David Arora’s perspective on morels and good luck

The morel fruitings we had this spring in the Arizona mountains, while quite welcome and more productive than in many prior years, were not nearly as extensive as those we saw last fall. Those unexpected explosions of morels were caused by early-summer forest fires, a relatively wet late-summer monsoon season, and then a series of unusually heavy tropical storms coming up from Mexico in the early fall after the monsoon season was over.

San Juan Morels06

Last October, anyone who could walk 300 yards from their car was able to fill a good-sized basket in a couple of hours, and stories of people picking 50 pounds or more in a day were reported. We have not seen a flush like that since 1998, the old-timers tell me, and will probably not see another anytime soon.

People who went out to the San Juan and Slide fires over the past month or so have been seeing wildly different results on the spring morels. Our Facebook group page has been graced with pictures from people who found dozens or hundreds of morels per trip, including one person who found nearly 20 pounds in one long day of hiking; but sadly, there was also a considerable number of hunters who came home empty-handed.

It is discouraging, especially for someone who is new at the hobby, to be on the unfortunate side of such disparities. We have tried hard on this page to diffuse the lore of morel hunting, and have facilitated quite a few informal group outings that have successfully passed on this knowledge and experience to rank beginners, but not everyone who wanted to find morels was able to do so.

It is tempting to blame one’s lack of success on “bad luck”, and certainly luck or chance is a factor, but there is a great deal more to it than that. I have had it in mind to write an article dealing with all the elements of a successful mushroom hunt, beginning with consultation of temperature and rainfall records and topographical maps in the comfort of your living room, but before I got to it I saw this post by the well-known mycologist and author David Arora on the Mushroom Talk Facebook page. It has a lot of sage advice for all of us. With his permission, I have reprinted it below.

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David Arora
May 2015

A while back I was congratulated by someone for my “good luck” in finding morels. I was slightly annoyed by this, as luck is a small factor compared to some others listed below. Then yesterday someone posted, on several lists, a resentful and xenophobic narrative about how out-of-state “picker gangs” had taken every morel in the King Fire (Sierra Nevada, California). He went on to compare the “gangs” to horse thieves and then advised people that there were no morels left in the King Burn. Meanwhile, other people found plenty of morels in the King Fire and elsewhere at the same time he was there. He was apparently the only one who got skunked!

These two incidents inspired me to revise some old notes about the keys to successful mushroom hunting, whether for morels or other types. In my view, there are three factors absolutely crucial to success. They are not listed in any particular order because which is THE most important varies from situation to situation:

1. Knowledge and experience. How to read the landscape, the habitat, the weather (i.e., timing), slope, altitude, what plants or trees are blooming, etc. are all crucial to success as well as being able to identify the mushrooms. Over time all of this can feel intuitive but is grounded very much in study, experience and repetition. Those who don’t have such knowledge can compensate with #’s 2 and 3.

2. Persistence and perseverance, i.e., effort. Attitude is crucial; pessimists or resentful people who give up easily will not do well except under optimum conditions, yet one also needs #’s 1 and 3 to know when not to look.

3. Having knowledgeable friends and informants. This can be the most important of the three if, for example, you have to drive a long way and don’t have a lot of time to explore. People are much more likely to share specific site info if they trust you and know you are not going to broadcast the information to hundreds or bring others to a spot that they discovered through their own hard effort. Some people have poor information networks by choice, i.e., they prefer to do things alone. They can make up for this disadvantage with large doses of #’s 1 and 2.

There are some other factors that influence success on any given hunt, but they are much less important compared to the first three. For example:

4. Memory (especially for mushrooms that recur in the same place year after year). Says one porcini-picker: “I can’t remember what day of the week it is. I can’t even remember to pay my bills. But I remember every single place I’ve ever found a mushroom, even if it’s in the middle of the forest miles from nowhere…” For those who know the day of the week and always pay their bills on time, a GPS can help.

5. Keen-sightedness and pattern recognition. Or a friend with great stamina and a supremely sensitive nose (think dog).

6. Ability to maintain focus. When you are in a good area thanks to numbers 1-3, seeing mushrooms is about maintaining focus as well as good eyesight. I often falter in this regard as I am prone to pondering while wandering.

7. Mobility. Healthy people with strong bodies and/or strong vehicles will be able to cover more ground and access areas that others can’t.

8. A bit of luck helps, too. [smile emoticon]

I may very well be overlooking some factors so please feel free to chime in if I’ve missed some.

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(Featured image by Jan Stepanek)

About Christopher May

Chris is a radiologist in private practice in Scottsdale. He is married to Barbara May, with two grown children, Megan and Nick.
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