Foraging for morels is a Montana rite of spring. My kids swear it’s even better than an Easter egg hunt.  Every April, we start watching the weather for the perfect combination of rain and warmth that will turn the cottonwood-filled bottomlands of the Upper Yellowstone near our home in Livingston into lush stands of grass with morels poking through.

Morels are pitted, hollow, sponge-like mushrooms that can be found throughout the forests of North America from April through June and sometimes later. They come in three forms: black (which have a thinner cap and pop earliest; we typically find these in the sandier soils on islands); Morchella esculenta (white, gray) and Morchella deliciosa (golden, yellow). All three are delicious.

In Montana, morels are most prolific in burn areas the year after a forest fire and on cottonwood bottomlands, especially those with infrequent sedimentation that only flood every 10 years or so. It’s simply a matter of temperature, and temperature corresponds to elevation; ground temperature and moisture must coincide.

In Montana, morels pop in flushes and typically start along rivers at lower elevations. On the Yellowstone, they’ll fruit lower down by Big Timber and Springdale before hitting Paradise Valley. Then they’ll head up mountainsides. Burn-site morels tend to rise later in the season (we sometimes find them into July), flourishing one to two years after a fire.

“I generally have the best luck in May just before the river blows, when the caddis are hatching like crazy, but it varies from year to year,” says Paradise Valley writer and noted grizzly bear authority Doug Peacock, a lifelong mushroom enthusiast. “The river gets dangerous just about the time you want to go out and look.”

Peacock says the added element of danger makes morels taste even better. Pickers must be alert for wildlife and spring runoff, and also be vigilant not to trespass above the high-water mark.

“You gotta put your life on the line!” jokes Peacock, who goes on to tell a story about himself and fellow Livingston forager Dan Sullivan, who in pursuit of morels in 1996 (a record snow year) launched a johnboat at Mayor’s Landing during high runoff.  Two old, bearded gents standing on the KPRK Bridge signed the Hail Mary as the duo rocketed beneath them, sans life jackets (which they’d forgotten to pack) — Rancho Deluxe-style, waves crashing over the bow. Hitting the islands below town, they literally filled the boat with morels before nearly swamping it above the 89 Bridge. The haphazard adventurers ended the day with their boat parked on a trailer outside the Murray Bar, handing out bagsful of the springtime delicacies.

Though morel hunters are notoriously secretive about their ’shroomin’ spots, Doug and his wife Andrea, also an avid forager, agreed to accompany me for an afternoon combing the banks of a tributary along the middle Yellowstone several weeks ago.

Doug was first bitten by the mycelium bug as a 9-year-old boy trout fishing on the Pine River in Michigan, when he noticed morels’ elongated, pale yellow caps sprouted under beech trees along the muddy bank. He’s stalked all forms of fungi from the Sierra Madre in Chihuahua to Cape Cod to the High Arctic on his way to Siberia. “It’s a treasure hunt. It’s so much fun, and they taste so good!” he says. “I travel through the woods slow, like an ancient hunter-gatherer.”

Doug says the best way to begin is to just get outside and start looking. “It’s self-instruction. Morels are idiot-proof. You just have to be hungry and alert and interested — that’s it.”

“Doug likes to say, ‘You find ’em where you find ’em,’” says Andrea, an independent journalist and co-owner of Elk River Books in downtown Livingston. Her quiet, observant demeanor is ideally suited for sleuthing morels.

Both Peacocks agree that the first morel is always the hardest to spot, but where there’s one there are usually more. “Once you see one, get down. Study it. Move around and look at it from every angle,” advises Doug. “Make a picture of it in your mind.  Try to look for a pattern — which, quite wonderfully, you’ll never figure out.”

Several days before our expedition, Doug instructed me to stick a meat thermometer in the ground beneath the cottonwoods.  “Take several readings. When the temperature reaches the low 50s, we should plan a visit.”

The morning we went out, the ground temperature was 53 degrees but warmed slightly as we scoured. (Doug says the magic number is about 54 degrees, and hunting improves as it rises to 55-56.) We had the best luck in sandy soil among baby cottonwoods on riverbanks. “If it’s a hotter, dryer year—look in pockets that retain moisture. If it is wet and cooler, they can be more out in the open places where the sun hits,” explains Doug.

They tend to pop in little micro niches — sometimes back among the willows, sometimes out in tall grass. “On wet years they seem to like south-facing swales that get lots of sun,” notes Andrea.  

“But every time you think you’ve got it down, they’ll blow your mind,” smiled Doug, emptying his cache into his baseball cap so I could take a photo.

The Peacocks say the secret to storing morels is to keep them clean and dry. My family never washes or freezers ours because they get soggy; we brush them off and cut them in half lengthwise to makes sure the hollow insides are bug-free and store them in paper bags inside our fridge’s crisper. “Our friend Jamie Harrison taught us the best secret for cleaning burn-area morels, which tend to be grittier,” shares Doug, “Roll them on a damp paper towel.”

In a bumper year, Doug will Fed Ex a boxful of wild bounty to his sister in Berkeley or leave gourmet gifts on his friends’ doorsteps. He’ll also allow himself to experiment a bit more in the kitchen, though he generally maintains that simple is best. He and Andrea enjoy morels most on top of venison steak or pasta. “I like to sauté them in butter and garlic and maybe add a little shallot — never onion; it’s too strong,” says Doug.  “A little bit of diced, dried green pepper is really kind of magical; it brings out the flavor, especially if you don’t have many.” 

Montana-based photojournalist Lynn Donaldson-Vermillion shoots and writes for Travel + Leisure, FoodNetwork.com, is an official Instagrammer for National Geographic Traveler, and contributes regularly to the New York Times. She is founder and Creative Director of the Montana food + travel blog, TheLastBestPlates.com

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