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home : sports : local sports August 22, 2017

Out In The Open
Trust me, it's mushroom season
The Times photo by Brent T. WheatA common sight in Hoosier woodlands in April, a mushroom hunters seeks out the delicious morel among the greening undergrowth.
The Times photo by Brent T. Wheat

A common sight in Hoosier woodlands in April, a mushroom hunters seeks out the delicious morel among the greening undergrowth.

Brent T. Wheat

I often laugh at mushroom hunters even though I'm one of them.

The reason for this amusement is pretty simple. Just ask the question, "How can you tell when a mushroom hunter is lying?" The answer: "When his/her lips are moving."

When it comes to telling tall tales, stretching the truth to the point of breaking and simply being unbelievable in every regard, mushroom hunters are head and shoulders in the outdoor crowd, even towering over catfish anglers and deer hunters. You're more likely to get an honest answer from a congressman than to hear the straight dope from a mushroom picker.

This becomes evident every April in Indiana. With temperatures warming regularly into the 70-degree range and abundant rainfall, the delectable morel mushroom begins to peek about the forest duff all across the state. This is followed by the invasion of the 'shroom hunters, those stout men and woman who will be found in the deepest forest or shallowest woodlot, slowing walking around with their eyes glued to the ground and a stick turning over every other leaf.

I've half-joked that the reason I'm sure there isn't a Bigfoot in Indiana is because any location with more than three trees grouped together will be visited by a mushroom hunter at least five times in April. Coupled with the same phenomenon occurring in November during the deer season, there aren't too many square inches of Hoosier soil that won't be minutely examined by humans during the year.

Mushroom hunters are also secretive to the point that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency is considered gabby by comparison. Some hunters even go to the point of using elaborate counter-surveillance techniques when entering the woods as apparently the Russian spy agency is coveting their secret mushroom spot.

This season is shaping up to be a little early though it is progressing through all the normal stages.

First, we start with vague rumors from a distant friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend claiming a single mushroom was found is some remote southern Indiana forest. This year was exceptional as that first report came to us during the Indianapolis Boat, Sport and Travel Show in February. Things were then pretty quiet until the first week of April when several reports involving actual names and places arrived, though they didn't actually include pictures of the alleged fungus.

Then, late last week, I saw my first photos of actual 2017 mushrooms. This case was interesting because several of the mushrooms were actually growing out of moss covering an abandoned concrete slab. So, we can publically verify that we have been shown pictures of morel mushrooms that were time-stamped a few days ago.

Of course, it wouldn't be impossible to imagine an avid mushroom hunter spending hours faking the time stamp and GPS coordinate metadata of the cellular phone photos I was shown. Did I mention that mushroom hunters are a little secretive?

Now we get into the how-to section of the column and here is the most profound and insightful outdoor tip you'll get all year: mushrooms are where you find them. As I've mentioned before, one of the largest and most beautiful yellow morel mushroom I've ever seen was growing in a backyard flower bed.

Of course, there are locations that are more likely to produce the fungus. According to scientific literature, our field experience and "the experts," mushrooms typically produce the edible fruiting body we seek in locations that were subject to disturbance. This is why morels are often found near dead trees, in recently-disturbed ground and are usually found in abundance in burned areas the spring following a wildfire.

They also need high humidity, warm temperatures and a significant temperature swing to trigger their growth. This is why mid-to-late April provides the optimal conditions to find morel mushrooms. The season starts with the smaller black morel and is finished by early May when the large yellow morel lords over the forest floor.

One misconception is the various types of morels found in Indiana. There are only a few actual species but depending on age and condition, they may appear in a variety of colors. Fortunately, it's hard to misidentify a morel but novice hunters should be aware of the false morel that also appears during this time. As the name implies, these resemble a morel but are inedible and sometimes poisonous. If you find a huge reddish fungus that doesn't have an obvious cap and the open internal structure of a typical morel mushroom, let it be.

Of course, as nationally-known mushroom expert Tom Nauman told us recently, "Every mushroom is edible...at least once." That's why if you're ever in doubt about the identity of a mushroom, good sense dictates that you keep walking.

In fact, I'd strongly suggest that you simply avoid hunting mushrooms altogether.

Trust me; I'm a mushroom hunter.

Brent T. Wheat is an award-winning columnist, and publisher of WildIndiana.com. His column appears weekly in The Times.

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