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- Wildlife Management
Harvesting wild rice in Wisconsin
Each year, more and more people are attracted to the joys of wild rice harvesting. Through the collection of wild rice, harvesters are able to explore the best of Wisconsin, collect their own food, support the local economy and help to ensure that this important plant remains available for all - people and wildlife - who depend upon, enjoy and appreciate its bounty. So whether you're newly introduced to wild rice harvesting or a life-long harvester, this page is designed to help provide the information you need to enjoy wild rice harvesting.
What is wild rice?
Wild rice is an annual aquatic grass that produces seed that is a delicious and nutritious source of food for wildlife and people. The seed matures in August and September with the ripe seed dropping into the sediment, unless harvested by humans or wildlife. Seeds on a single stalk reach maturity over a 10-14 day period, with the highest seeds maturing first.
Habitat requirements for wild rice are fairly specific; wild rice grows best in gently flowing waters with a mucky or organic bottom and in areas with relatively stable water levels during the growing season, with a water depth between six inches and three feet. Often, these areas are near the inlet or outlet of a lake.
Season information and date-regulated lakes
Because wild rice ripens at a gradual, uneven rate, rice can be harvested repeatedly during the season, which may extend two to three weeks on a particular lake. Different water bodies typically ripen at slightly different times, so the harvest season may last four to five weeks overall, weather dependent. Ripening is also affected by sediment type, water depth and other factors. An acre of good rice beds can yield over 500 pounds of seed, but hand harvesting will only capture about 10 to 15 percent of this amount.
It is illegal to harvest or gather wild rice in any area of the state of Wisconsin between sunset and 10 a.m. On lakes not subject to a specific wild rice season and on all flowages, rivers and streams, rice may be harvested whenever it ripens. On many of the prime wild rice waters throughout northern Wisconsin rice may only be harvested during the open season. Wisconsin DNR and representatives of area Chippewa Tribes cooperate to determine when rice on specific navigable lakes is ripe. The department, with input from respective Chippewa rice chiefs, will determine when the season is open for harvesting or gathering wild rice on a specific lake. Notices of when lakes are open are posted on the lakeshores at places of public access at least 24 hours before the beginning of the season.
View the status of regulated lakes on the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission page .
- Rules and regulations
Only Wisconsin residents may harvest wild rice in the state. Harvesters age 17-64 must purchase and possess a wild rice harvesting license for $8.25 annually. Immediate family members (spouse and minor-age children residing in the same household as the license holder) may harvest rice under the same permit as long as the other family members have received special wild ricing identification. Those buying quantities of wild rice for resale or importation as well as those processing wild rice for others or processing wild rice for sale to others must annually purchase a wild rice buyers license.
Harvesters are limited to gathering wild rice in boats no longer than seventeen feet and no wider than 38 inches that must be propelled by muscular power using paddles or push poles. The grain is still harvested by hand using wooden sticks (flails) that bend the tall stalks over the canoe. As the seed heads are tapped, some rice falls in the canoe and some in the water to seed the rice bed for future years. The flails must be rounded wooden rods or sticks no more than 38 inches long and hand-operated. Harvesting should be done gently so that the stalks and beds can be harvested again as more rice matures.
A wild rice dealer license is required:
- of anyone who buys wild rice within the state for resale to anyone except consumers;
- to sell wild rice imported from outside of the state to anyone within the state except consumers; and
- to process wild rice not harvested by the processor himself or herself for resale by the processor to any other person.
Wild rice dealer's license fees vary based on the quantity of wild rice the license applicant intends to purchase. Wild rice dealers have to keep records of all wild rice bought, sold or processed during the period covered by their license. The records must include the date of each transaction, the names and addresses of all other parties to the transaction and the amount of wild rice involved, whether raw or processed.
Summary of harvest rules
Wild rice may only be harvested from any navigable waters:
- in boats that are no longer than 17 feet and no wider than 38 inches;
- in boats that are only propelled by muscle power using a push-pole or canoe paddle;
- with smooth, rounded, wooden rods or sticks that are not longer than 38 inches. The sticks must be operated by hand; and
- between the hours of 10 a.m. and sunset.
It is illegal to use any mechanical device in any water of the state for harvesting or gathering wild rice. The DNR and many partner groups work to prevent the spread of invasive species in Wisconsin's waters, including our important rice beds. Learn about aquatic invasive species and how to prevent them from spreading.
- Ecological importance
Growing a community: wild rice and the benefits to wildlife
Though recognized as a prized food source for Native Americans, both historically and today, few people are aware of the importance of wild rice to many of Wisconsin’s wildlife species. Capable of producing over 500 pounds of seed per acre, wild rice provides a nutrient-rich food source, offers refuge from predators and increases the overall vegetation structure on the landscape, in turn enhancing biodiversity.
Wild rice is most-often known for its importance to fall-migrating waterfowl. Mallard, blue-winged teal, ring-necked duck and wood duck consume wild rice, as do many other waterfowl species. In fact, a study conducted in wild rice country found the plant to be the most important food source for mallards during fall migration. In addition to a food source, wild rice provides several species of breeding ducks, Canada geese and trumpeter swans with a place to roost and loaf, and offers brood cover for their young. Because wild rice tends to occur in areas of gently flowing water, spring melt tends to expose these areas first, and the rice seed bank and associated invertebrate populations serve as a valuable food source for waterfowl during spring migration.
Common loons, red-necked grebes and muskrats commonly use wild rice for nesting materials. Muskrats forage heavily on the green shoots of wild rice during the spring. The presence of muskrats enhance the use of rice beds by some waterfowl species due to the small openings created amid dense cover. Additionally, muskrat houses are used as nesting sites by trumpeter swans and Canada geese, as perching sites for herons and eagles, and as sunning areas for turtles. Other species that forage on wild rice include beaver, white-tailed deer and moose.
A rich community of insects—both terrestrial and aquatic—is found among wild rice, providing a bountiful food source for blackbirds, bobolinks, rails and wrens. Wild rice is also a source of food for amphibian and fish populations, which in turn attract loons, herons and mink.
Wild rice beds exist as places of high biological diversity with numerous benefits that extend throughout the food chain. Protecting important areas where wild rice thrives will help ensure the persistence of many of Wisconsin’s wildlife for all to enjoy.
- Cultural importance
The cultural importance of wild rice
Wild rice remains a culturally important plant, serving as an essential food source to people and the wildlife they enjoy. It also marks the time of the year to gather in celebration, give thanks and reflect on all this plant provides to the communities in which it grows. While the tie to wild rice for non-tribal residents of the state is relatively new, Native American Tribes in Wisconsin have a long standing connection to wild rice that goes beyond nutrition.
For example, according to Ojibwe oral tradition, the Ojibwe people’s long journey westward from the East Coast followed an instruction to locate the place where “the food grows on the water.” This instruction eventually led the Ojibwe people to the shores of Lake Superior and the northern lakes of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin where wild rice was as plentiful as the wildlife that depend on it.
Viewed as a gift from the Creator, the ability to store wild rice (manoomin in Ojibwe) for long periods of time to use when other food sources were less plentiful made wild rice a staple of the Ojibwe diet. The Rice Making Moon (the month of August) signaled the impending wild rice harvest season and was a time for great celebration. Today wild rice remains an important cultural and spiritual component of tribal ceremonies.
To non-tribal residents of Wisconsin, interest in harvesting wild rice continues to grow along with recognition of the plant’s importance to many of Wisconsin’s wildlife species. Continued and growing interest in harvesting wild rice helps ensure the persistence and respect for this plant and the natural community it supports.
Wild rice questions & answers
Who can harvest wild rice in Wisconsin?
Only legal residents of the state of Wisconsin can harvest wild rice within the state.
Do I need a wild rice license or permit to harvest wild rice in Wisconsin?
If you are a resident of Wisconsin between (and including) the ages of 17 and 64 you must purchase a "Wild Rice Harvester" license to harvest wild rice. However, if you are between the ages of 17 and 64 and occupy the same domicile as a family member that has purchased a wild rice harvesting license for the same year, you may obtain a "Wild Rice ID Card" free of charge to harvest wild rice.
Where can I get a Wild Rice Harvester License or ID card?
Wild rice harvest permits and identification cards may be obtained at any DNR license agent location throughout the state. For a listing of license agent locations near you, visit the DNR home page at dnr.wi.gov and search for “license agent.” Licenses and permits may also be ordered through the DNR's "Licenses, permits and registration" online system. From the DNR home page, search for "License." Licenses and permits may also be ordered over the phone, by calling 1-888-WDNRINFo (1-888-936-7463).
What type of activities would require someone to obtain a harvest permit or ID card?
Only activities involved in the direct collection of rice would require one of these permits. This includes those who propel the vessel used in the collection of rice (i.e. push-polers or paddlers), and those who collect the rice with wooden sticks or rods. Those involved in shore operations, such as bagging rice, are not required to hold a license or ID card for wild rice harvest.
Are there other activities related to wild rice harvesting that would require a permit?
A wild rice dealer license is required:
- of anyone who buys wild rice within the state for resale to anyone except consumers;
- to sell wild rice imported from outside of the state to anyone within the state except consumers; and
- to process wild rice not harvested by the processor for resale to any other person.
Wild rice dealer license fees vary based on the quantity of wild rice the license applicant intends to purchase. Wild rice dealers must keep records of all wild rice bought, sold or processed during the period covered by their license. The records must include the date of each transaction, the names and addresses of all other parties to the transaction and the amount of wild rice involved, whether raw or processed. Contact WDNR at 1-888-WDNRINFo (1-888-936-7463) for details or to obtain the appropriate permit.
Do I need a life jacket to harvest wild rice?
Each person in a canoe or boat partaking in wild rice harvest activities must have an approved personal flotation device (PFD).
Are there limits to the type of vessel I can use to harvest wild rice?
Yes. Boats and canoes cannot be longer than 17 feet and cannot be wider than 38 inches. Additionally, boats and canoes must be propelled by muscular power using a push-pole or canoe paddle; mechanical propulsion is not permitted when harvesting wild rice.
Are there limits to how wild rice is collected?
Yes. Wild rice shall be collected using smooth, rounded, wooden rods or sticks, which cannot exceed 38 inches in length. It is illegal to use any mechanical device in any water of the state for harvesting or gathering wild rice.
Is there a proper technique for harvesting wild rice?
The traditional technique of the harvester is to gently pull the rice plants over the canoe/boat with one stick, and gently rake the seed heads over the canoe with the stick from the opposite hand. If significant force or striking is needed to remove the seeds, the rice is not ready to be picked and needs additional time to mature. If the stems of the rice are bending or breaking, then too much force is being applied with the sticks. There are several rice kernels on each plant that will mature at different times throughout the season. It is advised to leave the plants in good condition after going through a rice bed so the remaining rice seeds can mature, ensuring a future harvester can harvest the same rice bed days or weeks later. If you quickly find that few or no seeds are falling from the plants, the stand is likely immature and not ready for harvest.
Are there limits to the amount of wild rice I can harvest in a day or throughout the season?
I have found tall wild rice that extends several feet above the water. Can I harvest this type of rice?
There are two species of wild rice found in Wisconsin; one that is often referred to as “northern rice,” and the other is often referred to as “southern” or “river rice.” Northern wild rice is usually shorter in height, but contains larger seeds. Northern wild rice is typically found in the northern half of the state in lakes and flowages and is the most common type harvested. Southern rice is a taller plant commonly found in river bottoms, but has smaller seeds. Southern rice plants will often stick 5 feet or greater out of the water, making harvest more difficult. Wisconsin laws do not make a distinction between northern and southern rice for harvest purposes.
Where can I get ricing sticks?
Ricing sticks, also referred to as flails, rods or knockers, are relatively easy to make. Seasoned wild rice harvesters typically recommend a soft type of wood such as cedar or balsam. The straightest wood will make harvesting easier. Remove the bark and sand the rest of the wood. Be sure the total finished length is no longer than 38 inches. Wooden dowels from the hardware store can serve as a legal harvesting tool. The ends of sticks should be rounded off to minimize damage to the rice plants. Some businesses or individuals may sell ricing sticks that they have made.
Where can I get a push pole?
Push poles can be hand-made or purchased. The end of the push pole that pushes into the substrate of the water is usually forked or flared, providing additional surface area to prevent the pole from sinking too deeply into the mud. Poles can sometimes be purchased at an outdoor sporting goods store, usually in the duck hunting or boating section. Some ricers will craft their own pole with natural, durable wood by removing branches and sanding the wood. If the end of the wood is not naturally forked, ricers may purchase a device to mount to the end, such as a metal duck bill. Push poles will often reach or exceed the length of the boat.
When is the best time of year to harvest wild rice?
The maturity of wild rice seeds can vary between water bodies. Typically, the first half of September is the peak time for rice maturity for harvest on most waters. Wild rice seeds will mature at different rates, which will provide multiple opportunities to pick rice on a bed over the course of a few weeks when rice is harvested properly. By October, most rice will have been harvested by others, or will have dropped in the water. When you are able to harvest may depend if the water of interest is date-regulated.
Are there restrictions to when I can harvest wild rice?
Depending on where you harvest wild rice, there are restrictions that limit when you can harvest wild rice. Within the Ceded Territory in northern Wisconsin, some wild rice-producing lakes are date-regulated. Open harvest seasons on date-regulated waters will be in effect for 60 days once opened. Waters of the state which are not date-regulated may be harvested any time of the year when the rice is ripe. Rice may only be harvested (date-regulated and non-date-regulated waters) between the hours of 10 a.m. and sunset.
How do I know if a lake is date-regulated for harvesting wild rice?
The DNR works with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission to determine when lakes are ready for harvest. Date-regulated lakes will be indicated through the GLIFWC website, by visiting the "wild rice (Manoomin)" link, then the "Manoomin Harvest Outlook & Regulations" link. Boat landings of date-regulated lakes will be posted with the opening date for harvest at least 24 hours prior to the opening. For more information, contact DNR. Some lakes may be posted as "closed" to wild rice harvest for an entire season if there is an insufficient crop or if environmental protection measures are needed.
Where else can I find information on which water bodies contain wild rice?
Wetland and Wetland Indicators mapping tools are available to delineate known wild rice waters in the state.
- View the Wetland and Wetland Indicators map.
- Click Show Layers button – Expand the Wetlands and Soils Folder[+]
- Turn on Wild Rice layer
- Zoom in to desired part of state
Note – This mapping layer is not a comprehensive inclusion of all waters that contain wild rice in the state. Many of the wild rice waters shown on the map may not have significant amounts of wild rice for harvest purposes. Scouting on known rice waters and information gathering from local rice harvesters will be key toward an adequate rice harvest.
Can I harvest wild rice in a flowage, stream, river or waterway (other than a lake) that is surrounded by private land?
Although the State of Wisconsin owns many of the lakebeds throughout the state, thus permitting public harvest of wild rice, landowner permission may be required to harvest rice from the beds of privately owned waterbodies, including certain rivers, streams and flowages. Additionally, certain publicly owned beds of rivers, streams and flowages (including DNR properties) may require specific permission from the appropriate federal, state, or county property manager; consult local property records for more information.
Are there any other limitations on where I can harvest wild rice?
Wild rice harvest on waters within Native American reservations is typically limited to tribal members. Non-tribal citizens of the state must consult with designated tribal authorities on the reservation to seek permission to harvest on the reservation.
What do I do with the rice after it's been harvested?
Once harvested, wild rice is in the green or unfinished stage, which means there is sheath covering the grain which needs to be removed. Wild rice must be processed or “finished” by removing the protective sheath before it is consumable. The finishing process involves drying, parching, hulling and winnowing (removal of the sheath). It is often recommended to bring rice to an experienced finisher for processing. Wild rice harvesters will often bag their harvest in mesh sacks before transporting it. Wild rice harvesters are advised not to leave green rice bagged for too long or it may begin to mold. Finishers usually request a cash payment or collection of a portion of the harvest as in-kind payment for their services. For a list of finishers (processors), contact the GLIFWC office or contact the DNR for more information.
Can I plant wild rice seeds?
Yes. Only unfinished (unprocessed) rice will germinate. You may use your harvest to plant a new section on the same water body, or take it to another lake. Permission to plant must be granted by a land owner or land manager in cases of a privately owned bed, such as within a river or privately owned flowage. Wild rice is planted by hand broadcasting into the water. Wild rice will germinate the best in waters that contain a very gentle flow, a mucky or organic bottom, and in areas that have relatively stable water levels during the growing season, with a water depth between six inches and three feet. If wild rice is not planted immediately, it is advised to contain it in grain sacks submerged in water until ready for planting. Planting during the fall, especially the latter part of fall before ice formation is ideal. You may also purchase wild rice seed from certain nurseries that sell it. It is not advised to plant commercially grown wild rice (paddy rice).
- Stories from the field
First time harvesters
This fall my wife Becky and I decided to try harvesting wild rice for the first time. We love fishing, hunting, berry picking, harvesting wild leeks, raising chickens, and gardening, so being able to harvest our own rice fit right into our northern Wisconsin lifestyle. But this was a totally new experience for both of us so we had a lot to learn beforehand. Fortunately my coworker Russ was a rice harvesting veteran who was happy not just to share information, but also his equipment. Russ was just coming off of a major hip surgery; this would be the first ricing season he would be missing in a long time. He brought in a beautiful pair of cedar ricing sticks for us to borrow. These simple pieces of wood carried quite a backstory. We learned that they were given to him and his wife, a Native American tribal member, as a wedding present from the Rice Chief of their tribe. And so, long before we ever hit the water, we established in our minds the spiritual connection between this resource and the native people in our area that have relied on it for so long.
The next step in our preparation involved getting a license. We were very pleased to find out that one $8 license covered our whole household and the process to get the license was very simple. There are regulations on the size of canoe and sticks that can be used, we checked the DNR website for that information. For equipment we used a 14 foot canoe, two life jackets of course, paddles, a push pole, a dust pan with a small broom, and large plastic lined feed bags.
We picked a beautifully, sunny, September afternoon for our first trip. And when we showed up to the lake the parking lot looked more like Walmart than a remote landing in northern Wisconsin. We quickly learned that when the rice is falling, word travels fast and people show up, particularly on nice days. But as we unloaded the canoe we were met with smiling faces at the launch. There was no attitude of competitiveness or propriety. There seemed to be enough rice at this location to go around for anyone willing to put in the time. A couple boats were coming out with big golden piles of rice, certainly a good sign.
As we slipped away from the launch and into the expanse of rice plants the whole world got much smaller. Our visibility dropped to about 30 feet and it immediately felt like we were the only ones on the lake. Now we had to get down to the business of figuring out what we were supposed to be doing! Russ had given us a demo and we’d watched a few clips online, but until you got the sticks in our hands and the plants next to the boat it’s hard to figure out the exact motion. Becky was in charge of collecting the rice. She sat in the front of the canoe, facing the middle as I slowly propelled us through the rice. I used the paddles in thin patches, the push pole when things got thick. She bent over a cluster of stems with one stick and rapped them gently with the other. The sound of the first few grains of rice pattering down on the bottom of the canoe was very rewarding and exciting.
As we went along that afternoon we learned a lot about the process of ricing that can probably be best learned with first hand experience. Becky perfected her technique for harvesting the rice. I was challenged to figure out the best pace for us to move at. We both noticed a “patchiness” to where the rice was ripe and ready to fall and where it was still green. Rice along edges of openings and in thinner stands seemed to be more ripe on this particular day. Some dense patches were still very green and yielded only a few grains for every stroke, while others sent down a shower of rice. We speculated about why that was occurring for most of the afternoon but never solved the puzzle.
We learned that any opening in your clothing, even tiny, is going to get absolutely filled with rice. We thought we were prepared for this. But several months later I am still finding rice grains in the lining of my shoes. This concept was hilariously illustrated by a man at the launch who had about three meals worth of rice that had landed in his shirt pocket. Rice worms were another topic of concern headed into the day. Becky is a tough farm girl, but still isn’t crazy about the idea of wormy buggy things crawling on her. As general practice I prefer to be worm-free as well. But at least in this year our concerns were overblown. We saw a handful of rice worms (which look a lot like an inch worm), harmlessly wriggling around in the boat, but they did not become a factor in the enjoyment of our day.
The afternoon went by quickly as we chatted and slowly built up a little pile of rice in the bottom of the canoe. When we arrived back at the launch all the other cars were gone. Becky used the little broom to neatly pile the rice while I used the dustpan to scoop it onto a bag. We had no gauge as to what was a good haul (we later found out this was a pretty small amount) but we were proud of our rice and happy with how we’d spent this beautiful day. After a few more trips and some time to let it dry the rice was off to the processor. Then a couple weeks later we received two big beautiful bags of long grain wild rice to enjoy over the winter and share with family and friends. Ricing was a great way to spend some of the last days of a short summer before the snow and cold arrived. We’ll certainly be eager to go again next fall. But in the meantime, we have a lot of new recipes to try!
Northland Pines Middle School
In the fall of 2014, Northland Pines Middle School students had the opportunity to experience a traditional Native American cultural activity first hand. 7th and 8th grade students from Native American Cultures class and the Science of Food class harvested wild rice on an Eagle River area lake. Their trip was part of a collaborative effort to learn more about wild rice harvesting processes and traditional Native American activities.
Students launched canoes upstream and paddled several scenic miles to reach the ricing grounds. They were guided by local naturalist Gary Milanowski. Students learned how to paddle and steer canoes and saw an abundance of wildlife along the way. Once the students reached the rice beds they were instructed how to harvest wild rice. Students then collected rice using ricing sticks they gathered themselves.
Harvested rice was brought to school where it was parched by the students. Students then put surgical slippers over their shoes to hull the parched rice in a plastic tub. Students then winnowed the rice and were left with beautiful, edible wild rice. Students also learned the nutritional information of wild rice through the school’s Farm to School program. The rice was then prepared by the students as part of a traditional Native American meal to celebrate the many events these students have participated in together.