To Brent Theede, they were sounds for sore ears.
“First I heard the shots all over the place, then that roar of wings as birds lifted up,” the McPherson Valley Wetlands manager said of the first shots on Saturday’s opening of teal season. “It was like a cloud of birds, and I thought, ‘those must be blackbirds.’ I put the (binoculars) on them and they were teal. That’s something I haven’t seen or heard in a long time.”
Basically dry because of drought the last several years, the historic wetlands complex an hour north of Wichita is currently at its best in many years. Theede said the last time he’d seen it look so good for the early teal opener was in 2007, when rains the night before the season filled the marsh with water.
“A lot of people showed up, but we didn’t have many teal,” Theede said.
That wasn’t a problem on Saturday. A few days ago Theede posted an estimate of 4,000 teal on the area on the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism website. By Saturday morning he was thinking that number might be much higher.
Pickups and a few cars lined most parking lots and dotted the roadsides when Theede and Hal Kaina, a Wildlife and Parks game warden, began patrolling the area in a utility vehicle. Theede was glad to see so many hunters, but said he was expecting more.
Most hunters were glad to again see the McPherson Wetlands full of water, and that the great waterfowl habitat had attracted so many teal.
“This is something else, just so fantastic,” hunter George Naylor said after shooting a limit of six teal by about 8 a.m. “It was steady, with a lot of ducks moving.”
Naylor, an avid waterfowler and McPherson regular when it’s holding water, said he was surprised to see green-winged teal, which usually migrate later, mixed in with the bluewings. He also saw more bigger species, like mallards, than he expected.
Kaina and Theede expected to find some hunters to have illegally shot some of the bigger ducks. Such wasn’t the case.
A few hundred yards south of wetlands headquarters they stopped to check Justin Halper of Wichita. He and his Lab, Molly, had two ducks … but he didn’t have all of his proper duck stamps. It was the only ticket Haina issued Saturday morning, though he allowed Halper to keep hunting if he promised to buy the stamps at his first opportunity.
Most hunters had all of their hunting affairs in order. One had to disassemble a borrowed shotgun to learn why the plug he’d inserted didn’t restrict the pump to just three shells, as mandated by federal law. Theede showed him the pencil he’d inserted needed to be twice as long. Haina gave him a warning since he’d made an attempt to have the gun up to legal standards.
Most of the hunters were from the Wichita area, though five members of the Emporia State University baseball team made the pre-dawn trip. They averaged about three teal per person 90 minutes into the season.
Some hunters had arrived as early as 1:30 a.m. to get their chosen spot. Wichitans Seth Spangler and Matt Rogers thought they were in time to beat the crowds, but they weren’t.
“We got here real, real early and there were already like 40 trucks parked all over here,” Rogers said. “We happened to know this place was here so we thought we’d try it.” He was referring to a section of water just a few yards from a major road through the wetlands, though it was blocked from sight by a tall dike. The partners shot their first nine teal over their decoys, then moved further out into the marsh and just knelt down to shoot their final three teal.
In even greater numbers than the teal were the clouds of mosquitoes. At one parking lot, a hunter liberally drenched himself in bug spray as Mike McGinnis, a game warden, checked his licenses and stamps. The hunter preferred not give his name — “I called in sick today so I could go teal hunting.”
Wichita hunter Jack Diffenbaugh wore shorts and tennis shoes on his hunt, hoping to beat the warm temperatures. His hunting buddies said his bare legs were extremely popular with mosquitoes.
Most hunters left the marsh with three to six birds per person and pleasant memories.
Travis Sinclair was a bit exasperated, with just one bird for his group of three or four hunters. Despite hunters doing well all around his crew, the teal just didn’t respond well to his decoys … and he didn’t respond well to the heat.
“I gave up on my (insulated) waders and just took them off,” he said, his pants wet to his crotch. “I’m going to be riding home in my underwear.”