Like most Minnesota duck hunters Saturday, Vern Starke will be counting on blue-winged teal to help fulfill the season’s opening day.

Besides offering what is perhaps the best-tasting meal of any duck hunted in the state, the early-migrating bird possesses a head-spinning combination of high speed and small target.

“They are fun to shoot,’’ said Starke, president of the Nelson Point Wildlife Association on Swan Lake, northwest of Mankato. “If they are coming out of the west with a wind, you better aim east.’’

Continental population estimates of the darting bluewings are considerably higher now than they were from 1955 through 1995. And even though bluewing counts in Minnesota are below historical highs, duck hunters here — for a number of reasons — continue to bring them down in the same relative abundance as they did when participation in the sport was twice what it is today.

“If it wasn’t for the teal, our opener would be poorer,’’ said Fred Froehlich of Nicollet, a veteran of more than 40 Minnesota duck seasons. “And I’d take a limit of blue-winged teals any day of the week ... even over mallards.’’

Steve Cordts, waterfowl staff specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said this year’s hunt holds extra promise for bluewing success.

For starters, the 2018 opener falls early. This Saturday is only one day removed from Sept. 21, the earliest date possible under state law for a Saturday duck opener. For bluewing hunters, every extra day matters because the species is the first to vacate the state.

Adding to the advantage is that duck nesting this year was generally late because of slow ice-outs and April storms. Cordts said the tough habitat conditions slowed ducklings from getting on the wing and some will be delayed, fractionally, from migrating.

“Ninety percent of our teal harvest happens during the first two weekends of the season,’’ Cordts said. “I have heard good reports of teal still being around.’’

Bluewings are a tad larger than green-winged teal, but they’re still not half the size of a mallard. They favor Minnesota’s prairie regions and are common in the southern portion of the state. They fly to a lesser extent in the transition areas of Minnesota and are way less abundant in forested regions.

Minnesota harvest data from 1970 through 2017 shows a 1970s peak of more than 170,000 bluewings taken in a single season. The harvest reached 160,000 bluewings two other times in the ’70s when twice as many hunters were afield as they are today. Looking back on those days, last year’s state harvest of 78,000 bluewings was in the same ballpark on a birds-per-hunter average.

Yes, state duck seasons used to open on the Saturday nearest Oct. 1, creating a disadvantage for bluewing hunters because of the birds’ early migration. But since 2011, the season opens on the Saturday closest to Sept. 24. Comparisons on relative abundance are difficult for that reason and for changes in bag limits and length of seasons over the years.

Cordts said there’s no question that the state’s bluewing breeding populations have fallen since the early 2000s. The birds are difficult to count in surveys because of their small size, concealment and their relatively nondescript features, but this spring’s population estimate was below 200,000 — down from peaks that commonly hit 300,000 and above from the mid-1970s through 2003.

But a dip in Minnesota’s breeding population of bluewings isn’t equally reflected in the state’s annual harvest of the birds. That’s because the majority of bluewings taken by Minnesota hunters are moving through the Mississippi Flyway from other states or from Canada, Cordts said. Bluewing populations elsewhere are considerably higher now than in the past.

Bluewings have consistently ranked third or fourth in Minnesota’s annual duck harvest behind mallards and wood ducks, Cordts said. The 2017 season ended with harvests of 160,000 mallards, 116,000 wood ducks, 80,000 ringnecks and 78,000 blue-winged teal. In many years, bluewings outnumber ringnecks.

Froehlich said bluewings are No. 1 in flavor and delicacy.

“It’s the best eating duck out there,’’ he said.

In the field, Froehlich said, the birds are in and out of decoys in the blink of an eye.

Starke, whose duck-hunting group includes the occupants of 22 cabins in the northwest section of Swan Lake, said he usually doesn’t see any bluewings in the area until very close to the opening weekend of duck hunting. In the short time that they show themselves to hunters, the ducks make a huge difference in the early stages of the season.

“It’s the main duck brought back from hunting,’’ Starke said. “Everyone will have two or three hanging from their cabin.’’