Morels growing near a dying elm tree in southeastern Ohio. (Andrea Moore)
Even now, 10 years later, park ranger Andrea Moore remembers the familiar smell in the air that told her it was going to be a good hunt — a damp, sweet smell. It was a mix of rotting bark with an undercurrent of rebirth as trees begin to grow new leaves, while dead ones still litter the terrain.
There were other signs, too. The ground was moist, squishing as she walked, unusual for this late in the season. Trekking 7-miles deep into the forest to reach the spot their scout claimed was ripe for hunting, she felt a tingle of anticipation. Moore's group grew quiet as they approached a low, flat place with a trickling stream, a ring of huge sycamores, and a few dying elms.
"Stop," called someone, breaking the silence. She looked down. Morels. Hundreds of them.
"It was amazing. There was no rhyme or reason to it," says Moore, describing what mushroom hunters refer to as a "mother lode."
"Usually, morels are found right near decaying trees. But here they were just everywhere, every few feet. You had to watch where you walked. It was unbelievable." The hunters went to work harvesting the wrinkly capped morels and stashing them in mesh bags to keep them fresh. After hiking back to their truck, they poured the bags out and admired their haul.
"The truck bed was completely covered. I'd never had that happen before or since," she says. That day, they found 300 morels. In a good season, Moore may hike 100 miles over the three-to-four-week season and find around 350 morels total.
Moore, 53, is a park ranger in Clear Creek Metro Park in southeast Ohio. She began foraging 20 years ago, looking to live healthier and get more in tune with the land. She gushes over morels' deep, woodsy flavor and tries to hunt enough during the season to last the year.
So what's so great about morels? Diehard foodies and amateur cooks alike struggle to describe the essence of what makes the mushroom so enticing it can command prices nearing $35 a pound or more. The beguiling morel, whose cap looks like a large, pruny thumb, packs a flavor that makes truffles seem like a cheap knock-off.
Part of its draw also lies in its limited availability. "You can't plant them, you can't grow them," explains Erin Shaw, a park naturalist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. "That's one reason they're so valuable. They grow where you find them."
While Shaw predicts this year will be a good one for harvesting morels, their general scarcity has given rise to a culture of secrecy.
Moore agrees. "There's always that anxiety that someone else will have found my spots and taken the morels," says Moore, who often hunts alone or with her dog, Clunker. "That's the worst feeling in the world when you're headed out in one direction and someone's coming back with a big bag of morels."
She has a few tricks she's learned over the years. She's been known to hide behind trees to let others pass her by so they don't see where she's going. She'll also remove aluminum cans she encounters along the way: For the casual hiker, it's litter, for a mushroom hunter, that's a sign someone may have tried to mark a spot they've found morels before so they can return to it later. Moore is wary of posting pictures online of where she hunts, even going so far as turning off GPS-location functions on her smart phone. "There's been times when people have used pictures posted online to track down someone's hunting spot," says Moore.
The popularity of morel hunting entices thousands of mushroom seekers to descend into Ohio's forests each spring. This will sometimes create friction between veterans and novice hunters, who don't always understand and follow the rules of the sport (yes, mushroom hunters will call it a sport).
In Ohio, foraging is allowed in state parks, but some mushroom enthusiasts, looking to score the mother lode, will wander wherever they think they might find the big haul, including private property and in the preserve where Moore works.
"There's definitely signs when people are out hunting where they're not supposed to," says Moore. "You'll see these vehicles you just don't see any other time parked randomly on the side of the road. Or someone will be walking down the street with a fishing pole and no tackle box."
If she spots a wayward hunter where they aren't allowed, Moore usually intervenes and helps them stay out of trouble. "I try to point them to trail where I know people have found morels, I just don't tell them where my patch is," she laughs, then explains that sometimes the competition can get a little out of hand. "There's been times when people's tires have been slashed." But Moore's quick to point out that's rare.
In the end, most participants are in it for the love of the hunt. While some enterprising mushroom gathers have been known to sell their wares at farmers markets, to area restaurants, or even in their own online shops; for Moore, morel hunting is all about enjoying the haul.
Morels come in many shapes and sizes, lending themselves to various preparation methods. "One of the first batches of morels that come up — the smaller grays — are my favorite since they're so succulent. I'll sauté those in butter and add cream for mushroom Alfredo," says Moore. "The bigger, yellow ones that come later? With those, I'll slice them, then bread them before pan frying, then you put them between two slices of buttered bread. We call that the Hillbilly way. It sounds funny, but it's such a treat. If I can have both of those in a season, that's a really good year."
Kristen J. Gough is an award-winning travel writer living in the Midwest. Tweet her @MyKidsEatSquid.