Heading into mosquito-filled marshes in the pre-dawn darkness to hunt teal and wood ducks in the intense heat of a South Florida September might seem crazy, but local waterfowlers have been waiting for Florida’s early duck season ever since the regular season ended in January.
It’s their first opportunity in eight months to watch a sunrise from their blinds and hear the whoosh of wings over their decoys. It’s also an opportunity for them to discover what they need to get ready for the regular season.
“Early teal season may not be gangbusters for me,” Tim Davis says, “but it’s going to get me where I need to be for regular season.”
The teal and wood duck season started Saturday and runs through Wednesday. During that time, waterfowlers can take six ducks per day, only two of which can be wood ducks. The teal-only season is Thursday through Sept. 30; six teal can be taken each day. The regular duck season opens Nov. 17. Shooting hours are 30 minutes before sunrise to sunset.
Davis, of Fort Lauderdale, points out that teal are the first ducks to leave the northern prairies of North America and migrate south for the winter. The teal that make it to Florida typically continue on to the Bahamas, Cuba and other southerly destinations.
“The teal that are here are only stopping for food,” Davis says, adding that mats of hydrilla are among their food sources in South Florida. “They like any type of seeds and they like shallow, shallow water. They’ll go into three to four feet, but they prefer a foot to two feet of water. And they don’t like big open holes, they like pockets.”
Since the duck habitat changes from year to year in popular hunting spots like the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and the stormwater treatment areas (STAs), Davis says that where he finds ducks now will be good places to hunt during the regular season.
He spends more time scouting during early season than hunting. And he says it’s essential not to scare the ducks you locate.
“You need to do more looking and less riding, because if you push those birds, the first place they’re going to go is the STAs,” Davis says.
The STAs are public areas that are open to duck hunting only one or two days a week. You must have a permit to hunt them, but unused permits are given out the day of the hunt in a lottery. Visit myfwc.com/hunting/by-species/waterfowl for details.
An economics teacher at Cardinal Gibbons High School, Davis operates Gladesman Outfitters (www.gladesmanoutfitters.com), which offers hunts for ducks, doves, wild hogs, wild turkeys and exotic game as well as fishing trips for everything from trout, redfish and snook to dolphin, wahoo and tuna.
When Davis has located a bunch of teal for his clients, he is particular about how he sets up to hunt them. Ideally, he wants the wind and sun at his back, because ducks land into the wind and he doesn’t want to be looking into the rising sun if he doesn’t have to. He shoots No. 6 shot because the smaller pellets are lethal on the small ducks and there are more of them in a shotshell, which increases the odds of hitting a fast-flying teal.
Instead of putting out several dozen decoys as he would during the regular season, he uses only 10 to 18 of them and puts them out in groups of three or four within 20-25 yards of his blind. Davis likes to use magnum-size black duck decoys because they look like mottled ducks, which are plentiful in South Florida and attract teal. He also puts out three or four motion decoys, which imitate flying ducks about to land. Teal notice that movement and fly over to check it out.
Davis takes his guiding seriously, so he doesn’t leave anything to chance, but some duck hunters aren’t that conscientious. Their duck boats and shotguns haven’t been used since the regular season ended, so there’s no telling if they’ll function properly now. The same goes for decoys and waders that seemed OK in January but now leak after being dumped in the garage eight months ago.
“This is like your preseason football game,” Davis says of the early season. “Now is when you find out who to trade.”
In duck-hunting terms, that means getting new waders and a new shotgun, repairing a gun that won’t eject a fired shell, patching or replacing decoys that don’t float, and getting the boat’s motor serviced.
Early season is also a time to remember things to do for the regular season, such as practicing your shooting at a sporting clays course and bringing plenty of bug spray and water. It’s also a time to remember what not to do, such as putting your keys on a floating dock when you get back to the boat ramp.
It happened to Jim Rechkemmer of Fort Lauderdale on an early-season hunt at Lake Okeechobee. When the dock bobbed in the wake of the boat, the keys plopped into the water. Rechkemmer didn’t have a spare key for his tow vehicle (put that on your hunting checklist), so his companion stripped down, went into the murky water and found the keys. (Dive mask, flashlight and towel in tow vehicle? Check!)
If you do hunt this early season, Davis says to make sure all your safety gear, such as flares and fire extinguishers, is up to date and in the boat before you head for the marsh. Not only will that help you avoid a costly ticket from a law enforcement officer, it can also save your life.