By Tom Claycomb III
After being holed up all winter, I love spring. Sure, there’s winter activities and I do all that, but after a long cold winter, spring is sweet. It always teases us. Snow will start melting, the sun will poke her head out for one day and then temps drop and we’ll get another snow. She plays with us like a cat with a mouse. But, no matter how hard she plays to get, we know that soon spring will be here in all of her glory.
How can you not love spring? Suddenly, after a hard winter the grass is green, trees are budding and the earth is coming back to life. This year, Easter fell right in the midst of it all, which is the personification of spring.
Suddenly good things hit all at once. Whistle pigs are out in full force, crappie start spawning, bear and turkey seasons open and the morel mushrooms start popping up. The spring morel mushroom season is a huge event for many people. I learned to hunt them over 35 years ago from my boss, Maurice Dalton. He had been raised in Iowa and he took vacations to go back to Iowa and hunted them there every year. He was a fanatic. I thought he lived a pretty boring life to get that excited about a mushroom – until I ate one.
If you’ve never eaten morel mushrooms, you’re missing out on one of God’s best delicacies. In case you wonder why I’m getting so excited, just try one. You’ll be sold for life. I have access to the best beef and seafood in the country and I’d have to say that morel mushrooms are the best delicacy in the world, supposedly second only to the truffle found in England.
Maurice always started hunting them the middle of April in the Midwestern states, but out west I start finding them at the 5,500 feet elevation the 2nd-3rd week of May.
Some people act like that they’re authorities on where they grow and where to find them. I’ve been hunting them for over 35 years and sometimes I’m still not sure that I have a clue, but let’s cover a few generalities. They’re triggered by the spring rains and a few warm days and nights. Suddenly it seems like they almost spring up right in front of your eyes. They have about a two week growing period, but you can extend your hunting season by rising in elevation. Here’s what I mean by that. If this week you’re finding them at 5,500 ft., next week hunt them at 6,000 ft.
But the absolute best place to hunt them is in last year’s burns. Fresh burns are magical. Find where there was a forest fire last year and hunt there. I’ve had burns where Katy, I and another couple found two 5-gallon buckets a piece and we had to leave and walk over a million coming out. We found so many that Katy was selling them to restaurants.
If the fire is from two years ago though, it’s not the same. Only last year’s burn is the ticket. Call the forest service and ask them where they did controlled burns last year or where there were wild fires. In burns, look along fallen logs, in root holes and even on open hillsides.
If you find a mushroom, look up/downhill. The spore washes downhill and more often than not, where I find one I’ll find more. I remember once I found 162 in an area that you could have covered with an 8×10 tarp. That was a crazy year.
Move slow. It’s unbelievable, but even in a burn you’ll miss them. Katy set down her backpack to get a drink of water. We were there for about two minutes and then I noticed one right at our feet. I’ve always said I’d trade all I found for what I walked by within 10 feet and missed.
If you find too many to eat all at once, you can dry them by stringing them with a needle and thread and hang them out to dry, lay in the sun or use a fruit dryer. When you’re ready to use them, just reconstitute them. I’ve also split, rinsed and froze them in baggies, but this method makes them a little mushy.
To prepare them for eating, I split them longwise and then gently rinse them off. They’re fragile, so be super careful or you can damage them. Put them in a bowl and fill with water and dump a few times. Mushrooms out of a burn will have a lot of ash on them and require more rinsing. Then fill a bowl with water and sprinkle with salt to kill the bugs and set overnight in the frig, but usually I’ll fry up a batch that night.
To cook, drain and then mix an egg in a bowl with a little milk. Dip in the egg batter and then throw some flour on a plate and roll them in the flour. Throw in a black skillet with semi hot grease and sprinkle on your favorite seasoning salt (Tony Cachere’s). Fry to a golden brown and get ready to partake of the best treat that you’ve ever had.
I’ll tell you what else is excellent – milk gravy with sautéed morels. If you want to make it really good mix a little cream with the milk.