Rod Ustipak struggled to pole his canoe through wild rice as thick as prairie grass in the predawn darkness Saturday.
As we crossed to the far shore of a shallow north-central Minnesota lake, the whoosh of mallards lifting off the water startled us. Then more ducks rose up — the females quack-quack-quacking in protest as they flew off.
“They’re in here feeding on the rice,’’ Ustipak whispered.
A few minutes later, after we had set out a handful of decoys but before legal shooting time, a dozen mallards carved the air like acrobatic jet fighters, just yards from us.
“That was worth the price of admission,’’ Ustipak said with a smile, nestled in a the bow with his lab, Mya.
Ustipak, 62, of Baxter, Minn., was in his element, literally. An avid waterfowler, he’s also coordinator of the state’s wild rice program — a joint effort between the Department of Natural Resources and Ducks Unlimited to maximize wild rice production on about 100 northern Minnesota lakes covering about 28,000 acres.
Wild rice needs shallow water, a half-foot to 3 feet, for optimal production. High water is a bane, uprooting plants. Nearly all rice lakes have outlets, allowing water to flow downstream, which keeps the lakes shallow. Ustipak has a network of about 30 people who are paid to keep those outlets free-flowing, primarily by removing beaver dams and beavers, as well as floating logs and other debris.
“We try to control water levels to make it conducive for wild rice,’’ Ustipak said. “Sometimes these outlets have to be cleared three times a year, because there are so many beavers.
“I’d say we’ve doubled rice production compared to what it would be if left to Mother Nature.’’
Costs low, benefits high
It is a relatively simple, low-cost program with huge benefits, said Ann Geisen, DNR wildlife lake specialist.
“A lot of lakes don’t need major work, they just need to be monitored so the outlets are free-flowing. The program gets a lot done with a minimal amount of money,’’ Geisen said.
The program, now in its 12th year, has an annual budget of $55,000 — $40,000 from wild rice license fees and $15,000 from Ducks Unlimited.
“That’s only a couple of dollars an acre a year,’’ Ustipak said. “A lot of folks feel it’s a very cost-effective program. We’re trying to make the largest impact possible, within our budget.’’
The benefits of wild rice lakes are many.
“It’s some of the best waterfowl habitat,’’ Geisen said. “Where there is rice, birds will flock to it. Not only does it provide food during the fall migration, but when rice emerges in July, it provides cover for [duck] broods to hide. And when the rice plants die, they provide habitat for invertebrates that ducks feed on in the spring migration.’’