RICE LAKE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Minn. — Duane King goosed the motor, the propeller kicked to life, and the big airboat took off across the seemingly endless sea of wild rice.

As grains of rice peppered us in the face, and yes rice stings at 20 mph, waterfowl of every sort took to the air.

There were skeins of Canada geese scrambling to get away from the noisy boat. Small flocks of blue-winged teal buzzed just over the waving rice. Panicked coots ran across the water trying to make a break for it. Thousands of mallards and wood ducks nearer to shore peeled off to escape the loud intrusion onto their otherwise untrammeled lake. More than 200 trumpeter swans trundled skyward.

Mostly, though, there were ring-necked ducks. Tens of thousands of ring-necked ducks, commonly called ringbills, scrambled into the air in great swarms. Bee hives of disorganized flight filled the sky in layers, some almost close enough to touch when they took off, other ringnecks already hundreds of feet in the air.

Duane King counts waterfowl on Rice Lake for the refuge fall migration report Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. As King drives around the lake in an airboat he speaks into a recorder to track his count. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Duane King counts waterfowl on Rice Lake for the refuge fall migration report Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. As King drives around the lake in an airboat he speaks into a recorder to track his count. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

This was King’s first refuge waterfowl count of the 2019 season. He’s been doing this once a week each October for the last 28 years, the last nine on his own. But even he was impressed with how many ducks were already on the refuge as of Oct. 1.

“I didn’t expect this many. Definitely not this many ringnecks this early,’’ King said as idled the airboat for a short break.

How many was this many? Nearly 200,000 ducks in all, including a whopping 172,154 ring-necks. King keeps track of grids of ducks on an audio recorder as he operates the airboat and transcribes it when he gets back to the office. He makes one lap around the perimeter of the lake and then one around the middle. It takes about an hour.

“They really don’t go very far. As soon as I’m off the lake, they’ll be back,’’ he noted.

A ring-necked duck flies above Rice Lake in Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. Ringnecks were the most prevalent on the lake with an estimated count of a little over 172,000. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
A ring-necked duck flies above Rice Lake in Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. Ringnecks were the most prevalent on the lake with an estimated count of a little over 172,000. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Biggest flock ever recorded

This is the continental epicenter for ring-necked ducks, one of the most popular ducks targeted by Minnesota hunters each fall. It’s considered one of the most important migration rest and feeding stops for the species, which nest each spring on remote, boggy lakes in far northern Minnesota and across forested provinces and territories of Canada.

Ringnecks have a faint white ring around their necks and a bolder ring on their bills. The hens are dusky brown, and the drakes have distinctive black heads with stark white markings. They will end up along the Gulf of Mexico for winter. But right now they are fattening up on wild rice across the region. Especially here.

How big a deal is the place for ring-necks? Consider on Halloween Day in 2017, there were nearly 1 million of them here — 930,000 by the official count. And on Oct. 14, 1994, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources aerial survey estimated more than 1.1 million ducks on the lake at once, including more than 600,000 ringnecks. That was the largest single flock of ducks ever recorded in Minnesota in one place, DNR biologists noted.

Ring-necked ducks fly over Rice Lake Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Ring-necked ducks fly over Rice Lake Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

With ample food, few predators (eagles pick-off sick or injured birds but rarely bother healthy ducks) and no duck hunters to bother them, the ducks here are fat and happy in their federally protected bed and breakfast.

“They’ll (numbers of ducks will) keep building for a couple more weeks. We usually reach peak about October 15,’’ King said. “But when we have a good rice crop, and this is a great one, they will hold here until it freezes up. There’s really no reason for them to leave.”

Until the lake freezes up. Just two days after the massive Halloween count in 2017, the lake froze, and not a single duck remained.

All about the water level

It’s up to King and Walt Ford, refuge manager since 2005, to keep Rice Lake at its optimal level all spring, summer and fall to maximize wild rice production. That means manipulating water control structures at both ends of the lake to keep water depth between 2-4 feet. Any deeper and the rice simply won’t grow. Or if the water comes up too fast in summer, the rice will uproot and never ripen.

“Right now we’re trying to dump some of this rain we’ve had out so the dabbling ducks can get better access,’’ Ford said, noting dabbling ducks like mallards, teal and wood ducks can forage only as deep as they can reach down. Diving ducks like ringnecks can go far underwater to find rice kernels and other food.

Two mature swans lead three cygnets through Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Two mature swans lead three cygnets through Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Because of water control structures and constant tweaking “we can have great wild rice crops in the refuge when there isn't much rice anywhere else around here,’’ Ford said.

“But even here, even with the right water level, the rice takes a rest some years. We may have a great year and couple good years but then there are some years with hardly any at all. It’s a cycle,’’ Ford added, noting kernels of wild rice can lie dormant on the lake bottom for years, even decades, until the right conditions occur for it to sprout. “The native Americans here say it’s about one great crop every seven years.”

And the ducks seem to know quickly when that happens, like this year. Nearly all of the highest duck count years are in years with ample wild rice.

“Somehow they seem to find it in the good years and then they stay,’’ King said.

That means there could be a half million or more ducks here within the next week or two, and it’s a sight every waterfowl enthusiast would love to see. While the lake itself is off-limits to the public in any form, a simple (free) drive or hike through the refuge will provide ample views of waterfowl. The best place to watch big flocks of ducks is from an elevated viewing platform on the lakeshore, especially early in the morning and again at sunset, Ford said.

Rice Lake NWR volunteer Jim Sloan fishes off the shore of Rice River Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Rice Lake NWR volunteer Jim Sloan fishes off the shore of Rice River Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Of course, not all of the birds stay within the refuge boundaries every day. Many seek food elsewhere or, for reasons not fully understood, just want to stretch their wings. That can make nearby lakes, marshes and rivers good spots for duck hunters on some days. While they may not get to hunt them on Rice Lake, most hunters seem to kike the idea that hundreds of thousands of ducks are at least in the area, Ford noted.

There are other major stopovers for ringnecks, too, such as Nett Lake near Orr, Drumbeater Lake Refuge near Bena and smaller wild rice lakes in the area.

While some hunters claim refuges like Rice Lake limit hunting opportunity, Minnesota hunters manage to shoot upwards of 86,000 ringnecks every year. Statewide, it’s the third most popular duck in the bag, behind mallards and wood ducks, said Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist for the Minnesota DNR. But in northern Minnesota ringies can often be the first or second most hunted duck.

Because they nest along forested lakes in remote country — rather than on open prairie ponds like mallards, teal and gadwall — there is no accurate, continent-wide count of ringnecks. But biologists generally agree that ringnecks are holding their own, with strong numbers from year to year at many fall staging areas and, in some areas in Canada where they are counted in spring, the number of nesting birds increasing in recent years.

The ducks have been coming to Rice Lake here for untold centuries, Ford noted. And so have people. There's evidence, including burial mounds, that show prehistoric Indians were here more than 2,000 years ago.

“Probably for the wild rice. For the ducks. For fishing. For the sugarbush; the maple syrup,’’ Ford noted. “People have been coming here for centuries for the same reasons.”

A pile of wild rice gathers on the deck of the airboat as Duane King drives on Rice Lake to count waterfowl Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
A pile of wild rice gathers on the deck of the airboat as Duane King drives on Rice Lake to count waterfowl Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge at a glance

Location: 36289 Minnesota Highway 65, just south of McGregor; about 75 minutes west of Duluth.

Established: 1935 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Size: 18,208 acres of woods, water and meadows.

Rice Lake: 3,635 acres.

Average depth: 2-4 feet

Annual human visitors: About 25,000

Average waterfowl visitors: More than 300,000 each autumn.

Main attractions: Spring songbird migration; autumn waterfowl migration. Site of Minnesota's largest ever recorded flock of ducks.

Primary refuge emphasis: Water level control to support annual production of wild rice to enhance the lake as a critical migration stop for waterfowl, especially ring-necked ducks.

Designated: A “Globally Important Bird Area” by the American Bird Conservancy.

Open to the public: For hiking, cross country skiing in season, nature drives, birdwatching, fishing and in some areas open to small game hunting, bowhunting for deer, special handicapped firearms deer season and special permit firearms deer season.

Best place to see waterfowl: Sunrise and sunset from a raised viewing platform at the end of Wildlife Drive.

Closed: To all waterfowl hunting.

One of: 565 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge system that's largely funded with the sale of federal waterfowl hunting stamps.

Hours: Refuge access road gates open every day pre-dawn until after dusk. (The main Refuge Drive will be closed from noon to sunset each day from Oct. 10-13 for a special handicapped accessible deer hunt.)

Fees: Free.

Surprisingly good: Northern pike fishing in the Rice River inside the refuge.

For more information: Call 218-768-2402 or go to fws.gov/refuge/rice_lake

Oct. 1 waterfowl count at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Ring-necked ducks: 172,145

Mallards: 22,853

Coot: 2,716

Canada geese: 489

Wood ducks: 456

Blue-winged teal: 344

Swans: 237

Hooded merganser: 40

Redhead: 3

Total: 199,252.

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service