Morels: The other temptation for turkey hunters

His head rotating up and down like a bobblehead doll, Wendell Hacker alternately studies the terrain far ahead, and then sweeps the ground underfoot with his eyes. Steep walking is the order of the afternoon in this central Kentucky patch of woods, but the prize will be worth it.

"Sometimes you just come up on a patch of morels, and sometimes there are just a few," he says, never lifting his eyes. "You hardly ever find one in a spot without finding others there, too. And if you find the right place, you can load a sack in a hurry."

Finding a passel of morels in a relatively small patch of woods also will make a person like Hacker forget about turkey hunting, or at least nudge it out of the way for a while. For some reason that even the most dedicated 'shroomers can't fathom, morels are popping out of the ground by the thousands this spring.

Consequently, the lure of the prized mushrooms have presented a lot of turkey hunters another reason to stay in the woods between midday and roosting time. One of the few meals better than grilled wild turkey breast is grilled wild turkey breast smothered with sautéed morels. And if a turkey breast isn't handy, the morels will do by themselves.

Sponge mushroom, honeycomb, dry land fish, pine cone mushroom, hickory chick — by whatever name it's known, the morel has produced a bumper crop in 2009. Hunters scouting for gobblers were the first to make note of the mushroom bonanza, which began to appear as early as March in Arkansas, southern Missouri, northern Alabama and Georgia.

Hunting for morels

As a couple of its names suggest, the morel's cap resembles a conical sponge or honeycomb. Typically, it ranges in color from a light tan to black, with variations of grey and brown in between. The hollow stem is an eggshell color, generally, and easily cut or broken off at the base.

Because their color blends in well to a forest floor coated with dead leaves, it takes a practiced eye to see morels — no matter how plentiful they are. In 2003, Hacker found a morel that was 10 ½ inches long and "as big around as a Mountain Dew can," but that was an anomaly. Most morels average about 5 inches long and an inch or so in diameter.

There are clues to their whereabouts, however. Some mushroom hunters claim that the best place to look for morels is under certain types of trees — maples, hickories or tulip poplars, usually — but the fact is that they're apt to grow anywhere a hardwood leaf mulch has been laid down over many years.

Morels favor a loamy soil under a forest canopy, and in this they are similar to another spring plant that's very easy to spot: the mayapple, or umbrella plant. These short, green-leafed plants average about a foot across and often grow in clusters that fairly shout "Look here."

If the soil is right for mayapples, it's right for morels. However, mayapples only suggest that morels might be in the neighborhood, and don't guarantee it.

The Ohio and Tennessee River drainages are Morel Central now, but as the spring weather up north continues to moderate, hunters in the upper Midwest and Northeast should find plenty of mushrooms, too. The mushrooms don't grow much farther south than northeastern Texas and eastward to coastal South Carolina, but can be found as far west as California. Their primary range is in hardwoods country from the southern Ozarks and Appalachians north to southern Canada.

Why so many mushrooms?

The gourmet promise of the succulent fungi is an irresistible temptation to everyone in the morel heartland.

Consider the experience of David Jaimet as a prime example of the power that these here-today-gone-tomorrow mushrooms have over people. Thursday morning, April 16, found Jaimet sitting against a maple tree in the Kaskaskia River bottoms near his Belleville, Ill., home and wondering, in an angry sort of way, what it was going to take for him to kill a turkey.

Jaimet had just called in a gobbler, taken a shot at it while it was still a bit too far out, and missed. The tom had barely disappeared from sight when Jaimet knew how he could salvage the day. At 1 p.m., which is when legal hunting hours end for the day in southern Illinois, Jaimet went morel hunting with his hunting buddy, Kent Mason.

"Missing the gobbler kind of sealed the deal for me," says Jaimet. "I'd been seeing morels while we were walking around and once I got to Kent, I said 'we can kill a turkey some other time — let's get some mushrooms.'"

Within minutes, the two were chugging up the Kaskaskia River and searching for morels growing along its banks. They didn't have far to look.

"It was like there were hundreds of morels growing around the base of every maple tree," recalls Jaimet, a painter who had taken vacation time from his job to go turkey hunting. "We picked 56 pounds in about three hours and went home."

Like most turkey hunters who have found similar cornucopias this spring, Jaimet is at a loss to explain why there seems to be such a morel bonanza.

"We had a lot of morels about 7 years ago, and then it was just kind of feast or famine since then," he notes. "There were a few mushrooms a couple of years ago, but not near as many as there are now."

Cooking suggestions

Keep it simple. After soaking overnight in a pan of water to remove any insects and spore, sauté fresh-picked morels and serve them with steak or other meat. If the morels are the main course, dip them in a stirred-egg, roll them in flour with salt and pepper, and fry them in butter or olive oil over moderate heat. They'll brown within a few minutes

Morels freeze well; wrap portions in freezer wrap and then seal them in zipper-seal bags. Defrosted morels typically are used in pasta sauces, stews, casseroles and soups.

Carl Smith, a forester with the Tennessee Division of Forestry in Cookeville, Tenn., reports the same sort of abundance of morels in middle Tennessee. In the last couple of weeks he's come across a few turkey hunters toting sackfuls of "dry land fish," as he terms them, from the woods.

"This year beats anything I ever saw for mushrooms," says Smith. "When I started hearing about all the morels, my wife and I went hunting and picked about a thousand in a couple of evenings after Easter."

Hacker is no mushroom expert, and most of what he knows about morels he heard at the Mountain Mushroom Festival, which takes place in Irvine every year on the last weekend in April. He wants to win the award for the largest morel, and the record is 11 ½ inches.

Every spring Hacker goes back to the place where he found the 10 ½-inch morel, hoping to find one that's even bigger, but no such luck. There's an unpredictability to morels that he doesn't understand.

"I've been told that you can't count on morels to be in the same place every year and I know it's true," says the wiry Kentuckian. "I've read that they spread by tiny spores and it just depends on how the wind is blowing on the day that their spores are released. They might ride the wind for 5 miles before they settle; they might blow north one day and south the next. There's no certainty to it."

Mycologists tell us that, given the proper soil requirements, morels thrive in an environment where gradually warming spring weather and damp conditions awaken the sleeping spores and begin the growing process. A steady warm-up without too many dips below the 40- degree mark, accompanied by frequent rains, was the recipe for a great morel crop this year. Given the harsh winter that the middle of the country experienced from December through February, it's a bit surprising — or maybe not.

"Sometimes things to do better after they've gone through hard times," says Hacker, still scanning the hillside ahead. "It seems like dogwoods always bloom better after a dry summer. I don't know why that is, but maybe it's the same with mushrooms after a hard winter. And we darn sure had one."

The winter of 2008-2009 was bitter throughout morel country, no doubt. In Kentucky and adjoining states, it was topped off by the damndest limb-busting ice storm ever seen in modern times. Many of the trees under which Hacker walks have gnarled broken branches that clamp down toward their trunks like arthritic fingers. If the big morel bonanza has a scientific explanation, or is some sort of demonstration of remorse on nature's part for an unnecessarily harsh winter, Hacker isn't stopping to consider the answer.

"Morels are only around for a few weeks. Then it gets hot and they stop growing for another year or so," he says, pausing long enough to drop another morel into his plastic sack. "You've got to get them while the getting's good."

And then he's gone again, zigzagging his way through the tortured maples.