Mushrooms are worth the pain

It was about as close to being in a jungle as you can find in central Kansas. Saplings and poison ivy plants tall enough to be buggy whips seemed hair thick. Gnarly, thorny vines rolled along like concertina wire.

I sweated, bled and itched for hours … and it was worth it for several great meals, and getting the trust to have been someplace special.

Serious morel mushroom hunters are more secretive of their spots than any others in the outdoors.

I’ve met fathers who won’t share spots with sons, and vice/versa.

Near Manhattan, an avid hunter used to park his pick-up at various places by Tuttle Creek Reservoir, then have his wife take him to the other side of the lake. We often wondered if he walked a mile or two from that drop-off, so even she couldn’t spill his secret.

I’d expected a Plan D or E spot when I asked Lonny Travis if could tag along for some morel hunting photos.

When he said we’d be going to his mushroom Shangri-La Tuesday morning, I about couldn’t believe it. His wife, Colette, absolutely couldn’t believe it and wasn’t thrilled with the idea. She was less than thrilled to see me, and called her husband during our search to make sure I wasn’t drawing maps on how to find the spot.

Last Sunday they’d crawled and clawed, stretched and stepped their way to 540 morels at the spot. (Yes, she counted all of them. Serious morel hunters get like that.) Not only does that kind of success not happen many places; even in the best places it doesn’t happen many years.

Tuesday morning, Travis was confident we’d find plenty of morels, even though the spot had been picked clean two days earlier.

For several weeks he’d predicted one of the best morel springs in many years. The combination of a rapid warm-up with timely, soaking rains made for perfect conditions. Within minutes of hitting the woods, it was obvious my host had earned a doctorate in fungusology.

He’d said it’s often possible to find morels in north and south lines, probably because that’s how breezes distribute the spores. We found such places.

Travis said there are places where he usually finds them, and places where he never does … even though the spots look identical.

Moving through the jungle, he often said things like, “We should find them from about that dead cottonwood over to around the water, but we never find them over by that tree.”

And then we would, and wouldn’t.

Having studied those woods for more than a decade, Travis admitted he knew what spots would be good but couldn’t explain why others would not.

“There are a lot of places that look identical to places where we find a lot of them, but they’re never there,” he said. “That’s just the way it is about every year.”

As predicted, most of the morels in the jungle were small, mostly thumb-sized, which Travis said would be more numerous and flavorful.

The brush kept us on our hands and knees stretching for morels, but the low angle also showed us more than if we’d been standing.

The whole time I was photographing small morels Travis kept promising bigger things from a spot in the woods called Grandpa’s Ridge.

After 100 or so yards of finding nothing, we came to a low ridge near the edge of the woods. The first tall, yellow morel was where Travis predicted it would be. We found none past where he said the good picking usually ended.

“That’s Grandpa’s Ridge,” he said as we walked away. “It’s just always produced the best mushrooms we find down here.”

We easily picked more than 200 on Tuesday. Lonny’s been back a couple of times since and is still picking plenty of morels.

I walked from the woods with my shirt torn through the shoulder, with assorted stickers and scratches on skin that burned a bit from irritable ivy. Sweat soaked my clothing and even though well-sprayed, I felt ticks.

Travis didn’t have to bother to threaten me with bodily harm to protect his spot. It went without saying that his secret was safe with me. There’s an unwritten code in the outdoors that you never return to a hunting, fishing or morel spot if someone takes you there. Not even if it’s on public ground, or if the landowner later gives you permission, do you go back without your host.

Yes, I know the exact location of one of Kansas’s best morel spots. And I know it well enough to draw you a map on how to find it and the best way for you to sneak in.

But if I did, I’d have to kill us both … to save Colette and Lonny Travis the trouble.

Serious morel hunters are like that, you know.

Mushroom tip – Morels are known for great flavor when they’re fresh, but turn to flavorless mush when frozen. Lonny and Colette Travis have learned to bread extra morels, then brown them for about two minutes per side. Next they’re placed flat on cookie sheets and frozen flat, then placed in plastic bags.

When needed, the frozen morels are placed directly back into a hot skillet until thoroughly cooked and crisp.

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