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Hunting an elusive but tasty prey with your bare hands

April 26, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

The Sunday forecast was for early clouds, followed by sunshine and maybe some thunderstorms late in the afternoon. A night rain followed by a warm day promised good weather for a pursuit I'd never heard of before I came to Hagerstown 30 years ago - hunting wild mushrooms.

The mushrooms of choice are not the white-capped type you see at the supermarket, but morels, which resemble (to me) sea sponges on a stalk.

Notoriously difficult to cultivate, they are so prized that they even have their own organized group of hunters, The National Morel Mushroom Hunters Association, which you can visit at

www.morel. org.

In February, Francis Skalicky of the Missouri Department of Conservation wrote an article on morels for the Springfield News-Leader.

According to Skalicky, morels were first identified in 1822 by Swedish naturalist Elias Fries, a pioneer in the study of fungi, which is what morels are.

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Supermarket mushrooms are often grown in animal manure, but morels are nourished by decaying matter of the forest floor and in old stream beds.

Skalicky says morels sprout from an underground network of tiny fibers called hyphae.

Hyphae make up the mycelium, which is in effect the body of the mushroom tree. Skalicky likened the morel itself to an apple, which spreads the seeds of its tree.

The House and Garden TV program "Rebecca's Garden" did a show on morel hunting that quoted expert Jamie Dierson.

His advice: Hunt on a day after a recent rain when the temperature hits at least 70. Look near dead elm or cottonwood trees and carry a stick to turn over forest litter, so you don't trample them.

I can't tell you where we went Sunday, because mushroom hunters guard their spots like moonshiners hide their stills.

I'll only say that the patch was in Washington County and three miles from the road. We moved out in a spitting rain, canvas bags in hand for what we hoped would be a hefty harvest.

Walking through the forest on what seemed to be a deer path, I noticed the small reddish leaves of poison ivy just beginning to sprout. The first area we searched yielded little or nothing, except muddy feet and some scratches for my wife, who had chosen to wear shorts that day.

The second area was much better. I picked up several myself, many fewer than my wife and our other companions, who view mushroom hunting as something only slightly less important than the search for the Holy Grail.

We kept waiting for the sun to come out as promised, but the forest grew darker and the wind began to pick up.

The drizzle became a steady rain and I pulled on a disposable rain parka. (It's best to put these on before you actually get wet or your body heat soon turns that rainwater into something like funk sweat.)

The rain kept coming, but the others didn't seem to mind as they picked through the leaves, the ferns and the bits of crumbled bark.

But having helped my son load a moving van the previous day in the same sort of downpour, I was tired of being wet.

"Does anyone want a cup of coffee?" I yelled.

Reluctantly, they raised their eyes from the search and nodded in the affirmative. I traveled the three miles back to the car as quickly as possible. I drove to a nearby convenience store, went to the bathroom and wiped off my glasses so I could see what I was buying.

I poured four coffees, picked up a hot sandwich and a copy of the Sunday paper, then returned to the meeting point. I tried to turn on the car's heater, but it seemed to be working in tandem with the windshield wipers and by then it had stopped raining.

Half an hour later, they showed up with 40 morels. Our companions had the foresight to bring dry clothes, so they changed and we all went to lunch, with me in my wet jeans and shoes.

Some good soup and hot coffee began the defrosting process and by the time we finished the meal, the sun was belatedly keeping its promise to warm things up.

I confess I do not completely understand the attraction of the morel hunt, but perhaps it's like what a deer hunter once told me - even if you don't get one, you've still spent a day in the forest, away from your job and your everyday worries.

At the risk of hurting some readers' feelings, I must confess that on that rainy afternoon in the woods, I wasn't thinking about them or the newspaper business at all.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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