Jim McGuire: Rainy day morels

A gentle spring rain is a wonderful gift. Warm , nurturing—a good thing.

Good for grass and wildflowers and gardens. Good, too, for softening the yard which, come evening, tolls up lots of nightcrawlers for the plucking. And rain is good for the next day’s fishing, providing it doesn’t overly roil the streams.

But rain on the mid-April morning you planned to go mushroom hunting isn’t so good, comfort-wise, though it probably doesn’t much affect the mushrooms themselves, except to possibly encourage their growth.

Old-timers at the game claim a shower or two causes the inscrutable morels to “pop.” Summonsed from the loamy duff like ranks of wrinkled gnomes called hither by the incantations of a greenwood sorcerer.

I won’t argue about there being ample mystery and magic surrounding the whens, wheres and whys of morel mushrooms. They’re frankly the fungal equivalent of Churchill’s “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

And I tend to agree that rain, in moderation, helps.

Still, as with so many other things in life, timing is everything. The rainy morning’s dim light and dripping woods wouldn’t make finding whatever available mushrooms any easier.

Worse, when I parked in the gravel pull-off near my favorite morel woods, the rain had recommenced. A light-but-steady drizzle which caused me to pause and reconsider whether or not I actually wanted to go traipsing about under such conditions.

I deliberated the matter a full three seconds before exiting my vehicle.

Die-hard mushroom hunters aren’t noted for their overabundance of common sense. Otherwise, we wouldn’t go skulking about the puckbrush in hopes of stumbling upon a near-invisible fungi which—rain or dry—might or might not be present.

Compared to such overall folly, a little rain is meaningless.

Before setting off I donned a fleece-lined canvas pullover and retrieved my shoulder bag and walking stick. After exchanging my cap for a canvas hat in hopes its full brim might keep a few chilly drips from slithering under my collar and down my neck, I stepped over the sagging wire fence and headed into the saturated woods.

The low-hanging gray sky was like a thick wool blanket. I prefer soft, flat light when seeking mushrooms, but this illumination was overly dim. Spotting even a single morel in such near-dark would be a matter of luck.

In all the years I’ve been hunting this place, I’ve never found even a footprint to indicate anyone else visits. Maybe they’re discouraged by the thick fringe of briars and brushy undergrowth bordering the rural road. Whatever the reason, I’m fortunate and thankful, because that view is deceiving.

The unkempt and near-impenetrable outer edge soon gives way to a hidden jewel in the form of a huge tract of ideal mushrooming territory. Mature trees, thickly timbered miniature hollows, a small brook big enough to support a few minnow pools, and a scattering of damp, open glades—in which scads of bluebells were currently in riotous royal bloom.

A place where delectable morels thrive. Theoretically. If only I could keep the faith and locate a few.

I’d like to tell you that age and experience have begat mushrooming wisdom. To claim I can now enter a woods and soon begin plucking bounteous sponge-headed treasures from the leaf-mold—while insisting I’m so adapt at the task no wily morel escapes my skillful stalking.

In truth, I still find morels by walking and looking. Slowly, carefully. I search high and low, on hillsides, steep banks, along meadow edges, under patches of newly unfurled mayapple, beneath dead elms, rotting logs, old apple trees, and near creek edges.

Sure, I revisit productive hotspots. But at best, my methodology is a mere step beyond the “blind hog seeking an acorn” approach.

If there are any sure-fire secrets for locating morels, I haven’t figured them out. Folk wisdom and scientific guidelines abound. Some suggestions even make occasional sense by coinciding with where and how you once found a few mushrooms.

Yet just as often a patch of morels will break all the rules—appearing where common sense, past experience and general mushrooming lore deems improbable if not impossible.

My best advice is this: when hunting morel mushrooms, a peck of persistence and a smidgen of luck can make up for bushels of ineptitude.

Surprisingly, I found my first morel within minutes of entering the main woods. A dandy—fat and firm, the sponge head almost as big as my fist. In short order, I also spied and collected several similar mushrooms.

A half hour later the rain quit—or maybe it stopped earlier and, with the woods still a’drip, I simply hadn’t realized. But all at once a robin cut loose nearby, singing his heart out. I looked up, shifting my gaze from earth to bird-in-the-tree—then higher, to the ragged sky, where patches of crisp blue were visible to the west.

Hallelujah! I was elated! The weather was improving and the morels were popping. I was on their trail, with an entire April woods all to myself!

My collecting bag wasn’t full, but my prospects of a tasty supper suddenly seemed assured.

I felt blissfully optimistic. Plus I was only slightly damp!