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