Why You Shouldn’t Confuse Mushroom Hunting With Foraging

My late brother John would find 1,000 morel mushrooms in a season. For his sake, don’t call it foraging.
Look for morels along creek beds; and around elm, ash, and poplar trees.

A LOT of us in Indy are first-generation “off the farm,” as a former boss once teased. We grew up in or outside of a small town, went to a college in-state, and landed in the city. Some of us speak with a twang, and some don’t, but we all notice that things sound different in a place where simple things become lifestyle trends. Where we’re from, shiplap is just is your grandma’s holdover ’70s paneling.

One of the latest rebrandings is mushroom hunting. Now, take it from someone who was dragged into the woods on April Sundays after church—it’s deathly boring to scour for the mystical morel, toeing aside leaves for a glimpse of a honeycombed dome peeking through nature’s carpet. Hours pass without finding anything but worms. You get a crick in your neck for nothing. But now that it’s trending, I feel protective of the tradition. Mushroom hunters appreciate the beauty and solitude of the woods and the bounty it provides in a way I’m not sure urban foragers do—or, more charitably, have had a chance to.

No one loves morel hunting more than my late brother John did. He was a country boy in the truest sense. He revered nature, its beauty big and small. He memorized the yellow issues of National Geographic that filled our family bookshelves in the 1970s and ’80s, rereading them decades later. He explored all of the county’s caves and knew every knob and backroad for miles. He reserved his strongest passion for mushroom hunting. John engineered his life around the brief season that usually begins in mid-April, depending on the weather. He liked to spend eight hours at a time walking the woods, and if he had to quit a job to make it happen, so be it. He lived at home until his mid-30s. Mushroom hunting was his priority.

Friendships have ended over mushrooms. People have probably been shot over them.

Like any hardcore mushroom hunter, he had his secret honey holes, but he was always searching for more. “One day he brought in some maps,” says a former coworker, Melissa Schocke. “I asked him what he was going to do with them, and his reply was, ‘Map out what property was owned by the county and hit the mushrooms hard Sunday.’” Sometimes he vied for territory with turkey hunters, whose season is also in April and May. Turkey hunters don’t like mushroom hunters walking around and spooking their prey. “We once snuck into a honey hole that at the time was leased to hunters, so we went at midnight,” says his friend Seth Bundy. “We hiked up this steep ridge and found tons of mushrooms with only flashlights. As we descended the ridge, we must have disturbed a wild turkey roosting, and all of a sudden it started gobbling and took off right next to us.”

A good season would yield 1,000 morels. He knew other people’s tallies, too. “Friendships have ended over mushrooms,” John told me once. “People have probably been shot over them.” He didn’t sell his prizes to area chefs, even though he could have gotten $80 a gallon, he claimed—and God knows he could have used the money to heat his little country shack. He ate them himself, sauteed in butter, and gave them to friends.  

John could distinguish a morel from a trumpet from a distance and knew to look for dead elm, poplar, and ash trees when in new territory, locating the trees first before looking on the ground. But what made him a legend in his parts was his relentlessness, according to our brother Dan. “He kept a close eye on the weather and would schedule his vacation when he thought it would be ‘hot’ in the woods. He kept maps, took notes, and tried to beat other people to the patches.” John had a rivalry with a guy who hunted some of the same spots, and John would leave a cigarette butt on the ground after picking it clean, so the other guy knew he had beaten him there.

Mushrooms were how John bonded with his best friends. “I always remember hanging out with John right before mushroom season,” Daniel Briscoe says. “He always had plat maps and topo maps, studying land elevations and property owners. He was like Indiana Jones looking for treasure. He would explain why he [thought a spot was] the best place for mushrooms. I always loved telling stories about the terrain where I found mushrooms compared to his. It was like passing notes.”

The only things John loved more than mushrooms were God, his family, and maybe steak sauce for the 11 months of the year he wasn’t mushroom hunting. “I remember one time we had an awesome mushroom season, and John’s refrigerator was so full of mushrooms I [wondered] where he was going to keep his A.1.,” Daniel says.

John died suddenly seven years ago, a few months after his last mushroom hunting season. If you go looking for morels, please drop a cigarette butt in his honor.