The Morel may be my favorite mushroom (taste-wise), but the Spring season isn't my favorite season. There are a few other mushrooms out there in the Spring, but not near as many as in the Fall. So Morels are definitely the focus.
And here in Washington State, Morel hunting is a tough go. This is primarily because they grow mainly in burned-out Douglas Fir forests, and there is fierce competition for them with professional hunters, who take the lion's share. These hardy folk are out there each Spring, and they know where their favorite spots are. Makes it hard to compete.
Another limiting factor is my relatively poor eyesight. Morels are usually quite hard to spot, looking a little like a pine cone sitting in a pile of pine needles (and other pine cones).
Nonetheless, my Morel-loving friends and I have seen some limited success in past years. The photo below shows our take during a Spring hunt a few years ago in a canyon near Leavenworth, Washington. My hunting companions, the couple pictured, are my sister Kay, and her husband Tom.
In addition to the Morels, we also found something which you will never find when hunting for Fall mushrooms in Western Washington. I came within inches of stepping on a Western Rattlesnake which was sunning itself on top of a natural log bridge suspended over a rushing stream. He rattled like crazy trying to warn me, but naturally I couldn't hear the rattle over the noise of the stream. I'd say my foot was about 8 inches from his head when I spotted him, and almost fell off the log into the boulder-strewn creek below (which could have been equally bad as getting bit ... very few rattlesnake bites are actually fatal, although being a good three-mile hike from any ability to contact emergency help, a bite from a four-foot Western Rattler would probably have made me very sick).
After I gained a safe distance and called Tom and Kay over to take a look, he asked me if I wanted him to take care of it. (He works for Homeland Security and is a very good shot with a pistol.) I don't really believe in karma, per se, but I nonetheless told him, "No, that would be bad form. He didn't kill me when he had the chance, so I think I'll return the favor!" Hopefully he didn't bite any other hunters, or I would wish I hadn't been so magnanimous.
Anyway, back to morels. A year later, two church friends of mine, Sebastian and Eric, pictured above, returned with me to the same canyon. Though we looked carefully this time, we didn't see any more rattlesnakes. And we only found one very teeny, tiny Fire Morel. My friends mocked me mercilessly both during and after our rigorous hike. ("Can we eat it now! We may starve to death out here!")
Before our Leavenworth area hike, Kay and I searched the burned-out forests in Okanogan County, near Winthrop, the spring following the bad fires there in 2014. Professional pickers were out and we sat at a buyer's station watching them bring in bushels of Fire Morels. (We even bought a pound or two of top grade shrooms from one picker for quite a reasonable price, after we failed to come up with a single shroom of our own during an afternoon of hunting. When I expressed my frustration at being thusly skunked to the picker, he laughed. "It took me three full days of fruitless hunting until I found the spot where I found these," he informed me graciously.)
The prior Spring, before the Okanogan fires, my son Nathan and I had found some nice (in terms of quality, not quantity) Fire Morels in the Blewitt Pass region, and had them with a campfire New York steak dinner which I consider a highlight meal of my life so far. (My son is a masterful chef! And the Morels were fantastic simmered in steak drippings in a cast iron pan over a maplewood fire.)
I am frequently asked whether Morels grow in Western Washington. One friend swore that he had picked them every spring in a Cottonwood stand down by a local river, and enjoyed them for years. After he described where he had found them, and what they looked like, I informed him that what he had been enjoying were most likely False Morels -- Verpa. (The difference between Verpa and true Morels is mainly that the stipes of true Morels are hollow, and Verpa are filled with a fluffy white substance.) But I've read that Verpa taste just like real Morels, and don't bother most people who eat them. I've not yet tried it, even though I found a few up in the Bellingham area once.
I did find some true Morels once (yellows and maybe a black or two) here in my hometown of South Hill, Washington. A friend texted me a photo of some Morels he found growing in his lawn, on the edge of a beauty bark bed. ("They look just like dog turds," he informed me. "Don't touch them!" I exclaimed excitedly. "I'll be right there!" The 10-minute drive seemed like forever. I tried cooking them in a new recipe (breaded and deep-friend, Ohio-style), and decided I didn't care for them that way near as much as I liked them grilled. But oh well. For some reason my friend declined to try any. His loss.
I've heard of other beauty bark Morel stories scattered throughout Western Washington. I assume the beauty bark is impregnated with Morel spores in its natural habitat, and it's good for a single season after that. I checked my friend's beauty bark for several years afterward, and never found another mushroom there.
Even Fire Morels seem to diminish in the same spot over time. The Spring after the fire they are most prominent, but in year two they are quite decreased. I've read that in year three they come back in quantity, then in year four, once again, they are very limited. They usually disappear after that.
I have no personal experience with this (yet), but I'm told the story is much different in the Midwest, where Morels grow in many relatively undisturbed forest locations. Michigan seems to be the national sweet spot for Morels each year, and I've also read reports of them occurring in many other states in the Midwest, the northern South, all the way out to the East Coast. My daughter and her husband, who live in Pennsylvania, feed me reports of many morel finds there each summer.
So I guess I need to do what I always do when it comes to finding exotic mushrooms — TEST. This coming Spring I am tentatively planning a national Morel tour. I will gird up my mushroom mobile (Jedediah, pictured in action in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, at right) and head east. We'll take the northern route across, hunting in northeast Washington, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota before swinging down into Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, then up into Michigan.
After thoroughly exploring Michigan I will swing down into Ohio then east into Pennsylvania, where I will hunt with my daughter and her family. Then the return voyage will see me heading south into West Virginia, and west into Kentucky, Missouri, and possibly Oklahoma before heading home (there are lots of friends and family I need to visit in Colorado, Arizona, and California on the way home ... and I also want to check out reported Morel sightings in Northern California and Oregon).
This will probably take all of May and part of June, and while I'm on the road, in addition to driving and hunting, I will continue to do a lot of writing and posting to MushroomObsession.com.
I know most wild mushroom hunters have a reputation for being secretive, but one of the things that has always driven me as a mycophile is the desire to share what I am learning with others. Hence I've trained dozens of people how to hunt in my own favorite Fall hunting grounds on the flanks of Mt. Rainier. And I plan to continue this tradition during the Spring Mushroom Tour, blogging about where I'm finding the best mushrooms, so others can enjoy them as well. (There are plenty of wild mushrooms out there for all of us, in my opinion!)
I'll be using sites such as http://www.morelhunters.com/, which reports Morel sightings, in my journey, but I'd also like to hear from (and possibly meet up with) you! Do you have a favorite spot where you hunt Morels or other spring mushrooms? Please let me know, so I can include it in my adventures, if possible. Simply email MushroomObsession@LarryShort.com. I reply to all inquiries except those sent by spammers. Thank you!