"Bayou Bill" Scifres
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Recent Rambles
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Scifres
April

Sweet April showers do spring May flowers.” 
-- Thomas Tusser (1524 –1580)

Since at least as early as the 16th century it has been no secret that “April showers bring May flowers.” I will go the pundits one better on that score--even two better, or more.

Surely! In my book, April showers do trigger an explosion of wildflowers that literally paints forest floors and meadows with bright hues. It is, indeed, another gift of the Magi.

But April showers also trigger an explosion of fungi that has been set on “touch” throughout the waning days of winter, not to mention high water which translates into some unusual, but often quite productive, fishing opportunity.

Before advancing my thinking on the latter two points, I probably should point out that I would go to the woods in April to enjoy Mother Nature’s flower basket even if The Creator had not thought up spring morels and the piscatorial set.

Wildflowers--from the inconspicuous harbinger of spring (a k a salt and pepper, Erigenia bulbosa), one of our earliest showoffs, to the varied members of the trillium family (and at many stops between) are a huge magnet that tugs incessantly at me in April.

Yes, the wildflowers would be quite enough for me, and they don’t confine themselves to terra firma. Some of our most beautiful spring flowers will be found on trees and shrubs without mentioning spectacular displays by redbud, dogwood and some of the others that scream to be noticed.

Take, for example, the wooly-worm-like flowers of the many hickory species found in Hoosierland, or the leaves of some of the oaks in their early stages of life . . . or even the reddish-pink flowers of the maples . . . Beauty beyond comparison . . . and there is no end to the parade for those who open their eyes to April.
 

Trout Lily Photo
Pin Oak Seedling Leaves Unfolding Photo
The trout lily offers beauty in April, but it also speaks volumes about spring morels. As leaves of this pin oak seedling unfold, their subdued pink and gray hues are surpassed in beauty only by the symmetrical design of the branches.
[Click on photo to view larger image.]

Now, let’s deal with those morels, which occupy most outdoor minds in Indiana at this time of year, and that high-water fishing.

This page already is loaded with information on finding, cooking and preserving morels (just do a search on mushrooms).

But I probably should point out that it already is later than usual for the earliest of the morel species--the little waxy caps, a small version of the semilibera species that have a stem connecting above the outer perimeter of the cap.

The wildflowers come into play here. Not much point in looking for morels--even the small grays (which actually are whites) until the spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) has been in bloom for a spell--even starting to seed.

But don’t wait too long to try your luck. If bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and the yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum) or Adder’s tongue (the white version) go to seed before you get there, you will be too late for grays. At this time you will do well to look for “big yallers,” the big woods mushroom that can reach heights of a foot or more and weigh in at close to a pound, or even more with much of its bulk in the stem.

There are, of course, many other fungi to enjoy in April; some are edible, and some are to be enjoyed for their interesting features, including their striking beauty.

I consider Dryad’s Saddle (Polyporus squamosus) a poor substitute for morels on the table, but as the old saw goes, “any port in a storm,” should guide your efforts. The rich brown formations on a base of whitish-cream are most interesting to view. And if you cut away the porous, sponge-like material on the bottom of the cap and slice it about 1/8th inch thick, it is not bad sautéed in bacon frying, olive oil, or a mix of the two. No need to flour it.

The false morel (Gyromitra, probably infula here) is much feared by many “armchair” mycologists and news gatherers because they say it is poisonous. All of this may--or may not--be true (I have consumed the common barn-red variety we see most often in Indiana, and I am still quite alive.)

Furthermore, while I do not recommend this fungi (a k a elephant ear) for table use, there is no need to be concerned about confusing it with any morel. The two, untrue to popular misconception of those who have never seen or touched a false morel, do not resemble each other even remotely above their stipes (stems).

Incidentally, a search of this web site (false morel) will produce both text and pictures to put this “problem” in perspective.

Another activity that goes with morel hunting like bacon goes with eggs is the harvest of so-called “greens.” 

When I was a kid, it was not unusual to see ladies of my old Hoosier hometown (Crothersville, Jackson County) out with aprons held high and filled with a great variety of green produce provided by nature.

Cooked with a chunk of bacon, smoked pig hocks, or a ham bone (with liberal meat), this mixture of dandelion, curly-dock, pokeweed, lamb’s-quarter, etc. would not only serve as a delicious dish on the dinner table, but as a spring tonic for winter-razed bodies (the old folks said).

Poke shoots also are known in Southern Indiana as “the poor man’s morel” when par-boiled, split lengthwise, and fried (a la morel). For more on these subjects, do simple searches (poke weed and cooking morels) and my past efforts will be at your command.

Then, of course, there is wild turkey hunting in 90 of Indiana’s 92 counties a little later in the month (search wild turkey).

Now! How about that high water fishing and the closely-allied activity of night crawler hunting for the bait you will need for the angling?

This is fishing for bullhead catfish, also known to Hoosiers as chuckleheads, yellow-bellies, and numerous other names.

It is setline fishing--much like the fishing for channel, blue and flathead catfish--but you do it on a smaller scale and usually n smaller waters.

As most anglers know, Indiana waters host three species of bullheads--yellow, brown and black. The yellow bullhead most often gets larger than the other two, but they all are great table fare, mostly because they offer the great catfish taste with little or no bone . . . almost like eating a banana.

My first exposure to high-water bullhead fishing came when I was less than 10 years old.

Garland “Big Mitch” Mitchell, one of my mentors in many facets of life, planned the trip with his younger brother and my older brother. I was allowed to go along.

With cans of garden worms, hooks, weights and light line, we walked west through field and wood from Crothersville as the sun sank on a late-April day.

We arrived at the low-water bridge of the Little Dredge Ditch (some two miles west of town) just before sunset. That gave us plenty of time to fashion several miniature four-hook “throw lines,” and bait up at good looking pools before dark.

Due to rain earlier in the day, the creek (more drainage ditch than stream) was a foot or so above normal and muddy. It was just right for bullhead fishing because the whiskered set seems to find its food by scent rather than sight.

We brought in a good supply of driftwood for a fire, baited out hand (dead ash pole) lines, and settled down on beds of dry horseweeds (giant ragweed) from the previous summer to await the action.

The bite started soon after dark (daylight time was a gleam in some kook’s eye in those days) and they still were biting when we headed home about 11 p.m.

With an old kerosene lantern and a flashlight that worked when jiggled just right, we ran the lines, took off the fish, and re-baited gobs of worm about every half hour. The stringer held 25 fish when we got home and they weighed a tad over 13 pounds.

Cleaned (scalded, scraped to remove the slimy skin, gutted, and with heads cut off) the fish filled two stone crocks--one for each family. Needless to say, the Mitchell and Scifres households enjoyed fish dinners the next night.

I have practiced the art of high-water bullhead fishing every time I have had the chance since that late-April night of yesteryear. Over the years, I have made some changes--especially in cleaning the fish (I now skin them rather than scald them); fancy rods and reels have replaced my dead-ash poles, too. But this simple miniature set-line angling technique has lost none of the luster I knew with my body sprawled on a bed of horseweeds, as the smell of fresh-plowed ground mingled with the sounds of a county night, and the sights of a star-studded sky.

How to skin and cook catfish--bullheads and others--will be the subject of another story to come soon on this site.

The same spring rains that set the stage for the aforementioned activities also make it possible to catch night crawlers which may be stored for long periods of time if placed in a mixture of soil and decaying grass, leaves or other moisture-holding materials. The container that houses the worms should be kept in a cool, dark place and covered to thwart raids by mice and other animals or birds.

Night crawlers are happiest when in a culture that is damp, but not wet. 

Rain is important because night crawlers are rained up, not down. When the earth becomes saturated with water, night crawlers must come to the surface to avoid drowning.

On most warm spring nights night crawlers also come to the surface of the earth to mate with others of their kind (they are bisexual). But unless the earth is very wet, their tails will remain in their burrows and the slightest disturbance (even vibrations caused by a heavy step or the beam of a strong light) will send them to safety with the speed of sound.

As the old saw goes: “Catching the bait really is half the fun of fishing.”
 

White Trillium Image
Scouring Rush Image
The large-flowered (white to most Hoosiers who have seen them) trillium is our largest of the trillium species. The large white blossoms (well over two inches in diameter) take on a tinge of pink with age. 

One day, en route to a favored morel patch, I half-rolled, half-slid down a steep, wooded hill and stopped eyeball-to-eyeball with this patch. I shot the picture because I wanted to see the moss-covered logs and their captors for many years to come.

Giraffe Knees

As young scouring rush push their way up through the earth in the spring, they remind me of giraffe legs. Their black and orange colors will take your breath away.
 

[Click on photo to view larger image.]


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All columns and stories 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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