"Bayou Bill" Scifres
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Recent Rambles
Copyright © 2005 by Bill Scifres

When Indiana and other midwestern states awaken from a winter of slumber, there are a blue million activities that beckon outdoors types.  Making decisions on how to spend those blissful April days can be tough, but not for those who mix and match their pleasures according to what is available. 

Mix and match outdoorsing has been a way of life for many Hoosiers in the fall when Mother Nature’s summer labors are coming to a head. Fewer of the outdoor set have applied this principle to the spring--more specifically April--when the old gal’s works are starting. 

Although those who fish in April may outnumber morel hunters, parlaying a fishing trip with a morel hunt can be as exciting as life gets. Throw in the simple enjoyment of wildflowers, birds and other wild critters and you have a great experience to charge against a day. 

Then, of course, there is the possibility of throwing in a daylight turkey hunt for good measure, not to mention collecting the prime ingredients for a delicious dish of greens, or harvesting pokeweed spears for frying (poor man’s morel in Southern Indiana). 

April adventures translate into days of discovery for me.  And though I may think I have been there, done that, I learn something new about the wild every time I take to wood and stream in April. Although we of the outdoor fraternity usually take to the outdoors with one--or possibly two or three activities--in mind, it often is the discovery of incidentals that make the day. The spring outdoorsman should be equipped to handle many situations. 

The point is well illustrated by fishing trip gone awry many years ago. 

It was a beautiful late-April day and many members of the family had gathered for dinner at our house. After dinner--as it was wont to do--full tummies brought naptime for some while others groggily whiled away this beautiful day watching TV. 

“There must be something better for me to do under such circumstances,” I said to myself, grabbing a five-gallon bucket, a little spinning rod, and a shirt-pocket-sized plastic box (a soap box) of small artificial lures. I would not be missed, I told myself, adding that I would like to go catch some bluegills to stock in my front-yard pond. 

Soon thereafter I arrived at the place where I would catch the bluegills. But to get to the pond, I had to walk through a quarter of a mile of beautiful wooded morel country. 

Striking out down a rough trail, I noticed the cap of a huge yellow morel lying beside its stem in the trail. Somebody kicked the cap off the stem without seeing it, I thought, knowing that I was duty bound to harvest this beautiful work of nature and use it. 

While bent over to pick up the mushroom cap and twist off its stem, my peripheral vision spread before me a blanket of huge yellow morel that covered the woodland floor. That ended the fishing for that day. When darkness engulfed the little woods, the five-gallon bucket and two plastic bags that must have held almost as many morels, were full. 

Spring foragers, as those of the fall, can’t always know in advance what they will encounter on a trip to the wild. But those who are prepared to harvest the many products of nature will be successful. 

For example, one day last spring while on a mushroom hunt that offered a wildflower bonanza, I ran smack’-dab’ into a beautiful patch of stinging nettle on a damp, gently-sloping hillside on the banks of a small creek that bisected a heavily wooded area. The dark green nettles, five or six inches tall, had yet to develop the little spines that cause the human skin to itch. 

Many foragers would have passed on the chance to collect these delicious greens for fear of getting a case of itchy hands and fingers. I pulled a bread sack and a pair of scissors out of the back of the shooting vest I almost always wear on my spring outings, and filled the sack with the prime  ingredient for a beautiful, nutritious dish of greens. 

Later I would rinse the green leaves and tender stems in cold, running water at the kitchen sink and slowly cook them (covered) in a cup of homemade chicken broth with a bit of chopped onion and morels. When the onion was tender, I drained off the excess liquid and creamed the mixture to create a dish that well complemented a dinner of fried bluegill filets. Note: A hard-boiled boiled egg sliced over the greens and a sprinkling of a favorite grated cheese will not dim the taste of this dish. Stinging nettles look very much like spinach when cooked, and in my book they are just as tasty. 

There are, of course, literally dozens of other plants that can be combined --or cooked alone--to turn into tasty table fare. When cooking such plants, it is a good idea to change the water, or broth, two or three times to eliminate any toxic qualities the plants might contain. 

Now, about those spring morels. 

When March turns to April--or even before--I am besieged with questions concerning spring mushrooms. Folks want to know the wheres, whens, and hows of mushroom hunting. 

Questions on when to hunt morels probably outnumber all others, and I most often say the best guide is wildflowers. However, such a statement hinges on weather conditions, especially rain. 

The importance of adequate moisture in the earth and warm air temperatures are well illustrated by last year’s weather conditions in central and southern Indiana. In the central part of the state last year there had been little rain when warmer air temperatures came. Morels were scarce and most were small. 

When rain appeared to be the spring morel’s savior, air temperatures turned cool--even cold--and bets for a good morel season were off. At the same time, warm, sunny days combined with good rains, and the spring morel season was very good--big finds of big mushrooms. 

Water and weather conditions right, I start looking for morels--small grays and blacks--when spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) covers forest floors with blankets of pinkish white. When this beautiful wildflower starts developing seedpods, it is time for big yellow morels, even the long-stemmed woods morels. 

The emergence of big yellow morels--even big grays--also is heralded by the lavender bloom of lilac bushes, a lawn fixture of many older homes. Another good spring morel barometer is the flowers of look-alike beauties bloodroot and twinleaf. When their eight-petaled flowers peak in their beauty, big grays and yellows (yallers) are nigh. When they develop their inch-long green seedpods those mushrooms are going over the hill into Michigan and other venues to the north. 

This barometric tendency of wildflowers to indicate the presence of morels brings to mind the question I have heard for many years: Do morels grow in patches of Mayapple? 

Based on my own observations of this matter, I always answered the question with a terse, “Of course not! What kind of silly notion is this?”

Some 20 years ago my tune changed. As I approached a large patch of Mayapple in my favorite mushroom woods I told myself there was no point in looking there. But as I skirted the patch my eyes settled on a huge yaller . . . nestled beneath the green umbrella of what else . . . a Mayapple. 

So where does one look when visions of a skilletful of well-browned morels occupy cerebellums? 

The late Chuck Weatherwax, Bloomington sage of morel wisdom, put the answer to this important question in perspective (and verse) many years ago when he sent me the following: 

“The thing that you’ve got to remember . . . 
 About mushroom hunting is that . . . 
 There ain’t no point in looking . . . 
 Until you’re where they’re at.”

I never met Chuck, but have always thought of him as a kindred spirit. 

Where do you look for morels? 

You look first around dead Dutch elm trees that are shedding their bark, in apple orchards, and around many other species of trees; especially you look around trees with loose bark or limb structures that offer resistance to the flow of air. 

An old morel-hunter theory holds that the spores (microscopic seeds) of morels are carried by the wind. The rationale indicates that loose bark of dead elms and the thick configuration of limbs and twigs of some trees slows the flow of air and spores drop to the earth where they develop as mushrooms in subsequent years. 

Thus, yet another axiom of morelling comes into play: mushrooms, like bass, squirrels, and other children of nature, are where you find them. However, this does not preclude the fact that my findings of many years in the mushroom woods indicate a good, general ability to identify trees at a distance will help fill your poke with morels. 

Some of my favorite trees are sycamore, yellow poplar  (tulip tree, Indiana state tree) ash, hickory and American beech. But I am not just exactly flabbergasted when I find a patch of morels in an area that contains none of the above. 

And while tracts of big woods have always seemed prime mushroom habitat to many mycologists, sparse growth of saplings can produce. The thinking here is that this kind of canopy lets in more sunlight than does thick stands of larger trees. 

So you’ve done it. You have gone out and found the mother lode of morels. The next question is what do you do with them? 

The quick answer to that question is:  PLENTY! 

Not to mention consuming, mushrooms may be frozen, dried, or canned for future use. These and many other columns related to mushroom hunting can be found via the search engine of this web site. Just type in “mushroom’ and you will find columns covering many aspects of this most-interesting outdoor activity.

Click on thumbnail image for enlarged view.

mushfind2.jpg (39834 bytes)
(Left) This patch of little gray beauties lived near a large dead elm tree.
(Right) Big grays and yellows more than filled this five-gallon bucket. 
mushbucket.jpg (27573 bytes)
deadelm.jpg (83570 bytes)
(Left) Slipping bark of a dead elm tree indicates morels may be nigh.
(Right) This patch of stinging nettles turned into a great dish of greens . . .Get them when they are young.
nettles.jpg (74615 bytes)
pokestalks.jpg (50752 bytes)
(Left) This pix will help new poke-shoot gatherers identify old and new growth. New growth comes up at the same places every year from tuberous roots.
(Right) Fried poke shoots are known as “the poor man’s morels” in Southern Indiana.
fryingpoke.jpg (23699 bytes)

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All columns, stories, and photos 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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