NEWS ARCHIVE:     Age: 3,650 days

See This Full Issue

All Previous Archived Issues


August 21, 2012

MADISON - As fall approaches, people who participate in the ageless annual harvest of wild rice or "manoomin" are readying canoes, paddles and baskets. Wild rice is typically found in northern Wisconsin in shallow portions of lakes, river beds, flowages and gently flowing waters.

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission annually assesses the wild rice crop using aerial surveys and says rice pickers are going to have to hunt for good rice beds this year.

"Wild rice abundance is influenced by a number of factors, which vary in effect from year to year," says Peter David, wildlife biologist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission in Odanah. "An early, warm spring allowed for early germination, but heavy rain events appear to have had negative impacts at some sites. In addition, the broad distribution of poor beds suggests other factors may be involved as well. This year seems to fit the pattern that has been observed anecdotally of poor crops following mild winters."

While a few scattered beds look pretty good, the over-all crop looks quite poor, especially in northwest Wisconsin, David says. "Interestingly, beds in east-central Minnesota are in even worse shape; rice pickers and waterfowl alike are going to have to hunt for good beds this year."

Rice crops on individual sites may also be harmed by high water levels due to deliberate water level manipulation or by beaver dams.

"Wild rice harvests can vary widely from year to year and from site to site," said Jason Fleener, Wisconsin's assistant wetland habitat specialist. "Rice gatherers are encouraged to inspect the waters they are interested in early to see if there will be appreciable harvest opportunities when rice is ripe."

Fleener says that ricers may also want to speak with local ricers, tribal officials, or DNR biologists to get a perspective on good rice waters for the season.

"For most people, however, just the ritual of rice collecting on Wisconsin's beautiful fall waters is worth the time and feeds the soul," he says.

Most rice waters across the state have public access sites for launching canoes. However, in some cases ricers may need to request permission from private land owners to access certain sites.

The wild rice resource

Not only is wild rice culturally significant to Native American people and others, it is an important food source for migrating waterfowl and other migratory birds. Fleener noted that it is critical for private land owners, boaters and anglers to know how to identify wild rice and how to protect it from destruction. "It is also important that ricers harvest rice responsibly to ensure the sustainability of the resource," he says.

Wild rice is the seed of a family of aquatic grasses (including Zizania palustris and Zizania aquatica). The rice kernels are nutritious, delicious food for wildlife and people. The grain grows on tall stalks in shallow lakes, streams and riverbeds throughout the upper Midwest and southern Canada. Seeds imbedded in lake bottoms for a year or more start to germinate in early spring and send a stem up to the surface of the water. Given suitable water conditions, the rice plants grow into thick beds from June through September. The seed heads normally start to fill out in mid to late August and mature over a 10- to 14-day period.

"However, in 2012 we may see a slightly earlier maturation of those beds that did survive the storms and high water this late spring and early summer," says Fleener.

Wild rice harvest is partly regulated in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, most of the harvest comes from the northwestern part of the state in Burnett, Washburn and Polk counties and in Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties in north-central Wisconsin. Additional beds are managed on waters on tribal lands.

On most rivers, flowages and some lakes, no formal seasons are established, and these can be harvested whenever ricers determine the rice is ripe, provided they find ripe rice before the ducks, songbirds and mammals that also crave the calorie-rich grains.

On some lakes, however, the season is date-regulated, and wild rice may only be harvested during the open season set cooperatively by DNR staff and tribal rice chiefs. Notice of season openings and closings are posted at lake landings and at common lake access points at least 24 hours in advance of season openings.

State and tribal authorities inspect the rice beds every two to three days on larger waters that typically have rice beds and are frequented by more harvesters. Smaller beds are inspected less frequently. Wild rice harvesters can find out when regulated waters are open for rice harvest in northwestern Wisconsin by calling the DNR Spooner Service Center at (715) 635-2101 and in north central Wisconsin waters by calling the DNR Woodruff Service Center at (715) 356-5211.

Lists of open regulated rice waters are also posted and updated regularly during the harvest season. The list may be found on the wild rice page of the DNR Web site, by going to and searching for "wild rice." The web address for the DNR's wild rice page has changed since people visited it last season. The list can also be found on the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission website. People interested in lake openings and other wild rice topics may also subscribe to "Wild Rice Harvesting" updates online under the "Wildlife Management" heading.

Who may harvest

Only Wisconsin residents may harvest wild rice in the state. Harvesters age 16 to 65 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 a special wild ricing identification card.

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 also must purchase an annual a wild rice buyer's license.

Allowable harvest techniques

As a traditional wild crop, rice harvesters may use only traditional harvesting equipment and techniques. Harvesters are limited to gathering wild rice in boats no longer than 17 feet and no wider than 38 inches that must be propelled by muscle power using paddles or push poles. The grain must be harvested by hand using round, wooden sticks used to 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 bed for future years. The sticks must be smooth, rounded wooden rods or sticks no more than 38 inches long and hand-operated.

"Harvesting should be done gently, so beds can be harvested again as more rice matures; using a good ricing technique ensures the wild rice stands aren't damaged," says Fleener.

To further protect the fragile rice beds and to allow waterfowl an undisturbed period to feed, ricers can collect wild rice only during the day from 10 a.m. until sunset.

Cottage industries have developed over the years in communities adjoining the traditionally productive wild rice waters to process the freshly harvested wild rice and prepare it for cooking. Processing involves parching the grain to reduce its moisture content, and removing the sheath that encloses the grain. Moisture and the sheath often compose more than 60 percent of the harvest weight, leaving about four pounds of finished rice for every 10 pounds harvested.

The wild rice season typically runs from late August through mid-September. Wild rice ripens at a gradual rate as the milky starch fills the rice heads and hardens during maturation. At any given location, rice is typically harvested over a two- to three-week period.

Wild rice waters where seasons are date-regulated include the lakes listed below. There may or may not be appreciable rice stands on these lakes in any given year, and a number of these lakes will be closed to rice harvest in 2012 due to a poor rice crop. Please check online or with a DNR service center for lake openings.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Jason Fleener, 608-266-7408

Last Revised: Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Need an expert?

The Office of Communications connects journalists with DNR experts on a wide range of topics. For the fastest response, please email and the first available Communications Specialist will respond to you.