August 25, 2022

So you want to harvest wild rice?

Apologies for length…

  1. First step, know what you are looking for. Meet the plant, up close and personal if possible. Start with your phone and Google if needed. Recognize her like a long-lost friend. Find someone who already has a relationship with her. Ask them to introduce you. Be cognizant of all her moods. Check on her often throughout the growing season. Say sweet things to her. Stay out of her beds while she’s growing. Watch Fred Ackley share his words on Manoomin.
  2. Clear your schedule from mid-August through mid-September. Full weeks if possible, whole weekends if not. Stock up on acetaminophen and ibuprofen or CBD oil. Explain to anyone who wants some of your time during that stretch that you will be otherwise occupied. Find some old clothes. You will understand once you get to #12.
  3. Get your hands on a canoe legally, borrow, beg or buy. Look for something with removable cross pieces, aluminum is good, fiberglass is heavy. Some of the old ricing boats are still around, you will recognize them by their lack of seats, no cross bars, and often a flattened platform to push from. Check for leaks. No boat license required if only using it to harvest wild rice. Light and tippy canoes are poor choices. Must be no wider than 36 inches.
  4. Find or make knocking sticks and a push pole. Knocking sticks, also called flails, are typically made from cedar, smooth, tapered and depending on which state you are harvesting in, 30 or 38 inches long. Look it up. They should be lightweight (thus cedar) because you will be swinging them for six hours. I have a friend that makes them. Don’t buy an aluminum push pole that extends, they have holes. Water flows in holes, and out holes. You get wet. Check around for closet rods of 15 feet or better. Attach a duck foot to one end. Not a real duck foot, a metal flanged foot. Better yet, find a strong sapling and a forked piece of oak or hardwood (think macho slingshot). Bolt this somehow to the sapling. I don’t know, I bought a closet rod.
  5. Check websites (Minnesota DNR, 1854 Treaty Authority, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Indian Commission) or ask around for lakes with wild rice. Haul a canoe, kayak or take a boat with a motor. Check out some lakes. Check out many lakes. Find wild rice. Hint – most of the time you find it “up north.” Wait until June or July to check. Wild rice is easier to locate once it gets above the surface of the water. Know what you’re looking for (see #1).
  6. Buy a license. Not everyone needs a license.  If you understand the words Anishinaabe and manoomin, you might not need a license. It’s always good to check. Dependingou can harvest wild rice in the state you live in. Only Minnesota allows non-residents to harvest, but it will cost you. If you live in Minnesota, don’t go to Wisconsin to harvest. Why would you? We have more wild rice than they do.
  7. Learn the regulations (rules). Rules vary depending on where you live. See #3, 4, and 6. Regulations are listed by your state Department of Natural Resources (only in Minnesota and Wisconsin – good luck finding wild rice anywhere else, except that one big waterfowl lake the in the state of Washington; the UP of Michigan; and the two lakes in Maine). If you are an Ojibwe/Chippewa tribal member, your rules may be different. There are hours for harvesting. Depends on where you live and where you go.
  8. Find a partner. The person you find in #1 to introduce you to wild rice may be a good start. Ask around. Lie and talk one of your friends into having a big adventure. Don’t tell them about the worms and spiders. Wait, did I mention those yet? Oh well. Once you find a partner, review #2 with them. You need to be able to get along with this person for up to six hours, in a small space, on water. Pick carefully. Synchronize schedules.
  9. Watch the weather. I mean it! Remember that wild rice you went out to look for? After the next storm with heavy rain or big winds, check the wild rice again. Hail is not good. Hot, stultifying weather that just sits there and suffocates us in blankets of dripping heat is also not good. These are things that can screw up pollination, or worse yet, uproot wild rice. Pay attention to where the storms track.
  10. Visit the rice. She might not miss you, but you will miss her if she’s not there anymore when you go out to harvest. Guess who likes to eat wild rice? Geese. Canada geese (Branta Canadensis). They are not Canadians. They eat wild rice because it is a grass. Geese love to graze on grass. Trumpeter swans also love to eat grass. Cygnus buccinators are beautiful, big and abundant, like geese. Visit a Wild Rice Camp!
  11. Watch videos or line up a mentor. Having the right equipment is important, knowing how to use it, more important. There are some good videos (here’s a couple…NRCS video, and one honoring a man I was lucky to interview before he passed on, Fred Ackley) YouTube wasn’t invented when I began. Talk to harvesters, find a mentor if you can and ask to go out with them. Most people who harvest wild rice enjoy teaching others they just don’t enjoy losing out on a good day of harvesting. Be kind to your mentor, appreciate a half day if you are that lucky. Practice your technique by strolling through a field of big bluestem, turkey foot, Andropogon gerardi and swinging your knockers. Cardinal rule: don’t break the wild rice stems.
  12.  Locate some old clothes that you will never wear again. You haven’t been out ricing yet have you? Trust me, you will likely only want to wear those clothes to harvest wild rice. Wild rice doesn’t give up without throwing a few barbs, or awns in her case. These are thin, hair like projections on the end of each seed hull. When knocking wild rice seeds (and their awns) fly everywhere. Awns break and fly into clothing, eyes, ear canals, mouths, socks, hair and down your shirts. You often can’t even see them. Be prepared. Pick up duct tape, cotton balls, sunglasses, chewing gum, a hat, bandanna, and a long sleeve tightly woven work shirt. I’ll explain later.
  13. Double check that you still have a partner. He/She may not be as committed as you. He may decide to attend the Star Wars Convention dressed as Chewbacca rather than spend the day with you in a canoe with flying awns. Help them see the light. Get a back-up partner just in case. Make harvesting wild rice sound like gathering your own food.
  14. Check the rice again. By now a few storms have rolled through, geese and swans have had babies and turned them onto how good wild rice tastes, boats have been ripping through the shallows over the 4th of July, and you still only have located two decent lakes for gathering wild rice. Find rice. Be prepared.
  15. Clean the canoe, buy seed bags, talk to your partner. Sand, grit or dirt in the canoe ends up mixing with the wild rice you gather. Clean your canoe before you go. Some lakes in Wisconsin have opening dates. In Minnesota any lake not under tribal authority is open to harvest when the wild rice is ripe, as long as that occurs August 15th or later. If you completed #14 you have had a chance to see if the wild rice beds look green, have lots of flowers or are beginning to nod their heads and dry up a little. Seed bags can be bought at the local seed co-op, or save your 50lb black oil sunflower seed bags, those would work too.
  16. Gather your partner and launch. Cotton balls go in ears and belly button, duct tape over belly button and around pant legs/shoes to keep rice worms from crawling up and spiders from crawling down. Sunglasses, hat, bandanna around neck and chewing gum are self-explanatory. Take some water and sandwiches, music if you must, and remember you are out there to have fun, and gather food. That’s all there is to harvesting wild rice. Enjoy your day on the water!
  17. Processing! (For a later post)


 Welcome, Aaniin, Sat Nam

I celebrate life and share my passion for learning, rooted in the natural world….


"My nose feels the gentle burst of air as the smaller nuthatch flies by my face to escape the chaser. Being brushed by the wings of a nuthatch is almost as good as having one light on your finger." 
from Observing

Want to stay updated on new blog posts?

Sign up for email alerts here.