"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Copyright © 2002 by Bill Scifres

Ah! April!

Of all of the months of the year, April must be my favorite--for a great variety of reasons--in spite of the fact that this fickle month doesn’t quite know whether it wants to be March or May or at times, even February or June.

April, it would seem, was invented for the express purpose of demonstrating the old saw about our weather: “If you don’t like Indiana weather, just wait a minute or two.”

However, however the weather scenario may go, there always are enough spring-like days to pull the trigger on a smorgasbord of a warm-weather activities (to-wit morels, wildflowers, bird migration, and fishing, to name a few), and enough miserable days to make us appreciate the aforementioned.

April brings old and new friends together in folk-friendly situations, and not all of the players have fancy scientific names like Homo sapiens.

In my book, morel hunting has to be numero uno. But, in reality--if you will tolerate my Spanish--it can be parlayed with such nature-loving activities as bird watching, wildflower ogling, gathering greens, wild turkey hunting and a great variety of fishing opportunities. Each is to “morelling” as bacon is to eggs. Life can only get better when you combine them. 

True, the morel hunting can be a lot like Finnigin’s “off again-on again” train. But most often this cannot be blamed on the weather halting the march of morels to the pan; but rather, simply keeping mushroom hunters close to the couch.

And unlike the popular misconception of some mushroom experts, neither snow, nor rain, nor heat,  nor gloom of night stays these little couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds . . . I have plucked morels from standing water, snow banks, and from many other adverse settings. Once the northward advance of the sun pushes their button, the game is on and a weather change does not call time.

True, in adverse weather conditions, morels may not be as large as they would be in warm weather, but they are there, their little caps at times being no larger than the head of an old-fangled kitchen match. Finding the little guys,  incidentally, is one of  the things that separates mushroom hunter from those who walk in the woods.

This might also be a good time to point out that folks who tell you water will cause morels to deteriorate probably do not quite understand all they know about morels. Washing mushrooms in cold, running water is an absolute must in my book, for the simple reason that it tends to separate this most edible morsel from the mites and other insects and foreign objects that collect in the hollow stems and caps.

When I was younger--much younger--I stored morels in water (refrigerated) before I learned that prolonged exposure to water will cause them to become soft. So it is a good idea to wash morels to eliminate the unwanted properties, then drain and store them in plastic bags (often bread bags) in the frig. I keep morels in this manner for nearly a month, but you have to watch them carefully because eventually they will mold. For this reason, if you haven’t cooked morels in a week or 10 days, it is a good idea to freeze or dry them (see procedures for such on the Mushroom page).

This is a good place to point out that Dr. Barth Wheeler, who now hunts morels on his own private mushroom patch in southeastern Ohio, and the late  Dr. William “Bill” Peare, were/are the most knowledgeable morel experts with whom I have been associated.

They practiced family medicine together at Huntington for many years. How anyone ever managed to get that much morel expertise under one roof is beyond me, but it was there. And I am compelled to belatedly offer my apologies and condolences to their fellow doctors, nurses and other aides for having to tolerate them from the time each year when they got that far-away, late-winter morel look in their eyes, until the morels slipped over the hill into Michigan in the waning days of  May.

Most doctors,  it seems, work hard for four to six and a half days and take Wednesday afternoon off for golf and other pursuits. During the spring morel season the B&B doctors worked Wednesday afternoon and took the rest of the week off to pursue the elusive morel. However, I must admit to being  “part and/or parcel” to their erratic behavior.

We had our common favorite spots and we often hunted them together. 

One afternoon along the banks of a little creek not far from Huntington, Bill picked something over 600 morels,  and I sacked more that half that many while recording much of the bonanza on film. We suffered greatly that Barth could not be with us.

One day, I thought I might elude both of them and sneak into some of our favorite patches while they worked. I drove like crazy to be there shortly after noon. When I parked and headed into the woods it appeared that my scheme was working. Then, at a distance, I noticed this tall, gangly fellow heading to the shallow-water crossing of the little stream that bisected this favored area. It couldn’t be Bill, I told myself. But on the chance that it was--or that this interloper might blunder into the hot patch, I took the short cut (down a very steep hill infested by white trillium and ten thousand other wildflowers).

It was a wild slide on my posterior, but I managed to miss the flowers and was only 100 yards or so from the hot patch when I skidded to a stop at the bottom.

Taking my time while looking for mushrooms that might have strayed from it, I eased into the brushy outer perimeter of the hot patch area. But I noticed this gangly fellow coming into the hot patch from the other direction. It was, indeed, Bill, but I was certain he did not know I was there.

The wildflowers had told me it was high time for morels, but it also was time for some fun.
Hunkered down behind some brush, but eyeballing him through my little binoculars, I cut loose with my best owl call: “WHOO, WHOO, WHOO, WHOO . . . WHOO, WHOO ARE YOU.”

My call bounced off  the hill and rang through the woods like a ball-peen  hammer striking an anvil on a sub-zero midnight. It stopped Bill in his tracks. 

For several seconds he just stood there with this puzzled look on his face. Then, in an equally loud voice, said: “All right, you old son-of-a-gun (not his exact words), I know you are here . . . where the h--- are you?”

Our only conversation for about a year had been by telephone. Little wonder that we greeted each other warmly. Little wonder, too, that we filled several bread sacks and some other bags that afternoon.

Although filling bread sacks with morels may be my prime objective when I am in the woods at this time of year, the realization that I am entering a grove of paw-paw bushes can make me forget all fungi at least temporarily. I want to see--and often to photograph--the little green and burgundy, bell-like flower which hangs straight down toward the earth.

Few morellers ever see this flower, but with its deeply-embedded stigma covered with bright sequins, it is something to behold. And it seldom is wider than half an inch.

Morel time also is spring warbler time and the woods is the place to see them best. Once, toward the end of the morel season when woodland weeds were knee-high or better, I stood motionless with my back against a large ash tree and with binoculars watched the antics of a flock of 10 or 12 redstarts, apparently feeding on something on the tops of sweet cicely. With the males in their black and orange mating suits it was a never to be forgotten experience, morels or no morels.

Incidentally, if you have a problem identifying sweet cicely, break a stem and smell it--the pleasant aroma of licorice.

Although  the riotous splurge of wildflowers could never be fried to a golden brown to make a coleslaw taste just right, it is an integral part of any walk in the woods in April.

Combining fishing with morel hunting has always been an important part of my life in April. Many years ago--perhaps in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s--I was obsessed with the notion that I should have a picture that would illustrate the practice of combining fishing and morel hunting. 

Laden with photographic equipment (including my trusty old Speed Graphic, which I had rigged with a makeshift electronic system for taking pictures of myself . . . I am not really that vain, rather a victim of circumstances . . .  not having someone to accompany me on all of my safaris).
I drove to the large wooded area that I hunted with doctors B&B, but this time I managed to catch both of them working.

What I wanted to do was catch some bass and pick some morels, then photograph the results of my feat.

The little creek that fed a larger lake was a foot or 18 inches above normal and slightly murky, a condition which apparently had pulled many of the bass of  the lake up into the stream. At the first hole of deeper water things looked promising--at least for the bass. The cascading runoff water shot through a narrow opening (no more than six feet wide), and over a sand/gravel bar before it ran smack-dab into the inundated roots of a gnarled old sycamore tree and curled back upstream to create an eddy which I thought the most persnickety bass would have loved to call home.

Standing (in knee boots) in the edge of the water no more than 10 feet from the swirling eddy, I flipped a Dan Gapen hairy-worm (black hair and worm) into the eddy and found an immediate taker. They weren’t large bass, but they were keepers (this was before catch-and-release) and soon I had my limit of six fish in my burlap bag (better known to some of my jocular and snooty angling friends as the Bayou Bill Creel).

“Let ‘em laugh,” I always say, “A burlap bag will keep fish alive.”

To make Phase 1 of my mission--catching the bass--even more satisfying, on the fourth or fifth bass I noticed a yellow morel about the size of a baseball perched near the base of the old sycamore,  and protected by a patch of wild blackberry canes--complete with brutal stickers.
With my bag of bass tied to a small willow, I crawled  back to the high bank, laid my spinning outfit aside and went after that morel. Getting there wasn’t easy, and it was painful as the blackberry thorns gouged me from all directions. But it was worth the effort--even the loss of  blood. Before I could pick the big fellow, numerous of his friends hove into view and when they were all in the bread sack it was time to take some pictures.

Unfortunately, as I started setting up the tripod for the pictures, I could see dark clouds scudding in from the southwest and hear thunder and see lightning coming my way.

I hightailed it to my car and managed to beat the storm by minutes. But I did not have the pictures I wanted and I knew darkness would come before the storm had passed.

That night at home I put the bass on ice and the morels (still whole) atop the fish in the frig.
The next day dawned bright and clear--ideal for pictures. With the bass and morels on my wet burlap bag at the edge of the little creek behind the house, I finished the job although I am diametrically opposed to phony pictures.

When John Gallman, then Editorial Director of the IU Press, selected the picture for the dust jacket of my first book (Indiana Outdoors), my first--and only--phony picture was published. “Truth will out,” and “Confession of our faults is the next thing to innocence,” if I may borrow from some scribes of yestercenturies.

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All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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