Walworth County Sunday | Janesville Messenger | Stateline News



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Thursday, 29 May 2014 00:00

Going wild for morels

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Leroy Moyer, a chiropractor from Delavan, with a recent harvest of morel mushrooms. Moyer has hunted the delicacies for more than 40 years. Leroy Moyer, a chiropractor from Delavan, with a recent harvest of morel mushrooms. Moyer has hunted the delicacies for more than 40 years. Cindy Moyer Photo

STATELINE NEWS -- There is a humble fungus, both delicious and elusive, that goes by many names -- dryland fish, hickory chickens, molly moochers, sponge mushrooms or honeycomb mushrooms -- but here in Wisconsin we just call them morels.

Hunting the ephemeral, brainlike mushroom has been a regular practice among humans throughout history, and every year hundreds of foragers head out to partake in the time-honored tradition.

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Jim Cheadle of Beloit, who writes the Scales and Tails column in the Stateline News, has been on the hunt for the better part of 50 years.


For him, the reason for the hunt is simple.

"After being locked in most of the winter, finally getting to go outside is great," Cheadle said. "You get to see all the wildflowers pop up. You come across a lot of young animals, and it’s just nice to take a hike. How can you be an outdoorsy person here in Wisconsin and not be a morel hunter?"

Catching the season

Other morel hunters agree that although this season started late because of lingering cool temperatures, it is on its way out quickly. This year it began in early May. Even though it’s different every year, a lot of hunters use their own rules of thumb to know when to start.

"There are a lot of old wives’ tales about what to look for to gauge when the season starts," Cheadle said. "Some say, when the leaves on the trees are as big as a cat’s ears... Or some say start on Mother’s Day. One that is actually kind of true in my experience is to start when the lilacs start to bloom. If you wait too long, the ground vegetation starts to overgrow the morels, and they become hard to find."

Another hunter, Dr. Leroy Moyer of Delavan, also has a few pointers gleaned from more than 40 years on the hunt.

"It seems like you have to have about three nights in a row where it’s about 60 degrees or better," Moyer said. "A good thunderstorm helps, too. It’s not so much the heat during the day; it’s the heat at night. This year it took a bit for the ground to heat up so they were about 10 days late."

As for where to look, that also is a matter of preference of the individual hunter. There are those that swear by dead and dying elms, abandoned apple orchards or on hillsides, but again the skills to regularly find morels seems to be paid for by experience.

"My best spots have been east or southeast exposures on a slight hillside," Cheadle said. "One of the best ways to hunt them is walk uphill, because then you can see under the vegetation as you go."

At your own risk

Maybe you wouldn’t think it at first blush, but walking in the woods looking for mushrooms isn’t without its peril. Among the most concerning dangers is the mushrooms themselves.

"We’d like to encourage people to make absolutely sure that they get the morel identification correct," said Kelly Kearns the invasive plants coordinator at the Department of Natural Resources’ Endangered Resources Program. "There are some species of mushrooms called false morels that look somewhat like them and they are inedible. Some species of mushrooms are extremely poisonous."

Cheadle and Moyer agree that proper identification is critical, but they also add that false morel are very rare, and once you’ve been on the hunt for a while, they are easy to spot.

"After you know what you’re looking for and you have a good guidebook, there is no mistaking them," Moyer said. "Every now and then you hear about a mistake being made, and they can be deadly. I don’t eat anything that I don’t know 100 percent what it is."

Looking past misidentification, there are more prevalent dangers such as ticks, poison ivy and getting lost. Being careful, dressing practically and exercising good judgment is usually the best defense against these dangers. However, some hunters insist on adding the unnecessary danger of trespassing and theft.

"All land in Wisconsin belongs to someone," Cheadle said. "When people get caught hunting on someone else’s land, they say ‘oh it wasn’t posted.’ We stopped that rule here in Wisconsin in the ’90s. If you get caught you’re going to pay dearly. It’s not worth it. It’s serious here, it really is. I don’t know why anyone would think that they could just go walk in someone else’s woods. No one in a residential area would like it if someone was just walking around in their backyard; it’s no different in rural areas."

According to Cheadle, fines for illegally picking morels on someone else’s property can run up close to $400.

Not everyone has a large piece of wooded land to go morel hunting on.

Luckily, there is an incredibly simple solution to this -- one actually paid for by our tax dollars.

"On any DNR property -- that would include state parks and state wildlife areas -- there are a few things that you can harvest without permission," Kearns said. "You are allowed to take mushrooms, wild asparagus, edibles, fruits and nuts from DNR property without having to ask permission."

According to Cheadle, there is close to 10,000 acres of public land in Rock County alone, and even though he has his own property to hunt on, he often checks out a local spot because of the ideal terrain.

"One piece of public land I really like, and it’s actually a really good one for it, is Big Hill Park. You’ve got the perfect terrain there," Cheadle said.

Future of the hunt

Moyer and Cheadle picked up their hunting and foraging skills from their parents, and when they look around they see that the pastime seems to be losing its numbers. But as so much of our society pushes back toward organic food and healthy lifestyles, activities like foraging might see resurgence.

Lake Geneva realtor David Curry, who has been hunting for only about five years, is a good example of a recent convert to the ranks of morel enthusiasts.

"I actually enjoy the hunt more than the eating. It’s a challenge to find one morel, let alone a hundred of them," Curry said. "Most of our hunting is done in the western part of the southern corner of Walworth County."

A return to nature may encourage us to get back to our roots, but something we can all aspire to is treating Mother Nature with the utmost respect while we enjoy all she has to offer.

If you ask Cheadle and Moyer, there are some simple things you can do to pay your respects, such as not overharvesting, pinching the morels off at the stem to not disturb its root structure and using a mesh bag to carry them around.

"You should only use a netted mesh bag, like an onion bag, when you are collecting them because it gives the spores a chance to spread while you are hunting," Cheadle said. "These mushrooms are up against enough, with loss of habitat, herbicides and all that, so we need to help them out if we want to enjoy them."

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