The Wild Side: Historical look at wild rice
This time of year, one of my important tasks is conducting a series of aerial surveys over wild rice beds. You may have seen the plant before, but paid it little notice. Our lakes and rivers are quite well suited for wild rice production, and there are many areas where rice is present or even fairly abundant. Each year, I evaluate the condition of 60 to 80 current or historic wild rice beds. Some I can check from the road, some I try to see from the water, but by far the fastest way to cover a lot of ground is by viewing them from the air.
Wild rice is an aquatic grass. An individual plant only lives for one year; it sprouts from a seed in spring, and goes through three stages of its life cycle before dying off in the fall. The first stage is a submergent plant, meaning it lives entirely underwater from the time it first sprouts until about mid-June, when it enters the “floating leaf” stage. This time is critical for the plant. It grows new leaves that float on the surface, so if the water rises during this time, the leaves could get submerged and drown the plant. Also, the floating leaves can lift the plant’s roots out of the bottom because of wind and wave action. Within a couple of weeks, stiff shoots break the water’s surface and extend above it, and the plant becomes emergent. Each plant generates a number of seeds, and the seeds do not all have the same germination period. Some seeds will germinate after one winter; some will persist in the lakebed for two, three, even five years or more before sprouting.
Wild rice is known as Manoomin by the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe or Chippewa) people. Manoomin (which means the “good berry”) is woven into the fabric of Native American history, beliefs, culture, and way of life. Manoomin led the Anishinaabeg to the Great Lakes, and was an important food source and trade item for centuries. When the tribes signed treaties with the United States government in the 1800s, they offered up the land, but retained the rights to hunt, fish, and gather in the areas named in those treaties. Manoomin harvest was one of the rights retained by this treaty. Today, a Wild Rice Committee brings together tribal Rice Chiefs, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, and state and Federal natural resource professionals to cooperatively manage rice resources for protection, propagation, and harvest.
Fishermen have a kind of love-hate relationship with rice. It is difficult to maneuver through, and impossible to fish in. However, this makes the beds excellent nurseries. Furthermore, the plants create relatively calm stable conditions ideal for semi-aquatic insects that make great food for fish like bluegills and perch. Predators like bass, northern pike, and muskellunge seem to cruise the edges of the thicker beds watching for smaller prey fish that might be coming or going from these areas. Consequently, fishing the edges of these beds with frog or fish imitator lures can be very productive.
Wild rice is extremely valuable as a wildlife food resource as well. Muskrats love the plants, and there are a variety of birds that feed on the insects they attract or the seeds they produce. Waterfowl such as wood ducks, mallard, teal, black ducks, pintails, scaup, redheads, and ring-necked ducks feed on rice. Managing these rice beds benefits the ecosystem, and people as a part of it. If you are interested in learning more about wild rice, or about learning to harvest it yourself, you can pick up a wild rice brochure at your local DNR service center, go to the DNR website (http://dnr.wi.gov keyword “wild rice”) or the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission website (glifwc.org).
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.