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Morel hell

Drought and cold weather have made it a tough spring for Southern Oregon morel hunters
Brandon Hawley finds false morels and true morels growing together in the High Cascades near Willow Lake. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Brandon Hawley cuts a morel mushroom near Butte Falls.

ASHLAND — Brandon Hawley walks slowly and with great purpose in the forest near Willow Lake in search of the black gold of spring.

Morel mushrooms, the creme de la creme of Pacific Northwest forests in spring, have been hard to come by. But Hawley follows the somewhat fresh tracks of a log skidder with great expectations.

There’s one. Then another. He pulls back some brush to find a cluster of five morels, two the size of his fist.

“Ah, here we go,” Hawley says. “Now we just work off a straight line from here. They’re always in a line.”

But that’s a tough line to come by this spring as hoards of mushroom pickers have descended upon the High Cascades with morels on the mind, only to be sent home with less fungus among us than in past years.

A dry, relatively cool spring means the spring fungal delicacies are few and far between for recreational pickers used to hauling in their legal gallon of morels with regularlity.

“It’s unbelievable, the worst,” says Rogue Valley mushroom guru Louis Jeandin. “It’s been zilch. Nothing many days.”

Professional pickers used to fetching about $12 a pound for morels are getting twice that, Jeandin says.

In many cases, potential sellers are simply holding back for personal use because, well, a guy has to have his own stash for everything from backwoods risotto to personal pizza toppings.

In short, many are looking but few are cutting stems.

“There are more people than mushrooms out there now,” Jeandin says.

But it’s late May, and still springs hope eternal. High-elevation snows are in the midst of melting, and they could trigger some morel fruiting that could salvage the season for hunters used to a sackful of dried morels by now, Jeandin says.

“There’s some high-elevation moisture so there’s hope, but I don’t know,” Jeandin says.

Morels have a distinct honeycombed appearance, and they fruit in the spring as the snow recedes and the forest duff warms. They can be blond, gray, black or brown, and anywhere from an inch or so to 6 inches or more.

They grow from spores that float on the wind and pop up in disturbed forest areas such as old logging roads, skid trails and recent burn scars.

They are prized by gourmet cooks, and commercial pickers fetch as much as $30 a pound for them.

But Average Joe's have just as much right to cook like a chef with these fungi they legally can forage for free on federal forest lands, as long as they take no more than one gallon a day and five gallons a year.

Recreational pickers are required to cut their morels in half to ensure they aren't later sold to mushroom buyers.

At this time of year, most of the prime picking is in federal forests above 4,000 feet.

Jeandin says a combination of snowmelt and perhaps some May showers could spur a late surge in morel picking well into June.

Along with morels, spring fungi include king bolete, shaggy mane and puffball mushrooms.

But morels are the overwhelming spring target for mushroom hunters, because they are relatively easy to identify even for rookies who otherwise might fear that their random forest forage could lead to stomach pains or worse.

Find something that looks like a morel, and you can be quite confident it's the real McCoy.

However, there are a few fakes.

Hawley hunts with a knife in the same lands within the Little Butte Watershed he hunts in the fall with a rifle. Hawley proudly points to a nearby clearcut where his wife killed her first blacktail buck deer a few years ago, then redirects his eyes to the forest floor for more morels.

Hawley has a solid eye for these delicate denizens of the spring Cascades, one honed since he was a little kid hunting with his father.

Hawley spies another cornucopia of morels, but this time they surround a bloody red fungus that isn’t worthy of his grandfather’s pocket knife.

“That’s a false morel,” Hawley says of one of the only forest fungi that look somewhat like a true morel. “My dad called them cow brains because that’s what they look like.”

But a fake morel doesn’t spoil the haul.

Hawley takes his grandfather’s pocket knife and deftly cuts away the five morels around the false ones.

“Eat that one and you’ll get sick,” he says. “You may not die, but you’ll probably feel like you are.”

As with morels, where there’s one there’s likely a dozen.

Hawley says he hunts morels in straight lines from his initial encounters, but it’s often obvious where that exact line goes.

Morels love eco-chaos. Disturbed ground from logging operations, new forest roads and even last year’s wildfire zones can all be havens for morels.

Hawley sticks to his lines, and they pay off. After two hours, dozens of fresh morels litter his bucket, the kind of payload that causal pickers would consider the mother lode.

“Nice day today,” Hawley says. “Nice haul. Regardless, even if it wasn’t, it’s just great to be out here in the woods in spring.”