Written By Steve Griffin, The Morel of the Story
It was a catch I never expected.
I was paddling my kayak through one of the many cuts stretching inland from (what was then, since drained by dam failure) Wixom Lake in Gladwin County.
Spring was firmly in play, spawning crappies my goal, as I poked among the docks, car-toppers and pontoons that were summer’s advance fleet, tossing a wax worm-baited tear-drop into pockets adjoining the cover.
My kayak bumped the shore, where, beneath the bottom step of a set of stairs that would soon be reconnected to a dock, stood three proud white morel mushrooms.
I had a test of conscience on my hands. A moral crisis. Or was that morel?
The owner of this shoreline cabin, raking leaves, had moved to the far side of the structure. She wouldn’t see me if I just reached out and snatched these tasty morsels and any others nearby, pretending perhaps that I was unsnagging an errant cast. Or I could back-paddle a bit, call out to her, explain my find, and ask if I could pick.
The nuns at St. Brigid’s would have been proud. I asked permission — and she granted it! I could even crawl out of my kayak and pick any morels in the yard. Just this once, she warned: her son would be up in a day or so, and he picked mushrooms.
I was happy as a freshwater clam. I had a ball cap full of morels that I knew would taste wonderful alongside a heap of crispy panfish fillets in minutes.
It was a bonus — like found money — sweeter than cash earned because it was unexpected. And it reminded me, as I resumed paddling and casting, how often morels had been for friends and me a delight quite unexpected.
(Writing this piece, I discovered I’d neglected to take many photos when picking surprise mushrooms. I asked three friends – and each in minutes sent along with evidence of their unplanned hauls, seen here.)
I’d driven to a state forest campsite in Northern Lower Michigan, a short hike from a blue-ribbon trout stream, to meet up with friends for some fly fishing in a just-opened season.
Suzanne Richards, though, had stashed her fly rod and was bent over the fire. I thought it might be a very rare case of her having kept a trout for dinner, but she had creeled morels she’d spotted on a hike to the stream, and they were now quivering in a puddle of butter. Trout could wait.
Morels are a vanguard of Michigan spring, and many dedicated folks head out every year with a walking stick, basket or bag, loyal to a place they go or people they go with. Bless ‘em. I’ve got so many things on my spring calendar — steelhead, stream trout, panfish, boat-prep and turkey hunting, and that’s not counting work — that I’ve never added focused mushroom picking to the list. But I’ve learned that morels can be a spring surprise, and it pays to be ready for them.
On every outdoor adventure, I’ve taken to carrying a small, orange Cordura bag named for a loved one who got lost unprepared and then lost his life to exposure. The “Jimmy bag” contains a lighter, waterproof matches, space blanket, cheap poncho, whistle, small knife, mini flashlight, tick pliers and more for emergencies. It also holds a compass, bug dope and mesh paint strainer bag. I grab it for every hunting, fishing, hiking or kayaking trip and am glad to say I’ve used it fewer times for emergencies than for unexpected mushrooms.
Even in town, in spring, I always carry a bread wrapper, paper bag or paint straining net in my pocket.
My Brittany, Beanbag, is a good decoy, if not a truffle dog. I carry poop bags, of course, when we walk, but in spring, I also keep handy a fresh, unscented dog bag — into which I can slip surprise morels. (Plastic can speed mushroom spoilage, yes, but it’s fine for a few minutes. A basket’s better, but way too obvious.) It’s a splendid ruse! Bent over, people think you’re a good citizen, not an urban forager. Strut down the street, leash in one hand and a swinging half-full plastic bag in the other, and folks naturally think you are lugging poop, not spring mushroom treasures.
Treasure, indeed. Years ago, I joined a camp of archery turkey hunters. On his way to a new spot one mid-morning, a hunter bent to re-tie his boot lace and saw, just a foot or so away, a morel. Then another, then a few more. The turkey hunter was transformed into a mushroom picker, and after he showed his catch at lunch, his partners went back with him. Next day, too. One friend, the late Tom Janson, even called home and extended his stay an extra day — not to hunt turkeys, but to collect mushrooms from this stumbled-upon hotspot.
The punch line?
Tom was deathly allergic to mushrooms. He couldn’t eat a bite of one. But he proudly took home half a grocery bag full for family and friends who could.
One spring, when she was about kindergarten age, my daughter Elizabeth and a friend found a couple of giant white morels beneath our mid-city porch. We confirmed the ID and made a fuss, and before long, she was returning from neighborhood bike rides with morels in her pink bicycle’s wicker basket. She seemed destined to become a real mushroomer: she has never disclosed exactly where she found them!
Wherever you go this spring, learn to watch the middle distance and at your feet for mushrooms in unexpected places: lake shorelines, sidewalk edges, city parks, paths leading to other adventures. Logs and stumps are always good bets, but they’re not exclusive.
Experts delight in finding, identifying and eating a variety of mushrooms. Not me. I stick with true morels, and even the most common types of them.
True morels have one characteristic in common, says the DNR (ID, hunting and cooking tips at Michigan.gov/DNR, search ‘morels’): their caps are pitted, “as if holes had been punched partway through them.” Pit patterns vary, but all true morels have them. They’re also hollow inside.
The common morel, also called the white or gray morel, can be light cream to yellowish-brown. The DNR calls it “perhaps the easiest of all edible spring mushrooms to recognize, and is therefore widely collected.” Look for it in the second half of May, especially, most often among hardwoods and particularly old orchards. Sometimes, yes, lawns.
The black morel can be gray to almost black, its hollow cap attached to the stalk at the lower edge. It fruits earlier, in early to mid-May, under ash, aspen, cherry and occasionally pines. DNR warning: “Cases of stomach upset have been recorded when (black morels were) eaten in large quantities or consumed with alcoholic beverages.”
There are other true morels, the DNR says, including half-free and burn-site morels. ID is a little trickier. I leave them for experts.
Yes, get an expert to confirm the identification. Try only a small amount at first to make sure you’ve ID’d correctly and you’re not allergic to morels.
And then keep your eyes open and your paper bag, paint straining bag or ball cap ready. If you find morels, cut or pinch off each mushroom at ground level, to leave the underground portion to refruit. You’ll want to come back.
One can stumble across a brookie-rich beaver pond or find a secret turkey roost while mushroom hunting. But folks headed for those spots and sports should keep an eye out for mushrooms, too. Morels can be as unexpected a delight as found money — and that’s the ‘morel’ of this story!