Great waterfowl habitat doesn’t happen by accident. Terry Denmon and Ramsey Russell assessed duck habitat conditions on a central Louisiana property about a decade ago. Waterfowl habitat utilization left something to be desired. Management was sorely needed. Denmon has since tirelessly implemented moist-soil management practices, transforming the property, and rolling out the red carpet for overwintering ducks. What is moist-soil plant management and why does Denmon prefer this to row crop agricultural crops? What are the plant species he tries to produce, and how are problematic plant species controlled? Blue-winged teal season opens in September but big ducks don’t show up until late-November. How does he manage duck habitat conditions for both? Blue-winged teal hunting season is in full swing nationwide as Denmon and Ramsey talk common-sense habitat management and, of course, duck hunting in this informative episode of Duck Season Somewhere.
Terry Denmon and Ramsey Russell Discuss Moist-soil Habitat Management and Waterfowl Habitat Pertaining Especially to Blue-winged Teal Hunting
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere podcast. I’m back in Monroe, Louisiana, with long-time friend, Terry Denmon. Y’all know Terry Denmon, with Mojo Outdoors, but we’re going to take it in a different direction than spinning-wing decoys today. I’ve been hunting with Terry Denman for over ten years, and I think one of the biggest ways we formed a friendship or had a real common thread to form a bond over, was blue-winged teal hunting. Look, I love to blue-winged teal hunt. I know a lot of people just go out for a weekend or two and do a little something-something with blue-winged teal because it’s extra days, but Denmon—like myself, and like the late Mike Morgan—we went after them every day of the season that we could. We would chase the migration if possible. To me, in that regard, it’s fifteen or sixteen days of the season, especially in September, when Southern hunters catch an influx of teal. It’s not just a bonus. It’s almost like an under-exploited resource, when you get to parts of Mississippi and Louisiana. It’s a wonderful time to hunt, a wonderful time to take kids. Until I fell in with Terry Denmon, I had never met anybody that was as mad about them as I am. How are you doing today, Terry?
Terry Denmon: I’m doing great, Ramsey. Good to have you in Monroe one more time.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that Hurricane Laura kind of messed up last week’s plans, didn’t she?
Terry Denmon: It messed up a lot more than last week. You should have seen our office yard. It looked like a war zone. Some people still don’t have electricity here, now. A lot of people don’t. That’s probably fifty thousand people in the state of Louisiana who still don’t have power. I lost it on Thursday morning, got it back on Saturday afternoon, and I was one of the lucky ones. I don’t know how much you appreciate electricity, but I can tell you this: I have an all-electric home, and I appreciate it a lot more, today, than I did a couple of weeks ago.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Air conditioning is a modern convenience. Without electricity, you normally don’t have it, do you?
Terry Denmon: In my case, I don’t have hot water, because I’m an all-electric home.
Moist-Soil Vegetation Management for Waterfowl Habitat
“You have more natural duck food on this farm than any farm I’ve looked at.” That stuck in my brain. He also said, “You really ought to manage the natural waterfowl habitat resources you have there, for the ducks.”
Ramsey Russell: I was down here a few weeks ago, and we were out there looking at your farm. You’ve got just an incredible place. It’s come a long way in the ten, eleven, twelve years since I first saw it. Y’all have been busy out there, haven’t you?
Terry Denmon: We have, Ramsey. We got interested in managing moist-soil vegetation. It’s a moist-soil type of farm, and we got interested in managing moist-soil plants. We talked to you about that probably ten years ago, and you gave us some advice. Really what got me started on that was that I didn’t even understand what moist-soil plants were, when we first put that farm into the government CRP program. We had some people from the Ag Department and Ducks Unlimited and places like that come down for one of those tour type-things. There was a guy there from Washington, D.C. I don’t really know which department of Ag he was with, but I remember he told me, “You have more natural duck food on this farm than any farm I’ve looked at.” That stuck in my brain. He also said, “You really ought to manage the natural waterfowl habitat resources you have there, for the ducks.” Well, I didn’t know enough, back then, to know that I needed to do that. That farm is an ancestral duck hole. When I was young, some old guys down there told me that, when it was in the virgin hardwood, that’s where the ducks wanted to go, right to that farm. You can see, from being down there, it’s where a lot of old creeks and bayous kind of come together. It just kind of makes a natural place for ducks.
I wasn’t knowing them to feed as much, back then. I knew that if you went to a cornfield or bean field or rice field, or something like that, that it made excellent duck hunting, but I just didn’t really put all that stuff together. When I started studying natural waterfowl habitat management, then it all kind of came together. There wasn’t any information when I first started. Actually, the first thing we noticed is, if we ran a disc in some place that we weren’t discing—the disc just happened to go through there—the next year, it would grow great duck food. So I said, “Well, there’s a point. You’ve got to disc it.” About that time, people started doing studies on how to manage moist-soil plants. I started researching them. Just getting them online, copying them, putting them in a three-ring binder. A large portion of those waterfowl habitat studies were done at Mississippi State University. I said, “A-ha, this is the Mississippi Delta. They’re on the other side of the river. They’re on your side of the river, but it’s the same dirt on this side of the river.” So I started hunting those things down and determining what a person ought to do to manage them. It’s really not that difficult. It is a little bit work-intensive, but it’s not difficult. We’re not near through, yet, but, as you can see, we are growing a lot of duck food down there.
Ramsey Russell: We were out there a few weeks ago. Y’all were filming that little waterfowl habitat segment for MOJO TV, and it has sure changed a lot in the ten years since I came by and met with y’all. What I thought of is— Remember on Forrest Gump, that old doctor had a cigarette hanging out his mouth when he saw Forrest Gump as a grown boy, and he patted him on the back and said, “Boy, I sure got you fixed, didn’t I?” It was so funny because he really didn’t. We met down there, and what I saw the initial time we went— It had been in agriculture, then it went into a grassland CRP type easement, then y’all had gotten busy building businesses and doing different things, and it just kind of did what nature does. It had just kind of successionally progressed into a predominately woody state.
I never will forget, you said, “Back when this was in agriculture, and right after agriculture, it was just all this wild millet. We had so many ducks.” I said, “Well, wild millet can be—depending on where you’re standing—it can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people.” I said, “Well, Terry, show me what, specifically, you are talking about.” You pointed it out, and you picked it up. It was sprangletop (Leptochloa spp). It’s a really nice seed down here, and I think it grows as far north as Missouri. I know that down here in the Deep South, it comes in mid- to late-succession on mudflats. Soil disturbance helps regenerate it. That’s what we talked about. Burn it—hopefully disc it, if you can—but just know that when you break that heavy clay soil in this part of the world, when you break that seed bank with a disc, you’re going to get coffeeweed (Sesbania). No matter what comes up under it, it’ll create so much vertical structure—especially here, you’ve got a great site for coffeeweed—it’ll get fifteen feet tall. You can almost hang a deer stand on it. So you got to control it. We had a mutual friend in the chemical business, and he got you fixed up. He told you just what to spray and how to spray it, and we’ll get into that in just a minute. Man, I was extremely impressed looking at the natural waterfowl habitat on your property a few weeks ago. That’s what I’m trying to say. It went from unmanaged goldenrod and aster and woody stuff to, I’d say, nearly five hundred acres of solid wild millet, sprangletop, barnyard grass, and I saw a lot of yellow chufa out there in areas. Golly, now you’ve got it chest-high. It’s going to be a duck magnet.
Obstacles to Moist-soil Vegetation Management for Waterfowl Habitat
Terry Denmon: Our three biggest obstacles to moist-soil waterfowl habitat management have been red vine—you saw a lot of those red vines down there, but they’re not near what they were back then—the coffeeweed that you keep referring to, and the real woody stuff like button willow. The button willows don’t seem to hurt too bad if you don’t let them get so thick they start shading out your other vegetation. In my effort to kind of clean the place up, I probably overdid it. There’s five hundred-something acres in that shallow water reservoir. It’s got trees around it, but five hundred acres in the reservoir itself, and I’ve been spraying the whole thing. I haven’t been letting hardly any coffeeweeds grow, but—you told me this, and I started looking, and I’ve observed—you ought to let some of those coffeeweeds go, for cover.
This year, we kind of followed your suggestion, and we left big blocks of coffeeweeds in certain places. On our higher ground, we can’t leave them, because if you don’t spray at the red vines they’ll take over. Now on our lower ground, the red vines don’t like to grow so I left some coffeeweeds in there. All the studies that I’ve looked at showed that the ducks really don’t eat coffee wheat seed. Most of the duck hunters that I grew up with think that ducks eat coffeeweed seeds. They’ll find a few of them in their craw, but they say it’s an incidental intake. We all grew up just noticing what we saw, and we’d see lots of ducks in the coffeeweeds. We thought they were in there feeding. It makes a bean, as you know, with a lot of other seeds in it. As it turns out, the best information today that I have says that they were in there for cover. They like that cover.
Ramsey Russell: That thermal barrier, I’ve heard. I’ve heard the same things. I’ve seen crop analyses from back in the day. I was in grad school and read that kind of stuff. Coffeeweed—which has got a real, real hard seed, a tiny little seed—predominates all the crop analyses. It’s in all the crops. But like you said, it’s incidental. What I’ve noticed is that if you look at a natural cycle on these soils, in a natural environment, river water comes up and it ebbs on back down. Sometimes, it’ll stay up during the growing season. It won’t let off until July, August. On those late-season drawdowns, sprangletop is going to come up boom time. So is coffeeweed. I have shot a lot of ducks where sprangletop came up and then the coffeeweed overtook it, to where you had kind of a top cover of coffeeweed but, underneath it, you had a carpet of sprangletop. There’s no doubt that ducks will swim up in there to get up in some cover, for whatever reason. To feel safe, to feel protected, to feel isolated, to have a little bit of barrier out of the wind, and they’ll eat. So they probably are picking up a lot of coffeeweed. Speaking of leaving some of those patches of habitat— I find myself oftentimes in a trap, I’d call it, of thinking in a certain way. “I need this,” and so I become hyper-focused on, “Here’s what I need.” I sometimes forget that waterfowl have a lot of lifecycle requirements.
Rick Kaminski—who for many, many years, for decades, was at Mississippi State doing waterfowl research, he’s now at Clemson running their program—he actually showed us some research, one time, that he called hemi-marsh. I think that was his graduate research study. It was going out and looking at duck utilization, up North, as a function of how a duck used this given body of waterfowl habitat, as a function of the ratio of open water to vertical structure. I think cattail marsh was mostly what he was studying. Something like cattail marsh, where you had open water and then you had clumps of cattails. What they found out was about a 50:50 ratio of cover to vertical structure. Open water—think of it like this, I can see the decoys, I can land easily, I can swim around, but then I can swim up into cover. They found that 50:50 mix to be good. Some of our accidental discoveries come from fooling around with habitat like you are here. Over in Mississippi, we’re doing WRP. We’ve found that, if we go and completely get rid of the coffeeweed out in a forty-acre duck hole, we don’t get near the waterfowl utilization. Even if we do, we can’t hunt them because there’s not enough cover. We leave about 40-60% of the patches, whether it’s buttonweed or willows or something. The ducks seem to like it better.
Terry Denmon: Well, when you first started telling me that and I started thinking about it, I thought back to the times when we didn’t manage it— We’d go out and do a little discing or something like that, but, other than that, we were just letting it go. Nature would make little openings out in those coffeeweeds; for whatever reason, the coffeeweed didn’t grow there. When you flooded it, it looked like a little pond, and that’s what people refer to them as, as ponds. Out in the marsh, they refer to them as little open ponds. You would notice those ducks would land in that little pond and swim out in those coffeeweeds. I don’t know why I didn’t figure that out sooner, but I didn’t until you started talking to me about that. We’re gonna see what happens this year.
Ramsey Russell: The first place we stopped and looked at your property, a few weeks ago— It was a big area. It was wide-open for a couple hundred acres. You were telling me, “Yeah, we got a blind here,” or, “Chuck and those boys try to hunt over here,” and, “The ducks will want to raft up over there.” I’m like, “Well, put some cover there. Then maybe they might swim up in there later, but they’re not going to raft up there.” Because waterfowl in this part of the world— I think of the old wives’ tale about cloudy, windy, miserable weather days for duck hunting. Down here, I call it a wives’ tale, because that’s not the day I want to shoot ducks. When I’m hunting a place like yours or mine, I want clear. I want enough wind to steer ducks, but I want clear and cold. I think that that old wives’ tale originated up in the Great Lakes area, because those divers will roost and just stage out on big, open water. Then when the wind kicks up, they’ve got to come into protected areas. That’s kind of what I think about when we start talking about this. Some of these old wives’ tales apply regionally. Not here.
Terry Denmon: I was writing an article recently for a friend of mine on decoying ducks, and I wrote that very same thing. I got down to where I was talking about the weather effects upon decoying ducks, and I said, “When I was young and growing up and being a hunter, if you ever saw any kind of photo or picture of waterfowl hunters, it was always snowing, sleeting, or raining. They’ve got ice in their beard and all that other stuff. But, today—whatever the difference is, at least where you and I are—it’s a clear bluebird day following a front that pushes the ducks in. That’s when you can kill them.”
Ramsey Russell: You were talking earlier in the podcast about the location of this property, being an ancestral duck hole. Unlike other parts of the world— Like, I love going out up North into Canada where it’s all laid out in sections. All the roads are sectionalized, and if you want to know where somebody lives, it’s three miles north and a mile and a half left. That’s easy to find. Anybody can find that. Just count the road crossings.
Terry Denmon: Kansas. They got street signs that say Street 53, forty miles out of town.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. But you get down to this part of the country and your neck of woods, where your farm is, and all those roads are just winding like a snake around these bayous and bends. There’s no telephone signal, so you can’t follow your map. You don’t know where in the heck you are. I’m just chasing your tail lights, going. I was seven or eight miles from there, and I might as well have been 150 miles from your property. Dale Bordelon and I went to visit Mr. Warren Coco, and we’re driving along. Dale points across that lake and says, “Well, that’s so-and-so’s camp house.” I go, “Well, that can’t be, Dale, because that’s just five miles from Denmon’s place.” He goes, “Yeah, Denmon’s place is just right over there, too.” Now, we had driven all day to get to this point, just winding down those curvy roads and along those levees and stuff.
Terry Denmon: The roads, no doubt, follow the Indian trails, originally. They followed game trails, and then the wagons came along, the horses, and they followed that. They’re on the high bank that runs along adjacent to the rivers and the bayous and stuff. It’s the only high ground they got in that part of the country. If you drive down that one state highway that goes by my farm, you’d think that country is fairly well-populated because there’s houses all along there. But if you go perpendicular to the highway, there’s no houses forever. It’s just a wilderness. That’s just the nature of country that’s influenced by rivers, bayous, streams, and that type of thing.
Advantages of natural waterfowl habitat over agricultural crops?
Studies I’ve seen show that properly managed moist-soil vegetation is only exceeded [in value to waterfowl habitat] by standing corn and standing rice. Not harvested corn and not harvested rice…we know, those man-made seeds don’t survive in the water very well. These moist-soil seeds—they’ll be just as good on the last day of the season as they are on the first day you pump the water in. You don’t have to plant anything, and it’s pretty hard to have a crop failure.
Ramsey Russell: Getting back on the topic of your waterfowl habitat, because that to me is really amazing. A couple of things jump out at me, looking at your property. One, you choose to manage for natural waterfowl habitat. Not corn, not milo, not soybeans. It used to be in agriculture, so you could have said, “I want to grow rowcrop agriculture here,” but you didn’t. You went the way of natural waterfowl habitat. Why? Why don’t you plant that whole thing with corn or soybeans or milo?
Terry Denmon: Well, I can tell you why I started back then, and I can tell you why I keep doing it today. That’s not exactly the same answer. The last year we farmed that place—which was probably twenty years ago—we grew soybeans. In fact, every year we grew soybeans on it, and it’d grow a lot of soybeans. It’s a high-producing property, but it’s also the same type of property that produces the moist-soil plants. Some of those studies I’ve seen show that properly managed moist-soil vegetation is only exceeded [in value to waterfowl habitat] by standing corn and standing rice. Not harvested corn and not harvested rice.
Ramsey Russell: Expressed as a function of duck calories?
Terry Denmon: Duck use days [Duck Use Days represents the number of ducks that could be supported per day by one acre of the habitat type and varies as a function of quality and quantity waterfowl forages available]. Duck feeding days is how they measured it. Plus, as we know, those man-made seeds don’t survive in the water very well. These moist-soil seeds—they’ll be just as good on the last day of the season as they are on the first day you pump the water in. You don’t have to plant anything, and it’s pretty hard to have a crop failure. So, the way I look at it is, if God’s already planted it for you, the least you could do is manage it for Him.
If I planted that five hundred-something acres—in any kind of crop, it doesn’t matter what it is—that’s an enormous cost. Then you can’t manipulate it, by state law. You couldn’t get in there and disc and help control your woody growth or anything like that. You’d have to do it outside the hunting season. You couldn’t do it right before the hunting season. You’d have to do it when it didn’t influence the hunting, some way or other. It’s just so convenient and so good to do the natural vegetation. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t do that.
Ramsey Russell: From a waterfowl habitat standpoint, would you agree that it’s pretty cost-effective to help God along, so to speak? Just take what natural moist-soil vegetation He gave us and work with Him instead of against Him with Roundup-Ready agriculture?
Terry Denmon: Yeah. I don’t know what it costs to plant. I’ve been out of farming so long now that I don’t know what it costs to plant five hundred acres of soybeans, but it’s probably—just to jerk a wild figure out of the air—let’s jerk $50,000 out of the air.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. $50,000, here and there, and we’re talking serious money.
Terry Denmon: Pretty soon you got real dollars.
Implementing moist-soil vegetation management for waterfowl habitat
Sprangletop, that the first year after they disturb the soil, produces 2,000 pounds an acre of seed. The second year after disturbing the soil—meaning they didn’t disturb it again—it was down to 1,200 pounds. The third year, it was down to 800 pounds. All the manuals say to disturb the soil every three years.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Well, Terry, nowadays, if somebody you didn’t know how you’ve been chipping along and working on this property for ten years to develop natural waterfowl habitat, you make it look easy, but it’s not. That great stand of spangletop and natural millet and chufa and all that good stuff out there—that’s not happening by accident, is it?
Terry Denmon: No. I took the best advice I could get from people like yourself, like our chemical friend—he’s spent his whole life in agricultural chemistry. I did the studies, and I did all that stuff. I started spraying, and I started recording the outcome of it. I’d record in a little diary, “Okay, I sprayed this on this date, and I did this.” I’d go back and look and see what happened, and I just kind of refined it, because it’s not universal all over. It’s going to depend on your soil and what it likes to grow and what’s native to that. What are the undesirables that you’re trying to rid yourself of? It’s just a lot of factors in there. So, no, it didn’t, because, when we first started, I could tell improvement. There was never a time I didn’t tell improvement, but there was a time when I said, “I don’t know if I’m going to get to where I want to go or not.” But once you see that at least one little part of your farm got there, then you know that you can get there if you just keep doing that same thing over and over again.
Ramsey Russell: It’s a lot of science that goes into it, a lot of scientifically-proven practices such as herbicide and mechanical treatments and stuff like that, but it’s also luck. Also, just the curveball nature throws: when can you move the water off your property? How can you move the water off your property? No two years are exactly the same.
Terry Denmon: Well, that’s an interesting point because— I don’t know if it’s got to do with the weather changes, or what it is, but the water, on average, is staying on our property later now than it did twenty years ago. Actually, if you wanted to farm that piece of property anymore, the water doesn’t go off of it—for the last two years—till June. The Mississippi River stayed high last year till what, July? Until that river goes down, we’re not going to shed the water off all these streams and rivers. We’re right next to a huge, big river, the Ouachita River. It’s a nice big river, and it runs into the Red, and the Red runs into the Mississippi. So if the Mississippi is up, they’re going to all be up. That’s the one thing you can’t control, is when nature is going to let all that water go down. I’ve forgotten what the figure is, but it’s somewhere like 2/3 of all the water in the continental United States comes down through the Mississippi River, where you and I are. That’s a lot of water. Used to, snowmelt, and the timing of snowmelt, would make a big difference, but now they don’t accumulate snow up North to the extent that they did, say, fifty years ago. So it’s changed the flow patterns and all of that. I can’t control that. One good thing about this sprangletop, this wild millet that we call sprangletop—by the way, they have another wild millet that they call wild millet, and then they call sprangletop, sprangletop, even though sprangletop is a wild millet—it doesn’t take very long to grow it. I went back and looked in my diary, and we were spraying last year on the first day of September. Because we had just got the water off. Now, we got the water off it before then, but it takes two or three weeks before it gets dried up so that you can go in there and do it. If I could do it just the way I wanted to, I’d draw that water down around the first of June. I’d go in there around the first of July and spray.
Ramsey Russell: A couple of weeks ago, we were doing a little recording, and I thought that was a real nice MOJO program y’all recently had where you were explaining waterfowl habitat management and what y’all did, similar to what we’re talking now. You had some footage in there because it was around blue-winged teal season, like this episode here. I thought it was just real, real interesting, and I heard a lot of feedback about it. I heard, “Man, that’s cool. That was a cool episode.” Because people are learning something. “This is what I can do to my place if I can’t afford $200 an acre to go plant Roundup Ready corn.” I just thought it was fascinating.
Walk me through kind of, how you prepare the soil the previous year, when you draw the water down, what you get when you’ve got to go in and spray. I remember you saying something about sprangletop, for example; the first year it comes up, you get a nice crop of it, so to speak, you get real good seed production. But then, as it remains undisturbed, the productivity of that particular plot just goes down. Is that right?
Terry Denmon: That’s basically correct. The major factors that affect moist-soil management is the time of the draw down, and that’s going to dictate which plants grow. If I drew down in, say, late April, I drove mostly smartweed. I’ve done that before. Smartweed is great duck food. I just don’t have as much luck—I don’t attract as many ducks—off of smartweed, it does not seem, as I do off the sprangletop. Sprangletop, its timing is a little better for us. It’s the time of year we’re down there working on the farm, anyway. It’s the time of the year that you draw down. It’s the controlling of the undesirable plants, especially keeping the woody growth set back. And, basically, which plants you want to grow. That’s really about all there is to that. As far as disturbing the soil—that’s what you asked before—there are some studies out there that show, on sprangletop, that the first year after they disturb the soil, produces 2,000 pounds an acre of seed. The second year after disturbing the soil—meaning they didn’t disturb it again—it was down to 1,200 pounds. The third year, it was down to 800 pounds. All the manuals say to disturb the soil every three years.
Ramsey Russell: Then it keeps that seedbed vibrant. It keeps it productive and keeps it going. So basically, every year you’re out there discing, spraying, managing water when you can get it off—
Terry Denmon: Clipping, burning. We do all of that.
Ramsey Russell: It’s an ongoing thing.
Terry Denmon: It’s an ongoing thing. You got to do it every year. I showed you some places where, a year ago, when we got ready to spray, I was off making TV in some part of the world. Who knows? Probably was in Argentina hunting ducks with you or something. I don’t know. I wasn’t here. My son kind of takes care of all that stuff, and he’s good friends and grew up with a lot of these guys here at Mojo that work with us. They all like to go down and do that stuff, so they were going to go down there and spray. I was a little bit concerned about that, but anyway. They did a pretty good job, but in that area you and I looked at—for whatever reason, I don’t know if they had a nozzle problem, whatever reason—it was spray a strip—I’m talking about a strip, now, twenty feet wide—it was spray a strip, skip a strip, spray a strip, skip a strip. That one year that we had been spraying that, you saw that. Red vines and stuff like that. Didn’t grow hardly any desirables. There wasn’t hardly any sprangletop in that. You have to spray every square inch of it every year, on our farm. I’m not saying that on other farms you’d have to do that. It depends on the nature of that farm. The nature of the soil and the nature of the plants, or whatever. Some farms, you may not have to spray at all. Some farms, maybe all you need to do is control the timing of your draw down and manage the undesirables. That may be all you have to do.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. A lot of folks listening who aren’t in the Louisiana or Mississippi Delta—although a lot of them are—and it’s really going to take trying to figure out what target species you’re managing for is. What am I managing for, here? Then, with all the curveballs nature’s going to throw you, trying to figure out how to hit a home run with it.
Terry Denmon: Well, just ask any farmer. They can tell you what nature can do for you. It can be kind to you, and it can be cruel.
Waterfowl Habitat Preparations for Blue-winged Teal Hunting Season
When we got into all this moist-soil waterfowl habitat management— If you’re going to be down there managing anyway, and they have a blue-winged teal season, and it’s easy for us to set up for it, then why not? It’s the first time we can shoot a duck in this part of the world.
Ramsey Russell: Changing the subject a little bit. I know that teal hunting is a big part of what you do, and I know that a lot of what you do out there will be teal hunting. Y’all are getting ready for blue-winged teal season.
Terry Denmon: We absolutely are. I said this in the TV show. I said it when you were down there looking at it with me. We pump—out of our 500-something acres—we pump probably 75 or 80 acres of water just for blue-winged teal, because it’s the lowest part of our shallow water reservoir. By the time we pump it up to level, which we would do for what we call the big duck season—other than the early teal season—it’s too deep for a puddle duck to feed in. So we flood that just for the blue-winged teal. Of course, all kinds of other birds come in there. There will be big ducks in that area, but they’re mostly out there loafing at that time when they’re there. When they first started letting us hunt blue-winged teal— How long ago was that?
Ramsey Russell: I have no idea. Twenty or thirty years ago?
Terry Denmon: It wasn’t thirty, I don’t think, but it could have easily been twenty. But you could only kill four of them. Other than that, it was just about like it is today. We never made any preparations for it, back then. We didn’t have any blinds, and we didn’t go down and make habitat for them. That’s always been a place that had a lot of blue-winged teal. It’s a travel route for blue-winged teal, also, so we would just kind of go down there. We might even go down there the opening morning and see if we could kill something. It just got to be fun.
When we got into all this moist-soil waterfowl habitat management— If you’re going to be down there managing anyway, and they have a blue-winged teal season, and it’s easy for us to set up for it, then why not? It’s the first time we can shoot a duck in this part of the world. You go to Canada, September 1st, to shoot a duck. The blue-winged teal seasons are all, by federal framework, confined to the month of September as far as anywhere I’ve ever hunted them. I know that’s true as far north as Kansas and Missouri. I don’t know if they let you hunt them earlier anywhere else. I don’t think they do. Down here, we’re not going to shoot ducks till November. So let’s get out and shoot some ducks.
Ramsey Russell: I agree. And I think about this natural environment— Just take that property, natural like it is, and take the normal blue-winged teal migration. Just kind of how those two, blue-winged teal and sprangletop, again— It’s a late sprouter, so, if you think about it, some of the last water to evaporate is going to come up to the sprangletop. Further down the slope from that, it’s going to still be standing water, shallow water. That’s where those teal are going to hit, this time of year. I think that blue-wingeds, especially, like shallow water with grassy cover. They love it. It’s the perfect habitat for them. Let me ask you your thoughts on this. I think that we, as hunters and land managers in the duck business—I see this a lot, talking to landowners—tend to get wrapped around the axle on seed production, which I think is very important. No doubt the ducks are going to eat that seed. But what else you’ve got, is you’ve got a substrate that, when flooded during the winter, is no longer green. It’s dying, and it’s decaying. You’ve got a substrate for invertebrates that are high in protein and fat. Mallard ducks, at times, 40-50% of their diet will be invertebrates. Shovelers, maybe more. Some of the divers, maybe more.
Terry Denmon: You don’t shoot shovelers, do you?
Ramsey Russell: I’ve seen you shoot them, now, don’t start that line again. Y’all even got a shoveler decoy now, the world-famous spoonzilla!
Terry Denmon: We do. That’s when I started shooting them, is when I started making money off of them!
Benefit of invertebrates in moist-soil management for blue-winged teal waterfowl habitat
It’s all about invertebrates. It’s all about that.
Ramsey Russell: I know that a good standing crop of corn—not nubbin ears—just good, commercial corn is going to produce more calories, more duck use days, than some of the moist-soil vegetation, but it’s not going to produce that invertebrate biomass that is so important, I think, to ducks. Do you see the benefit in that, when you manage moist-soil vegetation?
Terry Denmon: Oh, absolutely. The hurricane just came through here, as we mentioned a while ago, and I was anxious to see what it did to some of my plants down there, especially where that sprangletop has grown up to near waist-high. That’s kind of unusual for it to grow that high. It had blown a lot of it over kind of in little areas. Not the whole field over, just a little air blowing over. You know how wind tends to do grass like that. When I looked at that, I said, “That’s not too bad, because sometimes I’ll go out there and see if I can roll that stuff.” It’s all about invertebrates. It’s all about that. The cornfield that you mentioned— If it’s a farmer’s cornfield, and you come in there behind the farmer, hunting—up North, they’ll let you hunt in some of them and then they’ll combine it later—that stuff is pretty clean. The only food out there, for the most part, is going to be that ear of corn. I’ve seen some places—Idaho comes immediately to mind—where a friend of mine—you know him too, Mike Plein—has some standing corn fields that they can hunt in. If it gets real cold, the ducks come to the cornfield. If it warms up 2°, they don’t come to the cornfield.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. What I’ve seen a lot of in utilization in the corn fields I’ve hunted in the Deep South, they’re using it as much for cover as they are for feeding. I have hunted and grown corn in the Deep South to where— You want to turn a duck hole into a night roost? Once they feed the corn out, they’re just coming there to roost. You see tons of them leaving at daylight, but they don’t come back until after shooting time. That’s no fun.
Terry Denmon: It kind of functions like, as we talked about, the coffeeweed. For those listeners out there that don’t know what coffeeweed is—technically it’s Sesbania. It’s a noxious plant to a farmer, I can tell you that. As Ramsey said, it will grow fifteen feet tall on our farm, down there, and its biomass—
Ramsey Russell: It will grow in a crack of concrete.
Terry Denmon: I always said, “Look, there’s so much biomass there, we need to figure out some way to harvest it and sell it.” But if we did, it’d all die the next day. We’d never grow another coffeeweed if it was valuable, dollar-wise valuable. But it is good duck cover, now. It will do that.
Ramsey Russell: My brother-in-law actually won a fifty-pound sack of sesbania seed from a Quail Unlimited banquet. All I can think is that maybe those seeds are available because somebody is growing them for plant fiber, like kenaf or something. Quail like that cover. He showed it to me, and I was like, “Don’t plant that on your farm. Get rid of it. Do not plant that on your farm. That’s opening up a bottle that you don’t want to open up.”
Terry Denmon: It’s worse than kudzu.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. It’d be just like kudzu. Don’t put that on your farm.
Terry Denmon: It grows those little beans. They’ll be four, five, six inches long. They may have, I don’t know, somewhere between six and ten little round seeds in there. By the time we hunt the big duck season in November, those have split open and dropped all those seeds in the water. They just float around, all down there, and replant themselves everywhere. They tell me that they last for years.
He said, “No, son, you’ve got all the seeds in the ground you’ll ever need.” That’s another good thing about managing moist-soil plants for waterfowl habitat. It doesn’t cost anything for seed.
Ramsey Russell: I would almost venture to guess that, in the soil bank, coffeeweed seed will last decades, if not centuries. It’s the hardest seed I’ve ever seen.
Terry Denmon: I told you this story when you were down there, but the first year we had this in the CRP, it had grown just sprangletop. Nothing but sprangletop. Of course, it had been farmed the year before, so it was disced and plowed. There was a lot of preparation made. There wasn’t anything competing with it. It kind of looked like a Kansas wheat field, out there. I asked one of those biologists, “You think I ought to get a combine and cut some of those seeds and save them?” He said, “No, son, you’ve got all the seeds in the ground you’ll ever need.” That’s another good thing about managing moist-soil plants or waterfowl habitat. It doesn’t cost anything for seed.
Blue-Winged Teal Hunting
Ramsey Russell: Let’s get back on track and talk about hunting down there. Talk about blue-winged teal hunting. We’ll talk about it there and elsewhere. How do y’all hunt blue-winged teal on that property? I see your videos that you post on what you’re doing and how you’re leaving some of that coffeeweed around your blind but tell people the normal set up for blue-winged teal and why you like it so much. I know I like it.
Terry Denmon: Well, there’s a lot of things to like about it and not much to dislike, other than the days they don’t show up. Because it is feast or famine. Blue-winged teal are migrating in the month of September, the last half of August and September. Now, with the warmer temperatures, you’re hearing reports of them being up in Canada in October. But, typically speaking, it’s a September migration through there, and they’re just kind of hopping. They’ll come to a place and stay some amount of time. I can’t tell you how much it is.
I know you can go down there and there’ll be a jillion of them today and none tomorrow, or you can go down there today and there won’t be any, and a bajillion of them tomorrow. Past that, it’s like a fun sport. It doesn’t take us hardly anything to do it because everything that we’re going to do, to hunt blue-winged teal, we were going to do anyway. Except, we wouldn’t probably pump water—like we’re pumping water right now, this is the first of September—we probably wouldn’t pump that water till probably October. Other than that, that’s all we’re doing. We’re going to pump it anyway, so why not pump it early? Other than that, we just flood that 75 or 80 acres, whatever it is. We own a migration route. They’re just coming right overhead of us. Basically, it’s just: go blue-winged teal hunting. It’s either going to happen, or it’s not going to happen. As you said before, they’ll decoy to most any kind of decoy. Now, we do use blue-winged teal decoys, because I think that might give you an edge. It might not, but why not? We have them. Why not use them?
Ramsey Russell: Birds of a feather flock together. I use blue-winged teal decoys, too.
Terry Denmon: They’re very attracted to spinning-wing decoys. They’re very attracted to water movement. They can notice that water movement from so far off, and they’re just going to come to it because it looks like other ducks are in there doing something. It’s going to happen the first couple hours of the morning. If you’re going to go blue-winged teal hunting, you’d better be there at legal shooting time. You could miss the whole hunt if you’re not. We’re going to get into the blind well before legal shooting time. It’s a good hunt to take kids on, women—non-hunters. One of the biggest problems we have in the hunting world—and you and I have talked about that before—is we only preach to the choir. All of our media—print media, TV media, social media, YouTube media—it’s all targeted towards hunters. We don’t target any of it towards non-hunters. As a result of that, we haven’t done a good job, over the years, of recruiting new hunters. In fact, we’ve been losing them, as you well know. That’s kind of plateaued out on the bottom.
Ramsey Russell: On those days that you’re not going to shoot as many ducks, for whatever reason, it’s a lot easier to entertain somebody that doesn’t hunt, or is just getting into hunting, on a nice, warm morning than it is when it’s -30º, snowing, and raining.
Terry Denmon: September down here, where me and you are, is usually going to be pretty warm. We have little blinds that we skid in place. We can go out there and stand in them coffeeweeds, and I’ve done it plenty of times—you have to—and do just as well, but we make those little, old blinds and skid them out there. It gives a good, comfortable place if you want to take women, children, girls, whatever. It’s going to make it a little easier for them. As you know, standing in the mud can get to be tiring, and there’s no place to put your bag and prop your gun up against something. Other than that, that’s about all we do. Most days, we’re going to kill blue-winged teal. There are going to be some days you’re just going to catch them between those migration groups, and there’s just not going to be blue-winged teal at your location.
Blue-winged teal hunting is all about migrational timing
Ramsey Russell: Some days more than others. What amazes me about the continental population of blue-wingeds—and I think it’s what attracts me like a moth to a flame about blue-winged teal hunting—is that hit-or-miss timing. There’s always a chance, because the North American population of blue-winged teal is doing really good. Those birds migrate on photoperiod. They migrate by the calendar, and they’re trucking down to Mexico, down into Central America. Some of them have missed the invisible boundaries and ended up down in northern Argentina. We’ve shot them. But at the same time those birds may be down in coastal Texas, there’s still a pile of them up in Canada. What you’re looking at is, it’s not like on April 13th, all the birds lay an egg at one time. They come, and they breed over a period of time. I’ve said this and observed this, that you can judge the stage of the migration—where you are on this big, long, continent-wide migration corridor—by just looking at the ducks. Looking at the composition of blue-winged adult males and juveniles. Normally, at the front of blue-winged teal migration, it’s going to be predominantly adult drakes. Then there’s going to be some adult blue-winged teal hens that either didn’t breed because they were too old or just didn’t pair off, or lost their clutch, whatever. They’re migrating, too. But then come the stragglers. The first wave of hens and juvies are going to be the early hatch, followed by the later, later, later, until you’ve got the tail end. They’ll come in pulses. It’s always a chance. It’s always a chance that you’re going to catch blue-winged teal. Obviously, we’re pre-recording this episode. Blue-winged Teal season will be underway, here in the Deep South, when folks hear this conversation.
Here we are, 2nd of September. It’s a full moon. I stepped out of my house this morning. It’s Mississippi on September 2nd, but it felt different. It felt a lot different even than yesterday. Just felt a little drier. I know from talking to buddies and looking at weather reports that we’ve got some cool fronts coming for Mississippi. We’ve got some 70º in the forecast, and that’s going to hasten those birds along. We’ll also see some green-winged teal. We’ll see a few pintails. We’ll see a few shovelers. We’ll catch some migratory wood ducks around that time of year. Can’t shoot them, but, still, those birds are coming, too. Having that habitat for blue-winged teal on your property, to me, enhances that. Hey, there’s some habitat that I can make a living on until big duck season opens. It certainly doesn’t hurt. I think it’s a good thing. It’s a win-win deal to manage for teal in anticipation of those big ducks coming.
Terry Denmon: Oh, absolutely. It gets imprinted on their brain, and now, as you pointed out, there’ll be blue-winged teal here during the regular big duck season. It’s already imprinted on their brain. Plus, yesterday was a full moon. September 1st. Even though our blue-winged teal season here doesn’t start until the 12th, I believe it is; up North where they’re coming from, there’s a full moon up there, too. And the cold front coming, that’s all the natural ingredients to start a heavier than normal migration.
Blue-winged teal migrational corridors
Ramsey Russell: I learned something real interesting. You, Mike Morgan, some biologists— You and Mike Morgan got me thinking this. Steve Biggers confirmed it. If you had asked me, even five or six years ago, how those blue-winged teal are migrating from Saskatchewan through Mississippi to, say, Mexico, I would have said, “They’re flying down to Venice, Louisiana, getting snacked up and powered up, and shooting across the Gulf.” That ain’t necessarily the case at all. I ain’t saying a wind won’t blow them and one won’t get crazy and try it, or that some won’t do it regularly, but that’s not what they’re doing. There’s a big corridor, starting in the west Mississippi Gulf Coast, all the way along the bottom of Louisiana, that’s all coastal marsh. Most blue-winged teal that hit the east side of it start hopping through the marsh. It’s like a funnel. They all come out towards El Campo, Texas, where Biggers is. Terry, do you remember the story you told me one time? You and Mike were hunting somewhere, and y’all told me this. There was supposed to have been a bunch of blue-winged teal, but there wasn’t. You bumped into a biologist, and then he said something. What?
Terry Denmon: We were hunting with Honey Brake. We hunted on the farm. Then one morning, we went to Catahoula Lake. Of course, you’re well-acquainted with Catahoula Lake. It’s a large, shallow-water lake, for those people that don’t know, in central Louisiana. Our farm is about 25 miles northeast of Catahoula Lake by air. Honey Brake’s about 25 miles southeast of Catahoula Lake by air. We’re both on the same big river, the Ouachita River, that goes through there. We went out with Drew Keith and them on the Catahoula Lake. When we came in, there was a federal biologist and a state game warden at the boat dock. We got to talking with them. The game warden looked at our birds. The federal guy was doing bird flu, or something. He was checking birds for bird flu, or something like that. We had lost a lot of blue-wingeds teal in that whole area. There had been a bunch, and in the last few days they were down. That game warden told us that there was a big farm—he wouldn’t tell us which one it was, but I’m pretty sure I knew which one it was—that, one day, they counted 4,500 or 6,500 blue-winged teal on that one farm. The front came through, and the next morning there were 600 on that whole farm. Gone. They’re kind of like dove, a little bit. The weather will move them pretty easily. You know how dove is. A weather change can— If you’ve got a lot of doves, you’re probably going to lose them. If you don’t have many, you might be getting some more.
Ramsey Russell: They hop. They get down in that marsh, and they re-adjust their bearings West, and they’ll get down to around Galveston Bay. Then, they’ve got all that Katy Prairie rice ground still down there. A lot of those guys are ratoon cropping, second cropping rice. They’ve got a smorgasbord of water and habitat. Then they hop over the border, and they’re in Mexico. That, to me, is fascinating.
Best blue-winged teal hunting in the U.S.
To this day, I’ve never seen that many blue-winged teal. I would count it as one of the three or four top spectacles of ducks in the air at one time I have ever seen in my life. It was just wave after wave after wave. Tens of thousands of blue-winged teal flying over.
Ramsey Russell: There’s a lot of excellent blue-winged teal hunting down in Texas. I would say coastal Texas has as good of blue-winged teal hunts, day in and day out. Southwest Louisiana and coastal Texas have got as good blue-winged teal hunting, day in and day out, as anyone in the country. Just in my experienced opinion, the places I’ve been. Nobody does blue-winged teal hunting better than Steve Biggers.
Terry Denmon: All that area he’s in, from El Campo to Eagle Lake. All that area there, like you say, it’s a rice-growing country. Does that second growth rice. Mike and I were on a blue-winged teal hunt with Steve Biggers in the first few years we hunted with him, and we went dove hunting that afternoon. We were in a field with a bunch of other dove hunters that we didn’t know. Here comes the game warden, around on a four-wheeler, checking people’s licenses. He came up to us, and I said, “You want to see my license?” “No, I know you guys got a license.” He didn’t check ours, but we got to talking to him. He said, “Yeah, that has built over the years because of the change of the use of the land and things like that.” He said, “This is really the blue-winged teal capital of the world, now.”
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, it is. There’s no doubt. I’ve just got to tell this story. I went down there with you, and Mike, and I think our buddy Skip Knowles was there.
Terry Denmon: Was that the time you wouldn’t give your son any shells after he shot out?
Ramsey Russell: No. He shot out. He’s S-O-L. He knows to bring enough bullets. I raised him, now. That’s a tough lesson to learn, if he forgets bullets. Anyway, we were down there teal hunting. We were driving into a rice farm, and it was ratoon crop. They’d harvested the rice and timed the water just right to get a second crop. So you had water and cover in this harvested rice field. I was sitting there talking to the landowner’s son, who was driving the buggy going in, and we got to where we were going to walk down the rice field levee and set up. Forrest said, “Did you see all those teal?” I go, “No, it’s pitch black. What are you talking about?” He said, “It was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen.” I go, “Really?” He goes, “Dad, I ain’t never seen nothing like that.” He was just sitting in the back, looking out in the rice fields as we were driving. He said he’d never seen anything like it. Well, we get on that rice field. Steve was like, “Oh, y’all just stay right there. I’m going to put out decoys, and we’re going to get set up.” Forrest points, and I started looking to the East. It’s dark, way before shooting time, but looking at the East, where the sky was red— To this day, I’ve never seen that many blue-winged teal. I would count it as one of the three or four top spectacles of ducks in the air at one time I have ever seen in my life. It was just wave after wave after wave. Tens of thousands of blue-winged teal flying over.
We sat in a blind and chit-chatted and waited on it to get light enough to shoot. You knew when shooting time was because it sounded—across as far as the human ear could hear—it sounded like World War III had erupted. Steve Biggers was like, “We’re 30 minutes to 45 minutes.” We’ll catch them on the way back, and we did. About 30, 45 minutes later, when those birds started coming back from wherever they’d been, we just started beating them.
Terry Denmon: We’re always filming. I don’t get to go hunting anymore unless I’m filming, and blue-winged teal is a bit of a problem. When you need to be shooting them, at the first legal time that you can shoot them, there’s not always enough light to film. If we ever have anybody with us that’s not used to filming in a blind, they just can’t hardly take it. Just to stand there while them blue-winged teal are just buzzing the decoys and landing in the decoys and getting up and flying. We say, “No, no, we can’t shoot yet. Wait a minute.”
Ramsey Russell: Well, if you’re making a TV show and you shoot one before you can film it, it really don’t count.
Terry Denmon: It don’t. Yeah, it really don’t. I’ve been on a lot of blue-winged teal hunts where we were through by the time you got enough light to film.
Side-bar: Best teal hunting in Argentina
Ramsey Russell: That’s one of the toughest things. I was trying to film down there in Argentina with Diego, at Las Flores. Those birds are just flocking in, and you can see to shoot but you can’t see to record good. That’s tough.
Terry Denmon: Diego does not have restraint, either. I remember, one year, we weren’t going to go hunting with Diego. Said, “No, Diego, we ain’t going hunting with you because we can’t shoot to this film time. You just stand there going, ‘Shoot, shoot, shoot!’ and we ain’t going hunting with you.” He said, “Okay, I’ll do better this year.” He didn’t do a bit better
Ramsey Russell: Uh-uh. He can’t stand it.
Terry Denmon: He can’t take it. He grabbed the gun out of somebody’s hand and started shooting at the ducks.
Ramsey Russell: You would think a man that sees 40,000 or 50,000 ducks a year die would be chill about it, but he wants to shoot those ducks.
Terry Denmon: He loves it. You know his family is well-off. He doesn’t have to be in the outfitting business. He’s in the outfitting business because he wants to, and he likes it. That’s the best outfitter in the world, right there. One more thing I thought about when you were talking a while ago; I hunt a whole lot in far-west Texas. That little part of Texas that’s wrapped up under New Mexico. It’s mountainous. It’s the northern end of the Mexican, Chihuahuan Desert. I used to do an antelope hunt out there for that ranch. I did their antelope hunt for them, and I’d have quite a few antelope hunters out there. That’s kind of the time of year when it can be rainy. I have seen blue-winged teal more than once—more than one year, many years—in a mud hole in the middle of the road in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Ramsey Russell: It doesn’t take much, does it? It really doesn’t take much. I want to say they’re one of my favorite species. I said that, that morning sitting on the bank next to Steve Biggers. I said, “Yeah, I think blue-winged teal is a favorite species.” Mike Morgan said, “He’s lying, Steve. The next duck in the decoy is his favorite duck.”
Learn More: Teal Hunting Worldwide
Terry Denmon: I was going to say that your favorite species is whatever is available at the moment.
Ramsey Russell: Anyway. Folks, thank y’all for listening to Duck Season Somewhere. I hope your blue-winged teal season’s going good. We’ve been speaking with Mr. Terry Denmon, of Mojo Outdoors, about blue-winged teal hunting and especially about some of the excellent habitat management, natural moist-soil vegetation management, that he’s doing down on his property. Duck Season Somewhere. I’ll see you next week.