It's called an experiment, the new teal-hunting season that begins Saturday for five days.
Experiment because no one, not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which authorized the hunt, nor the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which is implementing it, knows how many hunters will go afield seeking these early migrating ducks, nor how many teal the waterfowlers might see, or shoot.
Experiment also because North America's most productive duck-breeding region — roughly from northern Iowa, through western Minnesota, the Dakotas and eastern Montana, to the Canadian prairies — is deeply mired in a drought that undoubtedly will reduce to negligible the number of young-of-the-year teal and other ducks that migrate south this fall.
And experiment because the DNR's waterfowl committee, whose recommendations on seasons and other duck-hunting restrictions are almost uniformly enacted by the agency, recommended against the novel teal season, in part because of the additional work force required to manage the season, in part because the hunt is poorly timed due to the drought, and in part because Minnesota waterfowlers are about evenly split on whether the teal hunt is a good idea.
Yet DNR Fish and Wildlife Division Director Dave Olfelt and Commissioner Sarah Strommen, with support and perhaps encouragement from Gov. Tim Walz, who is from southern Minnesota, where backing for the hunt is widespread, overrode the waterfowl committee, and the hunt is set to begin at sunrise Saturday.
That opening bell — sunrise — will be important for participating hunters to remember, because the state's early Canada goose season also opens Saturday, with shooting for those birds allowed to begin one-half hour before sunrise.
"The two violations among hunters we're most likely to see will be shooting at teal before sunrise and shooting at non-target ducks, meaning ducks other than teal,'' said DNR waterfowl specialist Steve Cordts.
Sale by Friday of state waterfowl stamps will give an indication how many duck hunters will participate. Whatever the number, some, as Cordts indicated, will be challenged to correctly identify teal while flying. This is important, because shooting at non-target ducks such as wood ducks or mallards, is problematic for the hunt's continuance in future years, and — if a non-teal duck is downed — a law violation.
About 30 state and federal wildlife officials will be in "spy blinds'' during the five-day hunt to observe whether hunters attempt shots at and/or kill non-target ducks. The observers' presence is mandated by the Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the hunt's three-year experimental designation.
Observed hunter behavior will be among factors considered by the service whether to allow Minnesota to permanently offer an early teal season.
Waterfowlers afield Saturday might have to alter their usual duck-hunting behavior and let some ducks pass until flight and species patterns in their areas can be determined. Under some conditions, teal can be quite difficult to distinguish, for example, from wood ducks, particularly the hens of those species.
Both are fairly small: Wood ducks measure 17-20 inches long, with 28-inch wingspans, while blue-winged teal (the state's most abundant teal) are about 15 inches long with wingspans of about 24 inches. Both also are early fliers, meaning they'll likely be in the air before legal teal shooting begins at sunrise. And while teal often zing low to the water in small flocks, darting and turning, wood ducks can appear similar in flight, especially in low light and especially to inexperienced hunters.
What's more, ducks so early in fall are not yet fully plumed, or colored, making identification that much more challenging.
Needing also to make quick duck-identification judgments, some state and federal observers spying on hunters beginning Saturday intend to pose as waterfowlers in order to position themselves closely enough to their subjects to document behavior. Others will watch from a distance through binoculars or spotting scopes.
"We hope our observers can watch entire hunts,'' Cordts said. "If possible, we want them to do bag checks of hunters after hunts end.''
Observers who also are DNR conservation officers might, at their discretion, Cordts said, interrupt hunts in which violations occur.
"We have asked the observers to do some scouting before Saturday,'' Cordts said. "If they find teal, they'll likely find hunters in those locations on Saturday. If not, we've instructed them to drive around until they find hunters to observe. The first trick will be to find water that's accessible to hunt. It's very dry.''
The DNR is required by the service to watch at least 20 hunts. But Cordts hopes 40 observed hunts can be achieved. Observers' costs will be paid from the DNR Game and Fish Fund.
Neither the DNR nor the Fish and Wildlife Service has undertaken spring breeding-duck surveys for two years, due to the pandemic. In its 2019 Minnesota tally, conducted by observers in an airplane flying established transects, the DNR counted 223,000 blue-winged teal, 17% higher than in 2018; 33% above the 10-year average; and 7% higher than the long-term average.
The argument for a Minnesota teal season held three weeks before the regular duck opener is that thousands of teal are reared here but many migrate before hunters get a shot at them. Better, the argument goes, and fairer, to give Minnesotans a chance to hunt teal in early September, as other Mississippi Flyway waterfowlers do in states from Iowa to Louisiana.
The counterargument is that shooting ducks where they congregate, e.g., nest. exacts a disproportionately greater harvest toll on their breeding population than shooting them once they migrate, when their harvest is necessarily more spread out.
The same argument was made in opposition to the DNR when in recent years it increased the Minnesota wood duck limit to three from two and the hen mallard limit to two from one.
A mitigating factor in these and other state duck-management conflicts — which are as old as duck management itself — is that Minnesota, which historically has led the nation in the number of waterfowlers it puts afield, never has had fewer active duck hunters than it had last year: some 51,000, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
What of the 75,000 Minnesotans who no longer hunt ducks?
Some have passed on. Others have grayed out.
But many others have hung up their guns, or hunt in other states, for what they say is a very simple reason. Minnesota has no ducks. Or too few to bother with.
Moreover, they say, and with validity, that rather than continually liberalizing duck regulations in attempts to keep hunters in the sport, they should do the hard work necessary in the Legislature and particularly in the governor's office to clean up the state's shallow lakes and re-establish its wetlands, not only to help ducks and other aquatic wildlife, but, more importantly still, to benefit people.
Instead, the news is that Minnesota's teal hunting experiment will begin Saturday, the same day as early goose hunting (over-water hunting will be allowed for geese statewide for the first time) and a week before Youth Waterfowling Weekend.
None of this will affect the number of ducks over hunters' decoys on the Sept. 25 regular waterfowl opener, the DNR says.