The sneaky art of mushroom hunting

Henry Miller / Statesman Journal /

Published Oct 16, 2013 at 05:00AM

While sight is important when hunting wild chanterelle mushrooms, hearing is probably about as important.

“Car coming,” Phil McCorkle, of Salem, said in a stage whisper, which is a cue to use another key outdoor skill, nimbleness.

Or in my case, sneakiness.

Phil managed to duck behind a tree to avoid being spotted.

Caught out in the open, I had two choices: Turn my back and pretend to be relieving myself, or since the camera already was in my hands, pretend to take a breathtaking shot of the rotting stump in front of me.

Hunting wild mushrooms is that kind of pastime, kind of like pretending you’re stuck on the bottom if you have a chinook on the line when another boat passes, because you don’t want to give your secret spot away.

Judging by the number of cut mushroom stems looking like tiny pencil stubs sticking out of the ground, though, this spot was about as unknown as Mount Rushmore. We have visited it on rare occasions during the course of 20-plus years.

But for the sake of our agreement, also two decades old, let’s just say we were in an undisclosed location in the Coast Range somewhere between Astoria and Gold Beach.

Picking edible wild mushrooms in general is not for the careless or the uninformed, or as the old saying goes, if we had more people like you, we’d have fewer people like you.

We’re both pretty much one-trick ponies when it comes to mushrooms, chanterelles being our one and only quarry.

Phil learned the art of finding them as a commercial picker, briefly, when he was “17 to 20, or 18 to 20,” he said, then laughed, “it’s not on my résumé.”

There are two things to like about the bright yellow mushrooms.

They’re relatively easy to identify by the color, the solid stems and gills on the underside that go down the stalk in tell-tale ridgelines.

“That’s an important component for me,” Phil said about the reliable keys. “And also it’s my favorite mushroom as far as flavor. I haven’t, by any means, tried them all ... but I like the nutty taste of chanterelles.”

You’re looking for fairly old evergreen forests with lots of moist forest detritus such as rotten wood on the ground, he explained. As long as it’s got those conditions, he has found chanterelles up as high as 3,000 feet in the Cascade Range.

The pencil stubs were a giveaway that the previous pickers knew their stuff, cutting off the stems to leave the thread-like mycelium in the ground from which the next batch will grow.

“There’s one,” Phil said, pointing to a splotch of yellow amid the moist forest duff. “And another, and another.”

He’d found a patch of about four, make that five, no, six.

“I think this is one,” I offered.

Ka-ching.

One of the chanterelles had a nearly identically colored deceiver less than a foot away, same size, same relative shape.

Phil cut them and turned them over.

“See how the gills go down the stem?” he said, pointing to the chanterelle in his right hand.

“Now see how this one has the gills going right into the stem?” Phil continued, adding about the stem, “squeeze it.”

It was as hollow as a soda straw.

“Car coming!”

Duck and cover.

Back to the lecture.

“The point is there are a few mushrooms out there that look enough like it that if you aren’t careful, you could end up with something that’s not a chanterelle,” Phil said. “I don’t know that any of them are deadly, but I’m sure as heck not going to eat one to find out.”

My point being that if you don’t have a Phil, find one.

Clubs are as prolific as chanterelles in the spring, as are mushroom shows and festivals this time of year, all with their own Phils willing to show you, teach you, and take you out in the woods.

“What’s prime time?” he asked, repeating my question. “Summers are pretty dry around here, so you want to go out after the first rains set in, and that’s when it all starts.

“That may not be prime time, but that’s when it starts. And from then on ’til it freezes, that’s when you’re going to find them.”

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