by Ron Wilson
You’re familiar with those life list articles, aren’t you? Those inspiring pieces that list the 50 or so things we must do before we die, from building a log cabin in the woods with just an axe and a pocketknife, to hiking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail on summer break.
I enjoy the lists for their ridiculousness, plus the accompanying photos are typically pretty good. And you just never know when you might run into something reasonable, something outdoorsy that could be pulled off on a weekend. Like, say, canoe camp a local river, or forage a meal from the wild.
I don’t own a canoe, and the closest I’ve come to foraging wild edibles is picking apart acorns with a pocketknife while squirrel hunting in the river bottoms. But according to local morel mushroom hunters, the foraging for this edible fungus that has spawned annual festivals and fisticuffs over prime picking spots, was maybe never better in North Dakota than this spring.
“This was a spectacular year for morels … It was a banner year in many places,” said Fred Ryckman, Game and Fish Department fisheries supervisor and longtime forager. “When you get record-breaking rainfall in May, you know it’s going to be good. This year the stars just aligned.”
Reports of hunters filling 5 gallon buckets with big morels weren’t uncommon.
“Most years you are lucky to get a gallon,” said Bill Haase, Department wildlife resource management supervisor. “I had every intention of hunting for mushrooms this spring, but then I kind of spaced it out and went fishing instead. I’m disappointed that I missed it, but we did catch some fish.”
For first time foragers, spring 2013 was the year to get their feet wet.
“This spring was the only time in my life that I’d ever done it,” said George Lee, Department building maintenance supervisor. “I had heard a lot of talk and that propelled me to do it.”
Lee hunted with his son-in-law, Brent Spooner of Bismarck, who did a bunch of research online to learn the kind of habitat the mushrooms prefer.
“Brent out picked me 10 to 1,” Lee said. “I simply was picking the leftovers, the mushrooms that everyone else missed.”
Lee likened foraging for morels to smelting.
“You only get this short window where things are happening, and even then, it’s only good so many years,” he said.
It also reminded him of metal detecting.
“The thrill is what you’re going to find and when you’re going to find it,” he said.
Bob Frohlich, Department fisheries development supervisor, picked his first morel eight years ago. A May hasn’t gone by since that he can’t be found walking slowly in the woods, with his head down.
“I don’t know anything about them, other than they’re delicious,” Frohlich said. “If you didn’t like the taste of them, you certainly wouldn’t put up with the wood ticks and mosquitoes.”
While a mushroom hunter is willing to pass along favorite recipes, you don’t ask the location of morel honey holes. Those are guarded secrets.
The hunters in this piece all forage along the Missouri River, and that’s as specific as I expected them to get.
“I had a new spot this year along the river and there were mushrooms everywhere,” Ryckman said. “I bet there were trillions of them that went to waste up and down the Missouri.”
That’s a lot of morels and mouthwatering meals.
“There’s nothing better than a venison loin covered in three inches of morels,” Ryckman said. “Nothing better.”
Note: Morel mushrooms are delicious if you know what you are looking for. For safety reasons, don’t eat any mushroom that you can’t identify with certainty. If you’re foraging for the first time, go with a veteran hunter who knows what they are looking for. Also, a number of written mushroom guides are available and some dependable information can be found online.
A Look Back
by Ron Wilson
Some of the old, black and white Game and Fish Department photos stored in gray and Army green file cabinets have notes penned on the back, confirming when and where the photos were taken.
Then there are those photographs, like this one, for instance, with no written clues. The evidence is simply found in what the photographer captured on film.
Working off of that premise, it’s been decided that this photo was likely taken in the late 1950s, considering the vehicle towing the boat is a mid-1950s, or so, Buick.
The lake on which the family is about to enjoy the day, however, is simply a guess, but likely a good guess.
“It’s definitely in the Turtle Mountains,” said Nancy Boldt, North Dakota Game and Fish Department boat and water safety coordinator, who grew up in Calvin, North Dakota, east of Rock Lake. “By looking at the shoreline, and maybe they all look alike in the Turtle Mountains, but it looks to me like Gravel Lake.”
Boldt fished a number of Turtle Mountain waters, such as Gravel, Upsilon and Long, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She still fishes occasionally in that neck of the woods today.
“We fished from shore and did a lot of tent camping,” she said. “And I remember the fishing being pretty good in the Turtle Mountain lakes back then.”
There were also far fewer cabins on many of the Turtle Mountains than you’d find today. “It was a lot quieter then,” Boldt said.
If it is indeed Gravel Lake, we know from Game and Fish Department records that it was stocked for the first time with walleye fry 83 years ago. Bullhead and yellow perch were introduced in 1946, walleye fingerlings, which are bigger than fry, in 1947, and largemouth bass in 1950.
While Gravel Lake was known as trout fishery for the longest time, from 1962 until the early 1990s, it’s difficult to determine for certain when tiger muskies were introduced, but they were.
In 1975, a 40-pound tiger muskie – a cross between a female muskie and a male northern pike – was caught in Gravel and still stands as a record today.
Interestingly, tiger muskies weren’t stocked intentionally into Gravel. The fish were destined elsewhere, but while being held in a net in the lake overnight, they escaped, with one fish growing to record size.
At least that’s how the story goes.