Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Final Days of the Hunt

After having to go out of town earlier this week, I finally made it out to the woods to see if there was anything left from a week of no rain and who knows how many people out picking. Luckily, the morels were still around, though most had fallen over from their size and the rain. It didn't take long to get a small bag, but my fears were quickly realized as the woods looked like a freeway with all of the trails and places that people had tromped through the underbrush. The morels were there but you had to get off the beaten paths.

Also, I began to experience another late season sign, as the third one I found merely crumbled when I tried to cut it. And the next three after that, although they didn't crumbled, had turned limp. I am assuming they had dried out and then been rehydrated, so to speak, from the rain. This kept up for most of the day and I'd say every fourth or fifth one I found I had to leave behind. Today that number increase, so that I was leaving behind every third one. More rain seemed to be hurting more than it was helping.

Then I came to a section where the Army Corps of Engineers had widened a road through the woods. I had watched them do this last spring and wondered if those trees they were knocking down would produce. And early on in the season, I checked several of them and didn't see a thing. So, I had figured that they were not going to produce.

Well you know what happens whenever you think you have the morel finally figured out. I was walking down the widened road when what did I see, but some whitish things sticking our from one lone rootball. I went over and picked about 10 nice ones because they had been protected growing horizontally under the cover of the rootball. I looked all along that section and found about 12 more around various rootballs. This was only in one section about 100 feet long. The fallen trees to the right and left of the section had nothing. It was just this one section.

I went back today and looked around the front again and walked the entire 1/4 mile of knocked over trees and still nothing but in that one spot. I managed my way over into the woods on the backside of the fallen trees in that one section and to my delight I found the rest of them.

Many were growing right out of the rootballs. Can you see the three facing you from the rootball in the picture above? This shot was taken at about 25 feet away to give you an idea of how big and noticable those three 4-inchers were. There were a lot more when you got down low and looked underneath all of the fallen branches. It was disappointing though because about 1/4 were rotten. I always hate finding rotten mushrooms, because I should have found them sooner so they didn't go to waste. Hopefully, I can take solace in the fact that they should have spored out good for next year's crop.

All in all, I found 70 yesterday and another 40 today, but in the end I only got to bring home about 85 good ones. But this is the way the season ends and is another reason why I often stop hunting morels rather abruptly. It is nice to still go out and find some to eat, but I rue the day that I stumble across an untouched and rotting motherlode. Best to just avoid it all together.

Of course, if you have not gotten your fill of morels just yet, there is always one alternative. Time to drive north. I hear things are really picking up along the Iowa border. The timing of this rain is sure to bring on a good season in those areas.

P.S. I just found out that all of this rain is REAL bad for some of my spots. One of the places I was at today is now completely underwater from the flash flooding. Glad I got in there one last time. Saved at least 10 from certain drowning. Of course I ate them tonight. Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fryer.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Morels and Crab

OK, I know the first thing you thought when you read the title of this post was I can't wait for the recipe. Sorry to disappoint you but this is not about recipes. Rather it is about trying to not think of morels during the season and how dang hard of a task that can really be.

Take this week for example, I am coming off a major haul over the weekend pulling over 400 in two days, and now work has me on the road in Chicago, couped up in a hotel in the middle of the urban jungle with no time to get out despite the prime conditions I saw in the few sections of woods during the drive from the airport (by the way there were no less than 6 peeling bark elms I counted on the taxi ride to the hotel). It's killing me.

So, to take my mind off morels, while eating some true traditional deep dish pizza from Lou Malnati's, I decide to watch last night's episode of Deadliest Catch, a reality show on Discovery about crab fishing. My wife has often questioned me about why I like this show. Is it because I love to eat crab? No not really. The characters on the show do have some quirky appeal and their friction and the danger of the job do make for good drama, but that isn't it either. It wasn't until watching the show tonight, while trying so hard not to think of morels, that I finally realize its appeal. And if any of you watch the show, you may already know what it is.

Crab fishermen operate a lot like morel hunters in their search for king and snow crab. Now don't get me wrong, you cannot even come close to their level of danger. I cannot think of a single time when I have been in a life threatening situation morel hunting and I by no means want to belittle what they do to my harmless obsession. By that means it is like comparing and apple to an atom bomb.

But if you do watch an episode listen to the terminology. We share a lot of it. They "spot check" areas early looking to find this season's "hot spots" and "hit the motherlode." In a five minute span of last night's episode, I heard the following phrases that if you replace crab with morel, you could find on any morel message boards:
  • "The place that hit last year are not this year's hot spot"
  • "there is an art to finding the elusive crab"
  • "it's not as easy as everyone thinks it is"
  • "twelve hours of grinding and only 30 crab"
To me, the crab act similar to morels, in that although they can be found in general areas every year, they never seem to be in quite the exact place consistently. So even though they may show up in the exact same place two years in a row, as they said on this episode of Deadliest Catch, "Lighting rarely strikes three times."

Also, the way they fish is often quite similar to the way we do. Some "prospect" for their prey. They go to an area they know have produced in the past and set out prospect pots (or crab traps) to see what is around. We don't use pots, but early in the season, many of us prospect by walking old known spots and new ones, to see where the morels are coming up this year.

Others hunt more like myself. The Time Bandit, one of the boats on the show, uses more surgical strikes. They had noticed in the past that when they were catching good crab, their pots would often come up with scallops, which the crabs eat. So now they go out and concentrate their pots on scallop beds and seem to do very well. I do the same thing. Morels are mycorrhizal fungi, which means that they live in a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding trees. In a sense, they feed off of them. As I have explained, I hunt more strategically and once I figured out what trees are hitting in the areas I hunt, I focus in on them to find the mother lode. Watch the clips titled "Slime Banks Gamble" and "Bandit hits the Jackpot" and you can see what I mean.

So, no matter what you do, in the middle of the season you just can't get away from the fever. The only way to solve that is to get back in the woods.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Magic of the Mother Lode

A mother lode tree, where I hunt, is one that has anywhere from 20 to 50 morels around it. I'll usually find one or two a year, but today was quite an exception. As Jon put it, the mushroom gods were smiling down on us very favorably. But before I get to that, I should start from the beginning.

Being a weekend, I was sure to head out a little after 6 am to beat the weekend hunters. I met up with a student from MU who wanted to do a narrative story about the hunt itself. I normally get at least one or two students a year contacting me about stories and recently I have passed on a few, but this was something different, so I decided I would show him what it is like.

The kid was pretty dedicated, not owning a car, and renting a U-haul pick-up to meet me at our location. I'm sure a few local hunters got a good chuckle at pulling up to the parking area and seeing that. Also, meeting me so early was a good sign that he was up to the task. We were the second car on site getting beat out by only a few minutes by a fellow seasoned hunter in a red pick-up.

We started off slow, pulling a few singles here and there in a younger stand of mixed softwoods. After finding ten or so rather small ones, I decided to head closer to the river and see if we could find any good trees. It didn't take us long to find one I have overlooked from the day before and we picked a good 10 to 15 around it. Han, the student with me, also found his first morel and soon he was spotting one after the other, commenting that he was starting to get an "eye" for them.

We continued on and hit a nice mother lode tree and picked 32 really nice sized ones as you can tell by the photos below.

The one on the left was my first true beer can morel of the season. All 32 were between 3 and 6 inches.

They seemed to be everywhere and Han got to experience the rush of hitting a motherlode tree.

The kid hung in there through the thick and thin brush and in the end we came out with 82 by 10:00. That was when I got calls from a buddy, Sterling, coming in from K.C. and from Jon, who was en route with his boat. We headed for the car and I made sure Han took a few to eat so he could taste the labor of our success. After all, how can you write a story about them if you haven't eaten them. Oh and did I mention that when we left there were at least another 6 vehicles. You can always tell you are at the height of the season when the local spots suddenly turn into used car lots.

Han went home to eat his morels and write his story and I headed to the boat ramp to meet Jon. Soon we were setting off for an island I have had my eyes on for years. Jon's boat is pretty small and he is always sure to ask all who ride in it if they can swim in case we get swamped. To avoid that we only go two at a time, so he ferried us over, the whole time keeping a watchful eye out for other boats with dangerous wakes. Fortunately the river was unusually quiet for a Sunday.

I was first to set foot and the first thing I saw was footprints so I was a little worried. But the tracks seemed to stay on the outside by the bank, so I walked in a ways saw a good tree and checked. Bingo, picked a nice 12 in two minutes. I headed to the bank to show and get their hunting blood a flowing and we started searching.

We quickly divided up and headed East and soon lost sight of each other. Almost every tree that looked good produced and by the time I met up with them again our bags were all half full. Then we hit a sweet spot where we must have picked 150 to 200 easy. I know Jon alone picked over 50 just around one tree. Here is a photo that Jon took around that tree.

There were over 20 right in this 2 X 2 foot area.

Even the loners seemed mighty, meaty, and majestic on this mother lode day.

Several of ones we we found on the island, like this impressive cluster which was completely hidden underneath some garlic mustard, were already showing signs of drying out, so I had to make quick work of them when I got home.

All and all, I picked another 181 on the island, bringing me to 263 for the day which was very close to my personal one-day best. Jon nabbed another 85 and Sterling, the rookie, picked 90. Jon and I kept telling him that it is NEVER like this and that we had set his standards way to high. He had literally lucked into one of my best finds for seasons. As for morel fever, I don;t think he has a chance. After a day like this, I know very few people who wouldn't be hooked. What do you think? Does he look hooked to you?

(Photos of Sterling by Jon Rapp)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Beautiful and Bountiful Morning

I got off to a later start than I would prefer on a weekend when I knew the woods would be sure to get hit hard. Some fresh rain and lots of sunshine really bring out the weekend hunters. We really didn't get any measurable rain though in my area. Just some light stuff that didn't even effect the ground, but some areas are still plenty moist.

Normally I would be out of the car walking to my spots by 6:15 under these circumstance, but I slept in a little and then needed gas, so I didn't make the turn into the area until well after 7. Despite my late start I didn't see anyone on the way in. What I did see was a set of very promising looking trees, three in all, sitting about 15 yards from the road. I thought surely someone would check this, but what the heck. Might as well stop and give it a quick look. Leaving the car running and the door open I ran down the to see.

When you do this, I recommend always taking a bag or else you will end up like me walking back to the car trying to hold 27 morels in your shirt. Yep, that's right. A spot right on the way in that lots of people drive a mere 20 yards from. Always check a promising spot no matter where it is. You never know what you will find and you won't find anything if you don't look.

I took picking 25+ before I even parked a very good omen and it turned out to be true. I took it as a good sign because it meant that no one in the area was keyed into the same type of trees I was, or they would have never overlooked them. And as I suspected, there were lots of good producing trees were to be found. Also, the smaller stands of mixed woods were starting to put outs singles and small patches here and there. I was hoping to get 75 or 80 but to my delight I doubled my goal and came home with 150.

A nice fresh trio.

Lots of loners today

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Give and Ye Shall Receive - The Morel Hunters Retirement Plan

Look what the kids brought home today! !!

Don't I wish. I have been waiting to take photos like these, and although these are staged, someday this may indeed be true. I call it my (MRA) morel retirement account. Every good hunter should have one. Now before you ask, I only found 60 today though that 60 was well over two pounds. Actually, I have been saving much of my finds for the past week to accumulate such a basket. It is hard not to gobble them up but I have had pretty good luck despite the odd nature of the season.

Tomorrow many of them will get prepared for winter by frying and freezing and some will be dried, so I can eat morels all year long. About 1/3 will go to friends I have shared the woods with in the past who are no longer able to get out there.

If you find a good share it is always nice to share the bounty with the old timers. The joy and nostalgia they bring is quite worth it. Couple that with some good hunting stories from the heights of the Dutch Elm Disease invasion and it is more than worth it. Also, every now and then they may even give up an old tried and true spot to add to your arsenal.

The only thing more satisfying is perhaps finding the morels in the first place. I think I even enjoy watching other people eat the morels I pick, more than I do eating them myself and I absolutely LOVE them. Yet nothing is more satisfying than watching their faces light up when you hand them that paper sack. If you don't believe me just ask Camoshroomer to share the photo of Charlie Hirth's dad on his second breakfast of eggs and morels after Camo stopped by and gave up an afternoon's harvest. Some of you may recognize Charlie's name from the Begginer in Jefferson City post on

So, give now when the giving is good and perhaps someday, you will be rewarded for all that good karma from the next generation of mushroomers.

And speaking of old timers, here is one last parting shot of Jon eying his prize finds from yesterday's hunt. Seriously, he is hardly an old timer, especially when he hits the woods.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hot Hunting Hurrah

Found a few more today in the hot dry wind wondering where the heck spring went. Did we even get a full two weeks of spring this year? At several points I thought it was June and I should be looking for trumpets. If this heat keeps up the trumpets and chants might show up in early May, but I digress...

Several were nice, fat and leaning over like these tasty twins. About 15 percent were showing signs of age or drying out. I also found 4 morels that I didn't even bring home because when I picked them they were already starting to rot and had that unwelcomed sight of white mold inside. I crumbled these up and scattered their remains in hopes they will help seed next year's stock. No beer can sized ones yet and unless we get some rain on Friday, I fear there may not be many this year. Jon did find one that was easily 3/4 of a can so there is still hope

All in all I came up with 102 total when I got home, a handful of which went immediately into the drying rack because they were over half dried already. Here were the rest.

Not sure what Camoshroomer and Jon picked exactly. Most morels hunters don't count their money at the table, if you get my drift. I'd bet we pulled 200 to 225 in about 4 1/2 miles and 4 hours of walking and looking. In spite of the heat, it was still a good trip.

If anyone is starting to hit the hills and have success, please let me know. If the hills don't come alive soon it may be time to head north.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Get Them While They're Hot and Before They're Not

Sorry no post for a few days, but when I haven't been working, I have been trying to spend all the time I can in the woods picking before it is too late.

They are getting a lot bigger as you can see from the photos below. And in my southern spots the heat is not only making them big (where they begin to fall over and rot) but it is also drying a lot of them out. Also, the finds are dwindling. Camoshroomer and I only pulled about 150 total between us on Sunday. Meaning many people are picking and no new ones are showing up.

I was hoping my northern spots which seemed to flush a little later and were much smaller would be slower to ripen. When I went out and checked a spot yesterday that I hadn't walked in a week, they were much bigger (2 to 4 inches) and unfortunately about 1/4 of them were either dried up or showing signs of being on their way. Despite the depressing signs, I did manage to find 40 in under an hour, which I thought was good since I wasn't even planning on hunting that day, but managed to stop at a spot on the way back from a trip for work.

I fear that my lowland spots have stopped producing due to the lack of rain and the heat will not only help finish off the ones that are up but has brought ground temps too high so that no more flushes will occur. In a couple more days I could easily see going out and finding more bad ones than good and there is nothing more depressing than stumbling across a fine patch of rotten morels. At least you can take solace in the fact that it most certainly spored out so you can check it next year.

Now keep in mind that I am not saying that this is the case for Missouri or even my entire area. This is for the lowlands. I heard of reports in the last few days of finds of fresh grays in the hills, Hopefully, if we get some rain and cooler temps by the weekend, the hills, bluffs and other hardwood areas will come on strong.

Time to carry a bigger ruler.

How many? Look close, I didn't see the little guy until I cut them off.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Breaking in a Rookie

For me one of my favorite things about morel hunting is getting new people hooked on the madness. Even if you don't eat the things, all it takes is a good day to get the morel adrenaline flowing and there is no going back.

So when Jon mentioned that someone who attended our mushroom class last fall was wanting to go hunting, I figured it wouldn't hurt. Now don't get me wrong, I won't take just anyone along on our morel hunts. I mean morel spots are sacred and I and many other morel hunters have been burned by "friends" who swear they will not return to your areas but find knew ones, only to be caught red handed in your prime hunting grounds next year. I mean c'mon if someone is nice enough to show you the ropes, please show respect. There are plenty of other woods out there and there is no need to cheat and literally bite the hand that fed you.

Because of the acts by these lowly few, a person must be well trusted by me before I'd consider letting them come along in spring. The rest of the year is another story because the competition is so low. I'd take anyone out and I don't care if you use my patches of say chants or others, because there are more than any one group can pick.

Anyway back off my soapbox, so we took Anthony out for his first hunt. It was a beautiful day and it was fun having a large hunting party compared to my usual lonesome self. The day flew by. Camoshroomer met us about mid-day and I'd say we all did pretty good. I am not sure on the final count for everyone else. I pulled in just over 120, bringing my two-day total to over 300. Anthony of course being newest found the fewest, but it was still a good two hands full. Regardless of the actual numbers, I think this picture says success better than any pile of morels on a table ever could.

Anthony with his first finds. (photos for this post by Jon Rapp)

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Success - A Perfect Day in the Woods

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and since I am beat from a day in the woods, here are a few thousand words for tonight.

Getting much longer in the pits.

Some larger than usual grays.

A nice cluster of 5

This was one of the biggest at about 5 inches.

This was a real pain in the butt money tree. It had 19 around it amidst razor sharp blackberry brambles.

Total haul for me 180. The smaller pile was when I was by myself in the morning and the larger pile was when I was joined by camoshroomer in the afternoon (his pile is not shown, but I know he got at least 60). It was a beautiful day in the woods.

Just to see I wore a pedometer while I was hunting and according to it I took 18, 262 steps. So that works out to be about a mushroom every hundred steps and it is only April 8.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Morel Hunting is Like Voting - Do it Early and Often

Although my day was full with work and making my way to the polls for local elections, I managed to sneak out about an hour early and hit a spot I checked on Saturday. I didn't see anything in the spots I had checked over the weekend, so I walked back to an area I hadn't checked in over two years. Boy am I glad I did. There were tiny morels in several spots. Most were singles, but there were a few twins starting to make their appearances, like this nice pair of small yellows. All in all, it was a great day to be in the woods. Things are setting up nicely and with more rain and cooler temps on the way, I would say we are off to a fine start.

As I was taking this photo, I nudged a few leaves with my sleeve and to my surprise there was another set of twins hiding beneath. Just to give you an idea of how well hidden and out of sight these fellas can be this early in the season. Here is the before and after shot.



It was nice to find these tiny little grays still leaning over taking a nap. It also supports the fact that grays and yellows are the same species. They just change color based on stage of development and/or environmental conditions. These two pairs were not but 10 inches from each other, yet one was clearly yellow and the other clearly gray. The only difference was one pair was exposed, one was not. I left the gray ones behind, well covered, of course. I'll go back and check and see what color they are on my next visit.

You may notice that the pair of grays are leaning over. In fact, many of the ones I found today were still bent over and waking up. I suggest walking very lightly in your proven spots or you may be stepping on your chances for a good future harvest

Only 6 of the 25 or so that I uncovered were bigger than this little fellow, so that is all I took home. To be honest, I normally wouldn't have picked the others since they were only about 1 1/2 inches, but I just had to get a small taste. Mainly to satisfy my hunger for fresh ones, but also because I am a firm believer that having morels coursing through your system is a sure-fire way to locate more.

So, if you are in the woods keep a close eye out because most are just starting to peek through the leaves. They are a little easier to spot. Some are a little rusty in color from the cold night temps, the warm dry winds, or possibly a combination of the two. Not sure how they get that color, I just know that on this one, the "rust" was only on the exposed surfaces. Lots of those teeny tiny squirming varmints in these fresh ones, but a little extra protein never hurt anyone.

Monday, April 05, 2010

It's Only Just Begun - Finding the First Morel

After hunting a few hours on Thursday and most of the day Friday and Saturday and finding nothing, it sure was a pleasant surprise to see this little guy today. I wasn't planning on doing any hunting this afternoon, in fact I probably should have been working, but the weather and photos from Camoshroomer had me ducking out early and heading down some familiar back roads.

I only picked this one little guy and not because he was of any size at just under two inches. Actually it is my tradition to always pick the first one I see no matter what size. I dry it and place it in a small jar that I will carry with me in my bag for good luck next year. I started this tradition about 6 years ago and have always found my first within the first week of April. Everyone has their own little morel hunting superstitions. I'll have to save that topic for another post, because I have some good stories about hunters only going counterclockwise around trees and some of the other quirky things we do.

They are very small and it will take a few days more for them to get big enough to spot easily. I left quite a few behind to grow in several spots. At least I think that will grow and probably fairly quickly at first, if the weather forecast holds. Lots of hot humid weather which in my experience really increases their growth. I expect there to be good pickings by the weekend.

If you can wait, then that is the time to start. If you are like me and you just have to get out there, keep a close eye out around suspect trees because there is a good chance there could be something there but very small.

What is it that makes finding that first morel such a special rite of spring each year? It is almost a magical experience as you glance a hint of that unique pitted-pattern that after only a few days of searching in vain, becomes ingrained in your brain. For me it is always the same. I spot it while scanning the ground as always, so my eyes have to backtrack and I literally do a double, triple or sometimes even a quadruple take. After that I simply staring at it for at least fifteen seconds asking myself is this real. With the realization comes the satisfaction of knowing that they are here, that the season is on. And that is really why finding that first one means so much. It is the anticipation of waiting all winter dreaming of morels. Heck, if you have never found one before, then you have been waiting you're whole life. The anticipation must be deafening. To finally see, hold, and smell that first morel. Quite honestly words cannot describe the feeling. It is truly something that MUST be experienced.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Morels for some while most get skunked (some literally!)

I keep getting reports and checking from the boards I need to update my maps. Here is a photo sent by Shane Jr. from Hillsboro, MO. Way to go Shane Jefferson County will be on the map when I update it tomorrow night. Thanks for sending me the report and photo. Makes me a little jealous. Oh what am I saying it makes me a lot jealous.

I have been out the last few days finding no morels. On Thursday the first day I actually looked I spent an hour just working my way to my patches. I had to work around and wade a few sloughs in the woods that were backing up with flood waters shooting down from the north. After finally getting to my spots, I looked extra careful and did not see a thing.

To add insult to injury on the way back I literally got skunked, as I came face to face with one of the little varmints not four feet away. I saw him turn tail. To run or to spray I will never know because I was not about to stick around and find out. I took off in the other direction as fast as my out of shape legs could carry me (remember it was my first day in the woods and I was on the way home). Luckily I escaped but I took that as a sign and headed back to my Jeep.

Today I went out with Camoshroomer for a few hours scouting to no avail. Meeting up with a larger group of morel hopefuls tomorrow, so who knows we may just be able to turn up one or two yet. Although many signs are right (redbuds and dogwoods are budding, my forsythia is in full bloom, and many trees are already showing their green leaves) things seem a week behind for morels, but this good rain has some promise as long as the rivers don't rise too much more.