Hunting The Elusive Morel.
By: Skipper Anderson
Each spring, in mid to late April, I get a hankering. That I am fatter, slower, and older than before the cold set in does not seem of consequence. There is a yearning that beckons me back to the forest. So, I put on my boots, call my friend, JZ, and off we go in search of a damn fungus. Namely, the legendary, the mysterious, the elusive Morel! This is a story about hunting them. First, some background information.
Personally, I adore eating these mushrooms. I find their taste and texture woodsy and luscious, with just a hint of blueberries and a scintilla of animal droppings. Chefs seem to crave them to the edge of psychosis. On the other hand, many register them as raccoon scat – my wife is one of these folks.
In appearance, their shape is somewhat like a Christmas tree. The truth is they look like a penis, should the tip be composed of brain tissue. In color, they tend to earth tones, and thus blend well into their surroundings, and are difficult to spot. Browns and greys dominate (unlike their cousins, the Chanterelles, whose bright pinks, yellows and oranges make them look as if they are auditioning for Yellow Submarine). One must note that the German army wore field grey uniforms in WWII and were stealthy fellows. If that helps, think of them as sneaky Nazis, but tasty ones.
Size matters! At the beginning of each morel season, the first ‘shrooms to appear are small, perhaps the size of your fingernail. As the season progresses, they get bigger. In general, most are under 6 inches. They blend in so well with their surroundings that losing eye contact, while you move to pick one up, often makes them disappear. There are people who have a heightened ability to see morels. A person I know claims that women, due to the fungi’s phallus shape, spot them more easily. Nonsense! In my opinion, the ability to find morels is not gender specific. One of my best friends is a retired detective and he sees them easily.
Sidebar: I need to touch on a subject which has bothered me for years: Midwesterners, particularly people from Michigan and Indiana. I have had occasion to converse with people from this area about morels. While they seem lovely people, and we share the same republic, interests and flag, they have a problem with Pennsylvania morels. Specifically, they insist that theirs are bigger than ours. I once showed a bag I had collected to a visitor from the UP. He disdainfully told me that in Michigan they would toss them back. The truth is, as a Pennsylvanian, it left me feeling a bit inadequate.
Where do you find them? This is where myths arise. Stories abound of mushroom hunters taking backroads, doubling back on their tracks, shaking tails and even shooting at people to avoid exposing their hunting sites. It suggests a spy novel and is unequivocally (mainly) untrue. Certainly, most hunters aren’t going to take you to their favorite areas. However, many will give you an idea of the environment you need to seek. Where I hunt, the main signpost is dying elms, old apple orchards, patches of mayapple and ash trees (may they rest in peace). If you know of an old, not yet dead, apple orchard, or an area of dying elms, go and look. In fact, if you have private access to any of these, morel hunters will become some of your BFF’s. The truth is that hunting spots have a limited production period. My friend, JZ, found an old elm that he called the wonder tree. Initially, we had to call in Sherpas to carry out the bounty. The next year, only half as much was found. Within five years there were no morels.
Sidebar: My friend, JZ, is the original JZ, and should not be confused with the artist, Jay Z. If JZ were married to Beyoncé, he would not be out in the woods with me.
Conditions can be difficult. Early spring can be cold and wet. There’s no way to stay completely dry. While crawling (and you will need to crawl) through the woods you will get cold and tired. You will encounter various and sundry critters, almost all of whom are benign. There is one beast with which you will, almost certainly, come into physical contact: the TICK! These beasties creep-out most of us. I have had dozens on my clothes, and have been bitten quite a few times. All weirdness aside, it is the deer tick, which spreads Lyme Disease, that needs to be feared. Should you want to pursue morels, you will need to come to terms with this, and deal with it.
I briefly touched on morel hunters when discussing where to find the fungus. More needs to be revealed. Though most do not go through great contortions to hide their spots, neither will they be forthcoming in telling you where that may be. Nor, should you encounter them in the woods, can you expect honesty, in any way, shape or form. The term, “alternate facts”, did not come from Kellyanne Conway, it was derived from conversations between morel hunters. Here’s an example: I was searching in the woods behind my house when I ran into Benjie. He may be the best gleaner of fungi in my patch of the world. The trouble is, he is both a relentless hunter, and an inveterate liar. “Benjie, have any luck,” I ask. “Not really,” he replies. I can see Benjie’s pack is swollen to capacity and the weight is making his legs tremble. “I thought it would be a great day for ‘shrooms,” I bandy back. “You know how it is, Skip, sometimes things aren’t what they appear to be.” Can’t argue with that, and off he goes, the lying bastard.
A year after this incident, I was coming home from a day of hunting. As I was leaving the woods, I saw Benjie. As I approached him he asked, “Have any luck, Skip?” Since I had an empty bag, which I showed him, I could honestly tell him I didn’t have a mushroom on me. He looked at me through those untruthful eyes and said, “Sorry, Skip, better luck next time.” Then he turned and headed back over the hill. I pondered the difference in people. What makes some folks decent, and others incapable of telling the truth? It is a mystery to me. As Benjie crested the hill and disappeared, I signaled JZ that all was clear. He could bring the Sherpas and burros loaded with ‘shrooms from cover.
Skipper Anderson is a mushroom hunter, retired care-giver, and curmudgeon from Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and two cats.