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Jerry Davis: Spring means morel hunting, and more are looking

May 18, 2019

DODGEVILLE – Peeking into Tom Howard’s freezer reveals more than a ring-necked pheasant breast or a few bluegill fish filets.

There could be samples of last spring’s yellow oyster mushrooms; autumn’s hens of the woods fungi; and morel morsels, this spring’s reward, already picked and frozen.

Many morels never make it to Tom’s preservation appliance. They’re eaten, but not hand-to-mouth like hickory nuts or black raspberries. Even raw on salads is a no-no for any mushroom, even edible morels.

Part of the joy for Howard is “kitchen concocting” a day’s field and forest effort.

Some who gather even say it’s the only mushroom worthy of its hyphal mats (fungus body).

Easy to identify, but difficult to discover, morels pop up almost anywhere, but…

“Most people who are novice morel hunters are likely to be first walking and looking at the ground,” Howard said. “They need to know that the hunt begins by looking up for vase-shaped dead and dying American elm trees. Find one such tree, particularly way off away from a beaten path, and then make a beeline in that direction.”

But why such magnetism for a little fungus? Part of it is the spring season, hunters say.

“It’s the best time to be in the woods,” Howard contends. “Everything is fresh and green and sprouting. One never knows what you’re going to see over the next horizon; a turkey nest, a new fawn, all matter of things.”

The weather usually cooperates; it’s just a nice time to be outside.

“Morels are almost impossible to mistake for something else,” he contends. “If the stem is hollow, you’re on the right track.”

And some go out for commercial reasons, but most who gather morels frown there. In fact, picking and then selling from most public land forays, including state parks and wildlife areas, is illegal. Feed yourself and friends, and stop there or pick on private land and sell.

If the foray is fruitful, preservation is likely necessary. Drying is one option. Howard likes freezing them if immediate consumption, friendly giving, and landowner gifting run short.

“I don’t ever wash morels, just cut them lengthwise, brush out any hitchhikers or sand ants may have carried in, and proceed,” he said.

Dehydrating is easy. Split the morel in half, arrange on a dehydrator, air dry or place in an oven at the lowest temperature, then into the freezer because it’s a convenient place to store them.

Or, split, lightly fry them a couple minutes per side, place on cookie sheets and freeze and then place them in plastic bags and back in a freezer. They’ll separate easily when ready to use, one or 100 at a time, Howard says.

The future on moreling is not all positive. According to Tom, many of the huge white elms are gone; the red elms are not as friendly a host to morel mycelia as white elms are, and many more gather them than most suspect.

“It’s harder to find that motherlode of a hundred or more under one tree,” he said.

Secondary locations need to be considered, too. Apple trees, prairies, aspens, oak and ash trees are all possibilities, as well as where someone throws out the wash water from cleaning morel mushrooms during previous years.

Safety should always be a concern when outdoors. Spring is a great time for ticks, some of which harbor Lyme disease-causing bacteria. Fallen, decomposing logs are often slippery, especially when standing on one to get a better view of nature’s morel garden. Multiflora roses have backward-pointing prickles. Raspberry brambles make excellent boot-catching trippers. Plastic bags to woods-carry morels commonly rip from thorns, spines and pickles, allowing the fruiting bodies to trickle out, one at a time.

Morel walking sticks are best found and fashioned for a particular purpose but unfortunately good ones can’t be purchased.

All told, morel gathering can be fruitful and to be sure, you’ll be in good company, possibly too good.

Contact Jerry Davis, a freelance writer, at sivadjam@mhtc.net or 608-924-1112