A wet weekend awaits most of the tens of thousands of wingshooters anticipating the opening of two of Texas’ most popular early-season game bird hunting seasons.
For one group — those looking ahead to Friday’s opening to the general dove season in the state’s South Zone — the rain promises to make a muddy mess of things.
For the other — waterfowlers with their sights set on Saturday’s start of the 16-day, teal-only season — the recent and near-future precipitation looks to be a mixed but mostly favorable blessing.
“We really needed the rain,” Matt Nelson, central coast wetland ecosystem program leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said of the beneficial effects for teal and teal hunters of the series of showers and thunderstorms that have popped up almost daily along the coast and inland since the Labor Day weekend. “When this month started, some of our areas along the coast were extremely dry. These rains put water in some of the impoundments on our wildlife management areas, and that’s helped create more habitat for teal and more hunting areas.”
Some areas have benefited more than other. The Justin Hurst Wildlife Management Area near Freeport was “looking pretty grim” just a couple of weeks ago, Nelson said. The 15,600-acre WMA had seen a dry spell that almost equaled the record-setting drought of 2011, leaving all the managed wetland impoundments dry. But almost 10 inches of rain this month has changed that.
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“All the impoundments now have water in them,” Nelson said. “Things are looking a lot better.”
Just down the coast, Mad Island WMA also suffered from a dry, hot summer. And recent rains have not been as bountiful as in some of the other nearby areas.
“We’ve had only about 3½ inches of rain at Mad Island,” Nelson said earlier this week. “It helped, but some of the popular impoundments are still dry.
“All that could change by the weekend, though,” Nelson said, noting forecasts predicting continued, sometime heavy rains for the Texas coast over coming days.
“We’re in pretty good shape for teal season,” Mike Rezsutek, upper coast wetland ecosystem program leader for TPWD, said of habitat condition in the marshes and associated wetlands between Galveston Bay and the Louisiana border. While heavy rains that hit the upper coast over the past couple of weeks has raised the water level in some wetland impoundments to levels too deep for arriving teal to feed on submerged aquatic vegetation, it has recharged and created attractive wetlands in the marsh and adjacent coastal prairie.
“Conditions in a lot of this area are almost perfect for teal,” Rezsutek said, noting the rains have created shallow, temporary wetlands the early migrating teal like.
Father inland on the coastal prairies, managed wetlands and flooded, second-crop rice - premier teal habitat - also benefited from recent rains.
“It’s helped,” Todd Steele, manager of Thunderbird Hunting Club, a private hunting club with more than a thousand acres of managed wetlands in Wharton and Matagorda counties, said of recent rains. “But we’ve had some wells running since July, pumping water into some of our ponds.
“The rain’s made managing water levels, critical when you’re managing to grow aquatic vegetation for the birds and keep water at a depth the birds feel comfortable in, more of a challenge,” Steele said. “But, overall, it’s good for the birds and good for the habitat. That’s what they’re looking for when they get here.”
Some already are here. And more — a lot more — are on their way.
The vanguard of migrating blue-winged teal began trickling into Texas in late August. Those birds - almost all adult males - are the first to leave nesting grounds on the prairies of north-central United States and south-central Canada. Bluewings are the first duck species to make large-scale southern migration each autumn, moving down the flyway weeks or months ahead of some other species.
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That early migration timetable, which sees large numbers of teal and few other migrant waterfowl arrive in Texas during September is behind the teal-only hunting season. During the Sept. 15-30 season, only teal (blue-winged, green-winged and cinnamon) are legal game. The daily bag limit is six teal per day.
Bluewings account for as much as 90 percent of the teal season harvest. And those small ducks have been riding a population peak for the past decade or so.
This year, the bluewing breeding population index, gauged by aerial surveys of nesting grounds during late spring, was pegged at 6.4 million birds, down 18 percent from 2017 but still almost 30 percent above the 1955-2017 average. That index marks the 13th consecutive year bluewings have been above the long-term average of 5.1 million. Federal waterfowl managers allow a 16-day teal-only season when the bluewing index is 4.7 million birds or more, and a nine-day season when the population is below that number.
Best concentrations of teal heading into the season have been reported in flooded-second-crop rice on the coastal prairie, particularly in the Lissie/Eagle Lake/El Campo areas. But fair numbers of birds also are holding in managed wetlands.
Marshes are holding scattered concentrations. But that can and will quickly change overnight as pulses of bluewings move down the flyway and habitat conditions change.
“They can appear and disappear overnight,” Steele said.
And they can be dispersed over a larger area if heavy rains - such as those predicted to hit much of coastal and south Texas over coming days - create a wealth of “new” wetlands for the birds. This can be great for teal and problematic for teal hunters.
This year’s bluewing migration may be strung out or even delayed by good conditions up the flyway. Heavy summer rains in the Midwest have created wetlands bluewings can use as rest stops on their southern journey.
But even if the opening weekend sees heavy rains and/or modest hunting success, waterfowlers still have reason for optimism. A cool front predicted to hit the northern plains early next week and a full moon on Sept. 24 should both help push fresh flocks to Texas.
“The last weekend of the season can be the best,” Steele said.
Waterfowlers looking to take advantage of teal hunting opportunities on TPWD’s Justin Hurst WMA near Freeport and Mad Island WMA in Matagorda County will this season see new rules governing how hunting locations on both areas are assigned.
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Instead of the long-standing first-come/first-served format that saw some hunters line up at the gate days in advance of hunts to secure preferred hunting sites, the new format will have WMA staff each morning, beginning about 4 a.m., hand out numbered tags to hunters lined up in vehicles outside the area’s gates. At 4:30 a.m., a random drawing of those numbers will determine the order in which hunters choose their designated hunting site. Hunters arriving after the drawing will be allowed to pick from remaining hunt sites, Nelson said.
The change is designed as a way to more fairly allocate hunting sites on the areas. Some hunt locations are traditionally more productive and sought-after than others. The first-come/first-served format meant hunters who were not able to spend the night (and sometimes, days) in line ahead of a hunt seldom had the opportunity to hunt some of those preferred sites.
The random drawing to pick the order of choosing hunting sites at Hurst and Mad Island WMA also stands to reduce the number of hunters spending the night lined up in vehicles parked on the road shoulder outside the area’s gate. That practice has created safety concerns as well as instances of littering and other problematic behavior.
Crowding and competition for prime hunting spots almost certainly will not be an issue for dove hunters in Texas South Zone this opening weekend. With forecasts calling for persistent rain, including the possibility of extremely heavy rain generated by a tropical system forecast to move across the southern Texas coast early in the weekend, prospects for the South Zone opener are marginal, at best.
Steady rain tends to cause doves to sit tight or, in some cases, move out of areas ahead of the bad weather. That results in poor bird movement and slow hunting.
Also, the wet conditions turn dove fields and the roads around them into mud holes, limiting hunter’s access to areas and greatly reducing hunter’s enjoyment of the experience.
This year’s South Zone dove opener is the earliest date the zone, which holds some of the best dove concentration in the state, has opened in more than a half-century. The season’s opening date, set by federal migratory game bird mangers, had been no earlier than Sept. 17 and as late as Sept. 22 in recent years.
Texas wildlife managers, urged by the state’s wingshooters, convinced federal authorities to modify the rules to allow opening the dove season as early as Sept. 14.
One of the reasons many South Zone hunters pushed for the earlier opening was to avoid having the season open in late September, when early-season cool fronts or late-season tropical storms have regularly torpedoed the opener by pushing birds out of the area before the season opened.
This year, the South Zone’s string of bad luck with weather on opening weekend appears intact, even with the earlier opening date.