The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 19, 2013

Mushroom, nature lovers on the hunt

Morel season just two or three weeks long

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — For the first hour or so, the morel mushroom foray being conducted by Brian Turensky, founder of the Facebook page Mankato Morel Hunters, wasn’t producing a lot of the highly-prized fungus.

“I found some snails,” said Lisa Kreuzer of Mankato. “And a toad.”

“I found more garbage than anything,” added another hunter.

Leading the group on some public land in the Mankato area (The Free Press was invited along only on the condition that the specific location wouldn’t be revealed), Turensky was saving the best for last. He’d scouted the woods earlier and had found pockets of morels popping up with great consistency in a particular spot, and that’s where he was slowly leading the group.

“From about 200 yards over there to right over here,” Turensky shouted at last to the handful of remaining hunters scattered through the otherwise tranquil forest. “Did you hear that Pat? I just gave away the best spot.”

While Turensky isn’t broadcasting the location to the general public, he was willing to share some of what he knows with friends from his Mankato Morel Hunters page who were committed enough to devote three hours of time. A couple of people even drove from the Twin Cities.

“I offered anybody who’s kind of a newbie, who’s had trouble finding morels, a chance for a foray and to show them how to find some,” Turensky said. “Show them the right ground conditions, what to look for.”

Kreuzer and Amanda Eagan — novices a couple of years ago when they first decided to try some morel hunting — didn’t need a lot of guidance once they got to the fertile part of the foray.

“Awesome!” Kreuzer yelled as she spotted one, then another and another. “Whoo-hoo!”

A couple of minutes later: “Oooh, here’s two more. Holy buckets!”

“Yeah, they’re all over here,” Turensky said.

The morels were small and Turensky was leaving all of those he found unharvested, subtly marking the spot with fallen twigs.

“I’d give it a week,” he said, pointing at a prime specimen. “It’ll be two or three times this size.”

For the most part, Kreuzer was also using the patient approach, planning a return trip when they’d grown bigger.

“I think in the next couple of weeks, there’s just going to be monsters out here,” she said.

Dan Graf, a local kayak guide, wasn’t thinking about next week. He was thinking about supper.

“I’ll throw these bad boys on a steak tonight,” Graf said of his collection of miniature morels.

Graf was one of the newbies Turensky was talking about, and even in the primo patch he needed guidance.

Turensky pointed out a small cluster of morels and Graf got low, moving his hand gently through the underbrush and last autumn’s fallen leaves. He still didn’t spot the little caps, colored much like the dried vegetation around them.

“Right there,” Turensky said. “Six inches in front of your finger. A little to the right.”

Within a few seconds, Graf was spotting them without hints.

“Oh, here’s one right here,” he said.

“There you go,” Turensky said.

Turensky, a dental lab technician by weekday, was offering more Saturday than experienced eyes. He taught how to cut the morels above the soil so the underground part of the organism would survive and sprout new morels next year. He threw in a little science and some general tips about how to hunt morels.

First, know that the season is short — just two or three weeks long after warm weather arrives in spring, typically May. Soft, loamy soil is something morels love.

And while getting low and training one’s eyes to see the fungus among the leaves is important, so is looking skyward.

“It sounds confusing, but you have to look up to find morels on the ground,” he said.

Morels are just the fruit cap of a larger organism. Underground, root-like strands called mycelium interact with the root-hairs of trees. It’s a symbiotic relationship, Turensky said, with tree and fungus aiding the other in obtaining nutrients.

When the tree is dying or dead, the fungus senses it and sends up the fruit cap in an attempt to spread its spores and find a healthier host, he said. Hence the advice to look up, find a tree with dead branches — especially an elm tree — and start searching in an arc as wide as the tree’s roots are likely to reach.

Kreuzer and Turensky each said that much of the appeal of morels goes beyond stomach-appeal. Getting out in the woods on a nice spring day, taking time to look around, getting up close with nature — and morel hunting requires a very up-close relationship with nature — is a big part of the attraction.

Plus, there’s some child-like elements to the hobby.

“It’s kind of like a glorified Easter egg hunt for adults,” Turensky said.