A morel hunter shares the secrets of the sixth sense

| 01 May 2012 | 01:52

When Lucas Tanner closes his eyes at night, sometimes, on the insides of his eyelids, he sees a mosaic of what look like overlapping oblong brains.

It happens the first or second week of May, when the mayapples flatten out, the rain-soaked soil warms up, before the tree crowns fill in and shade the undergrowth. That’s when the morels, one of the world’s most elusive mushrooms, start coming up.

Finding the first tiny, spongy specimens is nothing short of a consuming passion for about a dozen mushroom hunters in the Warwick area. The ability to pick the shriveled caps out of the leaf-strewn underbrush “becomes almost like a sixth sense,” said Tanner. It also helps that years as a golf caddy have trained Tanner’s eyes to pick out little white objects unlike their surroundings.

Find a patch of full-grown morels past their prime, and it’s hard for a mushroom hunter to forgive himself for not getting there in time. “It’s like, if I’d have just played that lotto ticket,” said Tanner, shaking his head. “You become crazy.”

A friend who works as a chef introduced Tanner, 30, to his first morel mushroom four years ago. Back then, Tanner hated mushrooms. He still doesn’t like the white buttons you get at a grocery store or on a pizza.

But from March to September, he’s been known to spend 50 hours a week seeking wild fungi like Maitake, oyster mushrooms, and Chicken of the Woods, and above all, morels. This year, a second job fixing computers means he’ll only have about ten hours a week to hunt, and it’s “already eating me up a little.”

In addition to their price, which can reach $45 a pound, and their taste, which Tanner describes as “like the smell of moss,” what makes morels so enticing is that they come up only during a brief window each year – maybe three weeks, maybe six. Last year was a bountiful one. Tanner dried morels on an old screen door to eat year-round, and gave bags of them away.

He can’t sell the fruits of his labor without a mycology certification, but, he said, “You wouldn’t believe the face of a good chef when you hand them $1000 worth of good mushrooms and say: Here.”

Other years, if the right temperatures and precipitation don’t align, the morels might not come up at all. That hasn’t happened in the three years Tanner has been at this, but the loss of mushroom habitat makes him nervous. “I’m always afraid of encroaching populations – dogs, people, anything,” he said.

The mysterious underground network of filaments called the mycelium that gives birth to the mushrooms is as inscrutable as outer space or the deep sea. Perhaps, muses Tanner, the network extends underneath the entire east coast. No one fully knows this primordial being, which is more closely related to yeast than anything animal or vegetable. That, says Tanner, is why morels that are coaxed grow in captivity don’t get as big or taste the same as their wild brethren. The lackluster results at cultivation are not for lack of serious effort: people regularly die harvesting morels in the Yukon Territory, according to a 2006 New York Times story.

What Tanner does know is that mushrooms usually come up where the mycelium has not been disturbed for hundreds of years. (He also knows that for all the rules of thumb he’s accumulated, one trumps all the others: There are no rules, just common occurrences. Last year, a friend found a 12-pound goldmine on recently mowed grass.)

Ten of Tanner’s dozen spots are within a five-mile radius in Warwick; one is in Middletown and the last is in Vernon. Trial and error have taught him that there’s not much point in wandering far. He has hunted in Harriman State Park in Rockland County and found nothing. More than any surrounding area, Warwick’s fertile deciduous forests are prime morel habitat.

“When I stand in a forest where I’m trying to find morels, I ask myself, do I feel like I’m in Warwick?” said Tanner. He claims that he has never gone out hunting in Warwick during morel season and come home empty-handed.

Most morel hunters don’t bring up the topic in mixed company. The first time I heard about them was in whispers from a friend I’d known for years. “They make great burgers,” she said confidentially. Why so conspiratorial about fungi, I had no idea.

“Some guys keep it a secret,” said Tanner. Others already resent Tanner and his crew for the amount they find. “But we have so many spots at this point…” he shrugged. “And just because I tell people where they are, doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to see them. If you’re standing on the wrong side of a log or they’re under leaves, you won’t see them. It’s like they’re trying to dodge us as much as we’re trying to find them.”

To preserve Tanner’s 1000 batting average, it’s important to distinguish that when he and I went out together in early April, it was not on a hunting but a scouting trip. Magazine deadlines wait for neither man nor mushroom, so when the date for our get together rolled around, we could not hold the presses simply because morels had yet to be spotted in the northeast.

The purpose of a scouting trip is of course partly to look for renegade early morels, but mostly to scan for the telltale signs that precede morels and might mark promising hunting grounds.

We decided to explore the woods of my new home, a 48-acre farm off Union Corners Road in Warwick, across from the town park. (Come May, you’re all welcome to hunt with me, especially if you have good eyesight.)

“We’re standing at 518 feet,” Tanner said. “Spot on.” Tanner got a smartphone this year. On it is an app that uses GPS to inform him of his elevation, so he no longer has to rely on a stack of topographical maps.

Morels generally grow on damp slopes near dead hardwoods, between 500 and 650 feet elevation. Hot spots often shift about 12 feet from one year to the next, probably following the nutrients in the soil. The earliest morels appear in craters or near stone walls that catch the sun. Promising indicators include animal holes or deer paths; darker soil; lightning-charred or decaying deciduous wood; mayapples and little violet flowers. Morels don’t usually come up near evergreens.

We came across an old stone wall where a fallen tree’s branches had curled in and started to decompose. “There’s your animal hole. There’s a bunch of rotten stuff. You got your rock wall,” said Tanner, picking up a handful of soil and letting it fall through his fingers. “The only thing that would deter me is this old pine tree.” I mentally bookmarked the spot.

“Typically, the less you want to be in an area, the more likely you are to find morels there,” he said. “The nastiest batch of prickers, or it looks like nothing’s been there for a long time – you’re probably in a good spot. Between prickers and ticks, you definitely have to work for it.”

Tanner leaned down, picked something up and chuckled. He held it up. My jaw dropped; I just knew we’d get lucky!

He tossed it my way. I caught the shell of a tree nut, half decomposed. “I don’t know what these are,” he said, “but they always get me.” In rotting, the nut skeleton had dissolved into a lacework of channels. The way it had been propped up against a log, it was like nature had an impish sense of humor.