"The trick to winning this contest," Williams said, "is moving fast and getting deep into the woods. They always send you to a spot you're unfamiliar with, so everyone's even at the start. I like to run into the woods for 10 or 15 minutes, and then start hunting. Success is all in the eyes—you've got to go slightly out of focus as you run and wait for those conical black caps to pop up out of the neutral background of dead beech leaves. Once you see one, zip, you see a couple dozen. I always use an old net grapefruit bag to carry them in. It lets them breathe—a plastic bag locks the moisture in, and they go mushy fast—and also it lets the mature spores escape. That helps to seed a new crop for next year."
He may be right. Some mushroomers feel they should leave the "roots" of the morel in the ground when they pick it. But actually, as Smith Weber explains, what you're picking is only the fruiting body of a much larger organism. The mycelium, a cobweb of threadlike hyphae roughly equivalent to the combined root system and upper foliage of plants containing chlorophyll, can be huge—up to a quarter of an acre or more. It survives as long as there is decomposing duff or other specific nutrients for it to feed on. The spores of the fruiting bodies are its seeds. They are carried by the wind to give birth, under proper conditions, to new mycelia. "You can no more kill a mushroom patch by overpicking than you can kill an apple tree by picking all its fruit," says Smith Weber.
The final course at the Depot was a juicy hamburger on a home-baked roll, "smothered," as they say, with crisp, fried morels. It was well worth the rain-down-the-neck drenching that the morning had provided. "Sometimes this kind of hunting can be as exciting as big game," Williams said. "I used to bow-hunt for deer but gave it up when I put a shaft clean through a buck one year and lost him. I got a hell of a shock in this championship a few years back. I was loping along when I spotted a 'roon just ahead. I was on it like a flash, grabbed it and—whoops!—came up with about four feet of squirming, angry black snake. He'd had his head peeking above the leaf litter, and I mistook it for a morel. I don't know which of us was spooked worse, but we soon went our separate ways."
So, too, if reluctantly, did Azel and I, though far better fed than when we'd arrived in the cold, unrelenting, 'roon-spawning rain. In more ways than one, mushrooms can grow on you.