsh. And like most puddle ducks (except gadwall) prefer feeding on SEEDS rather than underwater vegetation. These seeds are exactly the type of stuff that grow in the young mini-deltas off Main Pass. The little deltas to the north of Main Pass are open to hunting; to the south, they’re in the portion of the refuge closed to hunting.
At Pass a Loutre WMA, farther south, you find similar young deltas with similar vegetation and topography off South Pass, but running to the WEST of South Pass. These are gradually encroaching on West Bay itself, which is a wonderful thing to see — open water being reclaimed by duck potato, roseau and willow. Marsh actually GROWING!
Anyway, wild millet and the seeds from duck potato can’t be topped as teal attractants. In September in the Delta, these little ducks find tons of both. There’s vast orchards of duck potato and three-square sprouting from the new sandbars and plenty of wild millet on the slightly higher ridges.
The standing duck potato provides little bouquets of seeds with the flowers. By the big season, the duck potato plants have mostly wilted, and pintail and geese flock to the sites to root for the tubers in the mud.
But thick stands of wild millet still stand in September. Puddle ducks love this stuff. It’s right up there with rice. And heck, considering that the Mississippi River serves as a migratory route for ducks, the Delta often tops the Southwest Louisiana rice fields for total duck numbers — this according to the aerial surveys.
But last year was different. The rice fields didn’t get the ghastly pummeling from the hurricanes that the southeast marshes got. We were tempted to take up a chum’s invitation to his Gueydan camp. The prospects of Hooters girls serving the drinks and dealing the hands of booray were tempting, but we held out, opting for the Delta. Now the moment of truth.
More teal buzzed overhead as we blazed up the pass. Man, we were getting pumped. Maybe we’d luck out after all.
We turned into a shallow pass about halfway up to Romere, and were almost decapitated by a flock that buzzed the boat right over the roseau cane. We looked at each other beaming. Shots rang from all around us too, but mostly farther into the marsh.
We beamed at each other again.
“Let’s set up right here,” Pelayo snapped.
He had a point. This was the very place we’d limited out the previous three seasons. Many of the hunters in this area enter the passes then keep going to the outer marsh, the roseau islands and elephant ear patches surrounded by open water. That’s fine for the big duck season. The pintail, greys and widgeon raft up in those areas, especially on low tides, which, sadly, always seem to come in the mornings in November and December.
But now, with a high tide covering the shallow duck potato and wild millet ,flats we knew EXACTLY where to go — this higher, brushier area close to Main Pass itself. We hunt it every year. Not only is it easier to walk because of the hard bottom, it holds the most teal because of the wild millet and other seeds. That water coming over the edge of the pass banks on the high tide put that seed-feast right at teal level, a few inches over the mud, where they can dabble with those little beaks.
And indeed, we were lifting bands of them as we paddled into a little patch of bullrushes to set up. The predatory juices were REALLY flowing now. Twenty-two dekes went out, and in minutes the three of us stood side by side in the grass.
“DOWN!” Pelayo motioned as I shoved the ’rogue into the weeds. Yep, a huge flock, maybe 20, had seen the dekes and were making a wide circle.
Geezum, what a sight. Eight months of anticipation glowed from every face. Trigger fingers tapped safeties. Anxious eyes followed the flock as it neared, as it swerved….back…..forth. It was too much for the nervous system. I had to stifle a guffaw.
“Lesser yellowlegs,” I finally snorted. “I can tell from the patch on the wings, a little early for them to be down though.”
Then they got closer. Patches on the wings indeed — vivid blue patches that flashed suddenly in the sun. Teal INDEED! A huge flock in all their wing-rushing glory, hell- bent on buzzing us. Fast, frantic shooting was seconds away.
The ducks were about a hundred yards out. I fingered the safety nervously. They were locked in on the spread like little heat-seeking missiles. Eighty yards away and closing fast. I fingered the trigger and joined everyone hunching lower and lower in the grass, as if it made any difference now.
“Not yet….not yet,” Chris kept hissing. He sensed it. We were chomping at the bit to rise and start blasting, but these were teal. Big ducks can be 20 yards out against a strong wind, and almost out of range, by the time you rise, shoulder the gun, aim and swing — or is it swing and then aim? I forget. It’s supposed to happen instinctively.
Anyway, big ducks start backflapping the instant they see you. Give them a 15 m.p.h. headwind, and it’s all you can do to get one shot off in good steel-shot range.
On the other hand, teal just skyrocket over or around you. It’s hard to remember, but it’s actually possible to let teal get TOO close. And here they come…..OK—NOW!!
We rose and shouldered the guns. Blam-Blam! I got off two quick shots.
Chris and Pelayo a few more. The teal rocketed skyward above us, and we wrenched our necks trying to follow them.
Blam!…Blam! We finally emptied the guns.
One fell from the fusillade. We were in hysterics.
“We STILL waited too long!” I howled. “Geezum! Will we ever LEARN!!”
“What the hell!” Pelayo roared. “It’s been eight months. So we’re a little rusty! Big DEAL!”
Moral of the story: Let big ducks get as close as possible before rising. They backpedal with the wind and are out of range in seconds it seems. Teal, on the other hand, rocket skyward right over you. It’s best to get up BEFORE they hit the edge of the dekes. But no time for recriminations.
“ON the left!” Chris pointed.
Ah yes, five winging in low…gliding…..wings just cupping. It reminded me of what marine biologist and professional contrarian Jerald Horst snorted about teal.
“Those teal don’t decoy,” he harrumphed. “They just land.”
That seems to hold for singles and doubles alright. But not these — these were only buzzing not lighting.
“NOW!” I hissed.
We got up and they shot skyward. But at 20 yards, they presented perfect targets — like a shooting gallery.
“Now we’re getting somewhere!” Chris howled.
The whoops and high fives lasted another two minutes.
We had a three-man limit in an hour and a half. The next day it took an hour. The following weekend it took two hours. Point is: Even with record-low numbers of teal, even with most of their food wilted, even with lousy hunting throughout the rest of the state, the Mississippi Delta came through.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating — if there’s 10 teal in Louisiana, seven are hanging out off Main Pass.
Everyone was bellyaching earlier this summer about the high river messing up the fishing, roiling the waters, spooking the trout…blah…blah…blah.
Me? I was gloating. That high river was depositing fertile silt, creating and rejuvenating all the young deltas off Main and South passes. Now teal numbers are up again. We’ve got another three-weekend season. I know JUST where I’ll be waiting for them.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: If hunting Delta NWR, BE SURE to pick up, sign AND HAVE ON YOUR PERSON the little pamphlets that serve as permits for this place. Those feds can get picky…picky…PICKY about that stuff, believe me. Don’t “make their day,” and have them write you up.
Look for Humberto Fontova’s new book — The Hellpig Hunt — this month.
On his book tour, Fontova is scheduled to appear on The Man Show and Fox’s Hannity and Colmes. We’ll post the dates on louisianasportsman.com.
Fontova’s other book, The Helldiver’s Rodeo, is now available in paperback.