By Joe Balog
The long, activity-packed days of summer can be misleading. The early days of September are just weeks away, bringing the first waterfowl hunting opportunities of the season to much of the country.
While wood ducks offer an added bonus to select late summer hunts, teal and Canada geese are the targets of most early season waterfowlers. At times, each offers fast gunning and quick limits.
But things aren’t always so simple. Early migrators buzz through at lightning speeds, remaining birds quickly turn stale, and feeding habits often change overnight. To be successful in September, hunters must remain flexible.
For starters, it’s important to understand the lifestyles and priorities of each species. Geese remain in summertime family groups, while teal are on the move. Each is focused on feeding, but in ways that differ from normal fall and winter waterfowl routines.
Joe Robison is a veteran waterfowl hunter in southern Michigan and Northern Ohio. He’s also a wildlife biologist with Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, which means he intimately understands the biological needs of the birds he pursues.
“Teal are the earliest migrators,” Robison notes. “We usually start to see them the third week of August when North winds and cooler nights begin to drive them south.”
Robison is quick to point out that teal often present an all-or-nothing hunt: “One day, you’ll see a bunch. The next day, none.” The secret often lies in locating the preferred habitat for teal stopovers. While duck hunters traditionally concentrate efforts in potholes a foot or two deep, teal prefer ultra-skinny water. “Finding shallow water with mud flats is the key to success in the early teal season,” Robison notes.
Teal swarm to these open areas, foraging on shallow aquatic vegetation, as well as the invertebrates located within. While these scenarios occasionally occur in natural settings, flood control reservoirs – with routinely lowered water levels – present perfect teal habitat. But decoying these screaming demons can be challenging, due to their tendency to skirt the edges.
Dee Draper, a waterfowl junkie from Utah, gets teal to finish where he wants by using a big spread. “Avian-X Top Flight teal decoys are light with a keel that provides lots of motion. You can pack a ton of them, so why not have a bunch?” he questions. Draper finds that high numbers of teal decoys instill confidence by creating an illusion of safety-in-numbers. Landing zones, however, are Draper’s real secret to success.
“Teal are small and very maneuverable,” he states. “So I set up decoys in pods with a series of five-foot holes where I want birds to finish. These tiny landing zones go against the grain for most waterfowlers, but offer Draper effective gunning. Multiple landing holes offer multiple shooting opportunities, allowing each member of the hunting party a clear, focused shot at finishing birds.
Canada geese focus on select food sources this time of year. Tender grasses often present the best meals. Marty Dietz chases geese throughout September all across Minnesota, keeping tabs on resident flocks. “The weather is warm, and the birds don’t require their food to have as much nutritional value as late in the season,” he says, adding: “Early season geese tend to seek out feed that is easy for the goslings to digest.”
Dee Draper agrees, noting that small, family groups of geese travel short distances to feed on grass and alfalfa. Late summer finds the birds quite predictable in their routines. “The roost, daily feed and flight route vary little during this time period,” says Draper.
With predictable birds utilizing abundant food and sticking close to their daily routines, hunting September honkers becomes all about location. Many of the best fields are near roosting areas and water sources and, per usual, on private property. Gaining access to the X is often the biggest hurdle.
Robison sticks to a proven game plan. “Try to secure permission on private lands as soon as the fields are harvested, or sooner,” he advises. Doing so puts hunters ahead of competition that seeks permission later, after weeks of scouting. Robison adds: “Take care of the landowners that take care of you.” A few cleaned birds following a successful hunt – perhaps a few packs of fish for the fryer or a small gift card – can go a long way towards having landowners on your side. In addition, always remove any sign of your hunt, including all shell casings, after each trip.
Once a hotspot has been secured, all of our experts agree that the keys to bringing geese in are realistic decoys and proper concealment. Each relies on Avian-X goose decoys, utilizing spreads consisting of small family groups. Marty Diez combines Avian-X AXF Lesser Active Decoys with full-size AXF Sentry Decoys. “This combination closely represents the body sizes of adults and juvenile birds while they’re in the field,” he reasons.
Robison’s approach also includes clumps of Avian-X AXF (flocked) Decoys, consisting of four-to-eight birds per group, spaced about fifteen yards apart. He frequently presents his overall spread in a horseshoe pattern, which typically brings landing birds directly into perfect gunning range.
When feet-down honkers are ready to commit, hunters must be invisible. Even young geese get wise incredibly quickly, thanks to their previously educated, older counterparts.
Draper is meticulous about hiding. “Use the sun and wind direction specific to your hunting times. Eliminate shadows and silhouetting, and use the vegetation native to your site to blend in your blinds.” The optimal conditions, he adds, are “the sun in the bird’s eyes, and a right to left wind so approaching birds are looking at your decoys – not your location – as they finish.”
Effective early season calling is also important for success. Robison is adamant about this and practices all summer long, so the first notes off his goose call are as good as the last from the prior season. Marty Diez takes it one step further, often incorporating multiple calls into his September program. “Don’t be afraid to use a goose call that is tuned in a slightly higher pitch during the early season,” he says. “When gosling are out flying and feeding, they tend to be very vocal and have a slightly higher pitch to their call.”
Zink calls have probably landed more honkers than any other brand, and offer both polycarbonate and acrylic models. Following Diez’s suggestion, the Zink Call of Death short reed offers a realistic, crisp tone that accurately mimics young birds.
September is almost here. So trim down the dog, get to the range, practice your calls and prepare your gear. Some of the most unique and memorable hunts of the year are right around the corner.