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Inside the Outdoors: Wild rice can be a bane, but is mostly a boon

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

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Some weeks ago, thanks to the Craigslist online shopping skills of a good friend, I acquired a used outboard motor that was said to have a special and very desirable quality for a duck hunter. The motor is a 1970’s vintage four-horsepower of the lineage founded many decades ago by Ole Evinrude. It is no longer made, but in its time was marketed as being “weedless.”

This virtue is attributed chiefly to the fact that its propeller shaft and propeller are angled downward at about 30 degrees, not horizontal and in the same plane as a boat’s hull, as are most outboards. Oddly, many of these out-of-production weedless motors also have a hard plastic propeller, rather than aluminum, as are most outboard props. Whether these props’ sharp edges and greater flexibility play a role in their advertised weedlessness is something for someone with greater engineering expertise than I have to weigh in on.

The reason for my search-and-buy mission was to make it easier for a duck hunter—namely me—to navigate some of the waters where I hunt ducks, the season for which has just begin its 2022 edition. Wild rice, ducks and duck hunters have been entwined in a menage-a-trois—an intimate relationship, you might say—for as long as there have been duck hunters in the Great Lakes states and Canada, the geographic area within which this aquatic grass has grown for millennia. It is not a rice at all, actually, which may be one reason why it has credentials as the official Minnesota state grain.

Whether Minnesota-born or northern migrants, ducks of many species are drawn by the magnetic appeal of mature wild rice. Just like people, many of whom find wild rice a gourmet’s delight. Duck hunters quite predictably are drawn to the very same places the ducks are, with their own harvest in mind.

Unfortunately, there are few things that can complicate navigation more effectively than wild rice stems, those thin but tough stalks upon which the grains or seeds of this aquatic grass grows. This is so because of their propensity to wrap around an outboard motor propeller shaft, slow its spin and eventually bring it to a dead stop.

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Despite steadily advancing age, I have nothing against rowing in lieu of an outboard motor. Some of the places where I would choose to hunt are actually off-limits to motors in order to reduce hunting pressure and allow the ducks a modicum of peace and rest on their migratory journey. But where on-the-water distances are long, and on large lakes or wetlands where fall weather offers potential for dangerous boating conditions, there is comfort in having a “kicker” screwed to the transom of your boat.

On several lakes with wild rice where my hunting partner and I have deployed our decoys, we have had our time-to-the-blind lengthened dramatically by the need to tilt up the outboard, and painstakingly—and not too patiently—rip off or unwind a mass of wild rice stems from the outboard’s propeller and lower unit; time and time again.

One year I acquired an outboard larger than the six-horse that had been our longtime means of duck boat propulsion. It had a three-blade propeller, which I would later be told was more prone to fouling with aquatic vegetation than a two-blade prop. Whether due to this, or to unusually dense wild rice stands, we found ourselves having to limp back to shore—with many prop-clearing stops along the way—in the dark at hunt’s end. In retrospect, rowing might have delivered us more rapidly to the boat landing!

There are actually special motor designs, generically called mud motors, that are made specifically for such vegetation-choked conditions, and shallow waters. Some, called surface drives, have their propeller positioned roughly at the water’s surface rather than underwater, thus avoiding much of the potential for prop fouling. They are air-cooled, and thus don’t need a lengthy shaft to suck in water to cool the motor, as do water-cooled outboards. Another shallow water design is often referred to as a long-tail, with its surface-running propeller located at the end of a long shaft that extends several feet to the rear of the boat when in operation. Both can be quite expensive, are relatively large and—especially the long-tail—hard to conceal if one is hunting from a small boat.

This year the wild rice crop is not as uniformly abundant across Minnesota as it was last year. While some areas are reporting a crop that is “average,” quite a number have been called “fair” or “poor.” For example, within the boundaries of the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Band’s reservation in Northeast Minnesota, ricing has been prohibited altogether in order “to rest the on-reservation wild rice lakes for the season.”

High water levels during the early stage of the growing season are blamed for this year’s spotty rice crop. Wild rice is vulnerable when in the rooting stage, and rising water levels at this critical time can essentially uproot and kill the plants. This situation has created a paradox for duck hunters. Last year, a much drier year, access to hunting spots was hampered not only by low water, but by especially dense wild rice stands that could be difficult to move a boat through. This year, a generally wetter year, access to hunting spots will be easier, but some places may be less attractive to ducks for want of a good rice crop.

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Mike Rahn, columnist

Still, wildlife managers seem not especially worried that the ducks will suffer from a diminished crop of wild rice, as could those people who have a tradition of harvesting rice both to sell and to consume. In other words, duck hunters are expected to find birds in many, if not most, of the places where they have traditionally found them dining on our state grin.

And perhaps my new old weedless outboard motor will get less of a test than it might have in a bumper year for wild rice!

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