With millions of acres burned around the Northwest in 2015 and the past few years, this season could provide a bumper crop of morel mushrooms.
By Jeff Holmes
Spring comes more quickly to Southcentral and Southeast Washington than to the rest of the Inland Northwest, and most of the Northwest for that matter. Longer days, more sunshine and higher nighttime temperatures warm the earth and water and awaken the land. Sporting opportunities compound as the weeks progress through April and further into spring, creating a welcome conflict: What to do?
As April begins, water temps awaken species like walleye and bass; catfish and sturgeon respond too. On trout lakes the longer days and warmer water mean hatches of increasing intensity and correspondingly intense feeding behavior. As the month moves along, eyes turn to dam counts as upriver-bound spring Chinook move through the Columbia Gorge and eventually into four distinct zones on the lower Snake: Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Granite and Clarkston.
On the 15th, thousands also take to the hills for the general turkey hunting opener, where they might stumble across some early morel mushrooms emerging amid a chorus of gobblers, pileated woodpeckers, ravens and wild canids. As the month moves toward its final week, the symphony of opportunity reaches a near crescendo. Spring Chinook fever afflicts an army of anglers everywhere there is a legitimate retention opportunity. Meanwhile bass and trout fishing get even better, crappie move shallow, and turkeys strut near almost every fishery. Millions and millions of dollars worth of morels erupt on timbered and burned-forested hillsides throughout the region’s mountains. The final week of the month is one of my favorite times of year. While I don’t often take part in the trout opener anymore, it once was the biggest event on my angling calendar, and it’s surely the single biggest event in all of Northwest angling. Hundreds of thousands of kids catch trout, many for the first time, on the fourth weekend of April: It’s a big deal!
There are too many options to engage in everything, and it’s also easy to spread one’s focus too thin; it’s my specialty, in fact. Nonetheless, I just can’t be the guy who locks in on one way to enjoy the outdoors when so many special things are happening. My burning passion during the last week of April will be to catch and eat spring Chinook, I know that going in, so I’ll make sure to already have a few from the Lower Columbia and Willamette in the freezer. That’ll help clear the way for me to do some cool stuff this late April into early May without getting the shakes from springer withdrawal. Those activities will include some trout fishing with a friend near Cheney and float trips down the Walla Walla and Yakima Rivers for smallmouth bass and channel catfish, but what I’m most looking forward to is combing the woods for delicious and valuable morel mushrooms.
WITHOUT A DOUBT, this is an underappreciated activity, although plenty of people pick for themselves, like me, or commercially. Still, I’m amazed at how little competition I find in the Blue Mountains for morels, and I’m pleasantly surprised when I enjoy picking more every year. Morels can be found just about everywhere there are mountains east of the Cascade Crest. The fire-ravaged landscapes from the last couple years should produce great picking, as should older burns. Use websites such as inciweb.nwcg.gov and geomac.gov to view past fire perimeters. Generally, morels become steadily less abundant as years pass after the couple/few-year boom right after a fire. I’ve enjoyed very good picking in unburned landscapes too. Scouting for mushrooms is the key until you find good numbers that are in good shape. They come on later at higher elevations, so starting low and working high to find them is a preferred technique for pickers.
Fishing and hunting are my passions, but so is morel picking these days. Walking out of the woods with several pounds makes me very happy. I dry morels, freeze morels, fry them fresh, make soup, and sautee and blend them with butter for freezer storage as “morel butter.” This substance is dangerous because it’s been known to make me sick from overconsumption. Mashed potatoes made with morel butter can’t be beat, nor can morel butter in air-popped popcorn or on rice. Along with being some of the best eats on the landscape, morels inspire the act of slowly searching the Earth at a slow, micro level. It lends a different perspective and is a great opportunity to bring along field guides for wildflowers and other plants. If you haven’t picked before, my story may illustrate how easy it is to start.
MOST OF MY life I fished trout hardcore every spring, and I spent little time in the woods in April and May. That changed when I took up turkey hunting years ago, and while chasing gobblers I found my first few morel mushrooms on Mica Peak near Spokane and in Ferry County north of Republic. They were delicious, and I made a mental note to one day go on a dedicated morel hunt. Well, several Aprils ago during the peak of springer fishing on the Snake, two friends and I drove to Little Goose Dam towing my 15-foot boat despite a less-than-nice forecast. As we neared the river, paralleling it near Texas Rapids, we watched the wind pick up river water and spiral it in great water spouts, high in the air. For that to happen it has to be blowing over 40 miles an hour, so we took it as an omen to look for a back-up option. There’s probably not a better place to see turkeys in Southeast Washington than in the open country near the Tucannon River and in the foothills of the Blue Mountains to the south, but we didn’t have shotguns or calls with us and were towing a boat.
Nowhere fun to fish exists when it’s blowing 40 and gusting higher, but the woods are always fun, and morels sprung to mind. It had been several years since the School House and Columbia Complex fires of the mid-2000s charred many tens of thousands of acres of timber and timbered foothills on and above the Tucannon. Morel spores are of course activated by the fire cycle, and I’d heard rumors of good picking somewhere in the vastness of one of the Blues’ largest watersheds, but where to start? A boat would be a hindrance to our search, so we grabbed all of the beer and food out of it, along with two backpacks and some plastic bags, and we left it in Starbuck, at Darver Tackle.
Giant salmonflies exploded on my windshield as we drove through the Tucannon River farmland into the green, flowering foothills and pines of the Wooten Wildlife Area, home to the Tucannon Lakes. This little collection of stocked impoundments was created as mitigation for the loss of sporting opportunity from the damming of the nearby Snake and offers fair to excellent fishing for rainbow trout, including some nice holdovers. The lakes are designed to be fished from shore, and there’s ample room and an ideal setting for kids or people with mobility issues. We drove past the many dispersed campsites, near the lakes and almost hit a whitetail doe eating regenerating browse from the fires. Unsure where to start looking, we started low on the valley floor near some old-growth cottonwoods mixed with firs. I’d heard morels grow near cottonwoods, and I’ve since found that to be true sometimes, but not this time. The ground seemed dry, and the mushrooms we saw were dried out and definitely not morels. So we jumped in the rig and gained elevation and made a few more forays into the woods on foot, slowly scanning the forest floor, checking different forest types and slopes of southern and northern exposure, and in between.
We climbed still higher into the mountains with melting snow in sight several hundred feet of elevation above us. My friends and I decided to do a long, boom-or-bust hike, so we loaded all our beer, food and water into backpacks and set off uphill on a partially burned hillside with some big pines and firs. I spotted one right away, and a friend spotted one, and another friend spotted one. We kept finding singles as we worked our way up and along a hillside, and then my addiction started. Inside of a hole from a burned-out root ball was a cluster of 11 morels! Soon we were on our hands and knees filling up bags with the precious little honeycomb-capped beauties; they were everywhere! Morels are worth a lot of money, sometimes as much as $30 to $50 a pound, much more for dried mushrooms. We grew drunk on the wealth this beautiful hillside was providing and ran smack into a cow moose with two large calves. Moose are relative newcomers to the Blues, but they are expanding their numbers rapidly. This big cow bristled her mane at us, and we detoured well around her with dogs on leashes.
I’d end up seeing the cow in almost exactly the same spot for four more years, with seven different calves! One of those sightings was disturbingly close and frightening, my closest call with a big herbivore. I had my English setters at heel because there were morels everywhere in the moss under some degenerating firs. I was on hands and knees and had stopped paying attention to my surroundings until my female dog growled low. The hair went up on my neck. I looked up and saw that big cow inside of 50 feet with her neck flat and ears pinned, staring at me. I firmly whispered, “Heel!” with urgency my dogs felt, and we backed out of there for a long time.
You likely won’t have moose trouble, but carrying bear spray is wise, especially if you bring dogs that could bring a rampaging critter back your way. Don’t forget that dogs also often snap off morels you could have picked. Mine are trained to stay somewhat calmly at heel when commanded. I let them run most of the time and share IPA drinks with my female dog, Alice.
THE BIGGEST SAFETY concern, other than getting drunk enough in the woods to drink beer with a dog, is obviously relative to mushroom identification. Definitely eat mushrooms at your own risk, and do your research first! Thankfully the morel is very distinctive with its honeycombed cap, both blonde and brown phases. Its mildly poisonous cousin, the false morel, looks quite a bit different and could really only be confused with an inky, expired morel rather than anything that should be picked and eaten. Getting a book and doing some Internet research is advisable but not always necessary. Here’s a handful of lessons that have served me, and I recommend them to anyone just getting started morel picking:
- Don’t look for a long time in one place if you’re not finding morels;
- Start lower in elevation and work your way up to where they are fresh and to your liking;
- Pay attention to where you’re finding them and try to replicate your success – location matters;
- Look for places with filtered light and shade, like forest edges;
- When you find one morel, stop and look around it in widening circles –always assume there are more;
- Big grand firs very often hide morels in their shade;
- Leave the really decomposed ones behind to spread spores, and place the ones you keep in a mesh bag to distribute spores as you walk and pick;
- Take good care of your mushrooms and get them home and sort into classes by freshness and size. I take many of the oldest morels I pick and combine them with primo fresh morels to make morel butter. The pretty morels meet a variety of culinary fates. NS