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.’’
Loons, geese, swans and other wildlife also utilize wild rice lakes.
“It’s the corn crop of the north,’’ said Jon Schneider, Ducks Unlimited manager of Minnesota conservation programs. “It’s especially important for ringneck ducks, but other species, including teal and mallards, feed there, too.’’
Those who harvest wild rice benefit, too, sometimes with bumper crops, as many ricers found this season. In recent years, about 1,500 rice harvesting licenses have been sold, down from 16,000 in 1968. Development of commercial rice paddies is at least partly responsible for the decline in wild rice harvesters.
Landscape changes hurt rice
Before European settlement, wild rice was found throughout the state, not just in the north. In the south, ditching and drainage have ruined many shallow lakes for rice growth. And ditching, drainage and dams in the north have had similar effects.
“The big reservoirs — Sandy, Leech, Winnie, Whitefish, Gull — all were huge rice producers historically,’’ said Ustipak. The dams raised water levels, dramatically reducing wild rice.
Other changes brought more beavers, and beaver dams.
“The rice lakes up here evolved in a pine forest,’’ Ustipak said. “Now we’ve converted that forest mostly to aspen, which has created ideal conditions for beaver. Historically, they were here, but not at these levels.’’
Said Ustipak: “We have lost a lot of rice habitat, which makes it even more important to keep what’s left.’’
The lake we hunted Saturday underscores the benefits of proper water levels. A ditch in 1916 changed the lake, and the DNR in the 1960s tried to improve the situation by installing a dam. But water levels were too high many years to produce good wild rice.
Using Outdoor Heritage Fund money, established by the Legacy Act, the structure was removed in 2010 and water levels lowered. This year, the lake is choked with wild rice. And wildlife.
We ended the morning hunt with three teal and a wood duck, but we saw mallards, numerous flocks of Canada geese and even sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans.
“It was better than I thought it was going to be, but not as good as it could be,’’ Ustipak said of the opener. But he expects hunting will improve as fall migrants arrive — to feed on wild rice.