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Illinois hunting and fishing

Mission: morels

April 24, 2011 at 08:23 PM

Peoria Journal-Star

Sit around the right set of woods long enough at this time of year and you’re likely to witness an awkward exchange.

In a hilly stretch of timber populated by elm and ash trees, just as the may apples open on the forest floor, two men quietly approach each other from opposite directions. One holds a plastic grocery sack, the other a mesh bag, both with sponge-like mushrooms inside.

Upon spotting each other, the men become shifty-eyed. They hold their bags to their sides in a transparent attempt to conceal their finds.

Plastic bag guy: “Had any luck?”

Mesh guy responds: “A couple. It’s still too early. You?”

Plastic: “A few. We need more rain.”

Mesh: “Well, I just like being out in the woods, anyway.”

Keeping their hands on their finds, which likely number in the dozens, and holding them always out of view, the morel hunters part ways, keeping one eye on the ground and the other glancing back to make sure they aren’t being followed

That scene, or any number of variations, plays out in public parks in the Peoria area generally from about mid-April through early May — or, in the vernacular of the hunter, “from tax day to mid-May” — as morels pop for the brief springtime season.

After a lackluster 2010 season, hunters likely are looking to 2011 with high hopes, buoyed — at least initially — by a few unseasonably warm days in early April. Then the cold came back, though that weather pattern has brought with it abundant rainfall, with nearly two inches of precipitation falling in a single day over the last week.

But resident morel expert Tom Nauman of Magnolia has nothing but optimism because of the conditions.

“Everyone thinks, ‘I hope it warms up so they’d just pop out,’ but that’s what happened last year and it was terrible everywhere,” he said. “If we get three days of 80-degree weather, they’d all pop at once and be done.

“The cool weather encourages me immensely,” Nauman added. “I personally think it’s going to be a bumper crop — the best year since 2003 possibly.”

He hopes that prediction makes for a memorable first year of the Midwest Morel Fest in Ottawa, the reincarnation of the Illinois State Morel Hunting Championship held in Magnolia every year for more than a decade beginning in 1996 and transferred to Henry County in 2008. Economic conditions forced the event to cancel in 2009 and 2010.

The 2011 fest includes a Morel University guided hunt May 6 and championship hunt May 7 for up to 440 hunters. The registration deadline is Wednesday, though Nauman said walk-on hunters will be accepted the first weekend of May as long as spots remain open.

Until then, the onslaught of wind, rain and cold has made for less than favorable foraging, adding a new necessity to the bare essentials for springtime mushroom hunting: a heavy jacket.

Still, finds have been reported in the Peoria area since the second week of April, and even some of those discoveries were farther along than expected, including some four-inch yellow morels found along field edges near a line of dying elm trees April 15.

Deeper in the timber, the cold snap appears to have put the season back on a more typical pace, with plateaus and south-facing hillsides still the best bet for early-season hauls.

Nauman found his first morel of the season in his neck of the woods Wednesday. From his home and Morel Mania headquarters, he chuckled that he found only one, a small gray morel, “a scout.”

“I left him,” Nauman said. “He’ll let the others know it’s OK to come out. … He wouldn’t have made much of a meal.”

Matt Buedel can be reached at 686-3154 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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