Hunters of the morel mushroom possess few observable characteristics. They come out for just a few weeks in spring after a week or two of warm temperatures and a couple of bouts of rain. April is when you can normally find them traipsing through the woods. They are often alone, sometimes wear camouflage, and, most importantly, are always, always secretive.
Paul Rukazina went out for the first time on Wednesday after a buddy of his showed him a few pickings from the day before.
The Fairview Heights resident dressed in brown clothing for the hunt. He was walking on the south side of a hill and spotted some black morels, the first type of the season, pushing through the leaves. Then he found some yellow mushrooms, and, a little later, three gigantic specimens under a Sycamore tree.
“When you find one, there’s usually more of them,” he said. He often gets down on his hands and knees to uncover his prey from tall grass and leaves.
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Rukazina picked the morels by the base and put them in a mesh bag so the spores could escape and pepper the ground. He was apprehensive about saying where he’d gone that day. Somewhere in St. Clair County was all he would admit to at first before conceding it was on some private land near the town where he lives.
“Now’s the time to be in the woods,” he said.
When you find one, there’s usually more of them.
Paul Rukazina, Fairview Heights resident
Rukazina isn’t the only fungus cognoscenti thinking about getting back in the woods this weekend.
“They’ve been coming for weeks,” said Jennifer Randolph-Bollinger, a naturalist at the Giant City State Park in Makanda.
Morel-hunters will stop in at the visitors’ center, she said, and the first question out of their mouths is, “Where are the morels?”
Mushroom-hunting is legal in state parks, though they may have different rules. For example, at Giant City, hunters may not sell what they find. They also can’t hunt on 100 acres of devoted nature preserve and can only go out after noon, which is when the turkey-hunters have left.
Despite these restrictions, one maintenance worker at the 4,055-acre park said he saw someone take out over a hundred morels, Randolph-Bollinger said.
Elm and Ash trees are pretty good locations to look, she explained, especially if the trees have been dead for a year or less. Then again, she said, she has personally found them near Pines and under Autumn Olives.
“There is no rhyme or reason to those morel mushrooms,” she said. “If someone tells you they’re an expert, they’re lying.”
Because trees are just beginning to sprout leaves, however, it can be difficult to spot which varieties they are. Randolph-Bollinger recommended trying to tell trees by their bark and getting an I.D. book to bring along on outings.
“When spring comes, I just start looking,” said the naturalist, who has her own hunting locations outside of the park. “I have my morel sensors on heightened awareness.”
There is no rhyme or reason to those morel mushrooms. If someone tells you they’re an expert, they’re lying.
Jennifer Randolph-Bollinger, a naturalist at the Giant City State Park in Makanda
Experts like Gregory Mueller, though, do have some advice.
Mueller recommended people look out for false morels, which can cause illness. He is the chief scientist and vice president of science at the Negaunee Foundation as well as the co-founder of the website illinoismushrooms.com.
The good news is that false morels are easy to tell apart from true morels if you know what you’re looking for.
True morels have hollow stems, Mueller said. False morels do not. True morels have a honeycomb shape. False morels look like brains or saddles.
Morels, of course, are not the only edible mushroom in Illinois. For more information, check out Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States, written by Joe McFarland, the other co-founder of illinoismushrooms.com.
For novice hunters, those who aren’t afraid of a little competition, or those who appreciate a little camaraderie in nature, the Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton is hosting a Mushroom Festival on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.