Mushroom Magic: Corinth Man Hones His Skills as Hunter of the Elusive Morel

  • Brad Wheeler, an environmental consultant from Corinth, Vt., returns to his truck after checking for ash trees along a road in Corinth on May 28, 2014. "Not seeing as many (ash trees) as I'd like to see," said Wheeler. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Brad Wheeler, an environmental consultant from Corinth, Vt., returns to his truck after checking for ash trees along a road in Corinth on May 28, 2014. "Not seeing as many (ash trees) as I'd like to see," said Wheeler. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Brad Wheeler of Corinth, Vt., looks for ash trees through his windshield while driving in Corinth on May 28, 2014. "Ash trees are the key," said Wheeler. Valley News - Will Parson)

    Brad Wheeler of Corinth, Vt., looks for ash trees through his windshield while driving in Corinth on May 28, 2014. "Ash trees are the key," said Wheeler. Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Brad Wheeler harvests what might be turkey tail fungus from a log in Corinth, Vt., while looking for mushrooms on May 28, 2014. "I probably can't identify half of what I see from the field guides. There's just so many," said Wheeler. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Brad Wheeler harvests what might be turkey tail fungus from a log in Corinth, Vt., while looking for mushrooms on May 28, 2014. "I probably can't identify half of what I see from the field guides. There's just so many," said Wheeler. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Brad Wheeler finds a morel mushroom at a friend's orchard in Orange County on May 28, 2014. Wheeler took care to pinch the mushroom at its base to avoid pulling up the fungus' root-like mycelium underground. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Brad Wheeler finds a morel mushroom at a friend's orchard in Orange County on May 28, 2014. Wheeler took care to pinch the mushroom at its base to avoid pulling up the fungus' root-like mycelium underground. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • After a successful hunt, Brad Wheeler counts 50 morels at his home in Corinth, Vt., on May 28, 2014. Some he sautéed in butter and some he dried. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    After a successful hunt, Brad Wheeler counts 50 morels at his home in Corinth, Vt., on May 28, 2014. Some he sautéed in butter and some he dried. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Brad Wheeler takes a photo of what he later identified as a showy orchid that he found in Corinth, Vt., while looking for mushrooms. "In over 30 years of working in the woods, that is the first time I've seen them," Wheeler said. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Brad Wheeler takes a photo of what he later identified as a showy orchid that he found in Corinth, Vt., while looking for mushrooms. "In over 30 years of working in the woods, that is the first time I've seen them," Wheeler said. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Brad Wheeler, an environmental consultant from Corinth, Vt., returns to his truck after checking for ash trees along a road in Corinth on May 28, 2014. "Not seeing as many (ash trees) as I'd like to see," said Wheeler. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Brad Wheeler of Corinth, Vt., looks for ash trees through his windshield while driving in Corinth on May 28, 2014. "Ash trees are the key," said Wheeler. Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Brad Wheeler harvests what might be turkey tail fungus from a log in Corinth, Vt., while looking for mushrooms on May 28, 2014. "I probably can't identify half of what I see from the field guides. There's just so many," said Wheeler. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Brad Wheeler finds a morel mushroom at a friend's orchard in Orange County on May 28, 2014. Wheeler took care to pinch the mushroom at its base to avoid pulling up the fungus' root-like mycelium underground. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • After a successful hunt, Brad Wheeler counts 50 morels at his home in Corinth, Vt., on May 28, 2014. Some he sautéed in butter and some he dried. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Brad Wheeler takes a photo of what he later identified as a showy orchid that he found in Corinth, Vt., while looking for mushrooms. "In over 30 years of working in the woods, that is the first time I've seen them," Wheeler said. (Valley News - Will Parson)

Corinth — Mushroom hunter Brad Wheeler spent a recent Thursday evening tromping around Orange County in search of an elusive, highly prized fungus. The first two stops left him empty handed, but then, in an old apple orchard, he claimed his quarry — 50 morels nestled in the spring grass.

“It felt like a big deal to me,” the Corinth resident said, recalling the find. Those, together with a cache of almost 90 he and his son discovered a few nights later, comprise the most he’s ever picked in a year. Worried they would go bad, Wheeler dried most of them to use over time. But some he ate right away, sauteed in butter or cooked with potatoes, sausage, onions and garlic.

When he was growing up, his father and older brothers picked wild mushrooms, but the 54-year-old Wheeler is a novice. His interest stemmed partly from his profession — as an environmental consultant, he’s often outside doing field work. In the past few years, he’s taken a mushroom identification seminar and relied on field guides and online materials to build up his skills.

“You do want to be careful because certainly a handful of mushrooms you see on a regular basis will kill you if you eat them,” he said. Recently, after picking what he thought were edible mushrooms, he had second thoughts and opted to follow “the golden rule”: if you have any doubt, throw them out. But despite the risks, he’s quick to promote his new hobby.

“With a little bit of care and common sense, it’s not beyond the reach of most people,” he said. It’s a fun way to get out in the woods, and with such a huge variety, “there’s something new to learn all the time.”

That includes figuring out where to look for various mushrooms. What makes good morel territory is a subject of debate.

Many morel hunters gravitate toward the ground under particular hardwood trees — Wheeler uses apple and ash trees, along with dead elms, as clues that the fungi might be growing nearby. But knowing where to start is no guarantee — the earth-toned mushrooms are around for just a few weeks in the spring and are notoriously tough to spot.

“A lot of people will tell you that you can spend years looking for morels and not find anything,” he said. “You have to take it really slow. It’s amazing how you can look at an area, move through it, come back and see (morels) you didn’t see the first time.”

Mushroom lovers are known for being tight-lipped about their hunting grounds, and Wheeler is no different.

“You don’t want somebody to come in and pick the mushrooms before you get there,” he said. “It’s hard not to let that little bit of greed of come in.”

Morels often grow in the same location each spring. But that can change abruptly, Louise Freedman said in her cookbook Wild About Mushrooms. “Morels get bored easily and enjoy traveling.”

Many mushroom aficionados consider morels the most delectable of fungi. But not Wheeler.

His favorite is the comb tooth, a whitish fungus that grows on dead or dying trees. It “looks like a bunch of icicles … and tastes like lobster,” he said. And the more common chanterelles are also “just fantastic.”

Morel season is just about over, but other species will be popping up over the next several months. And Wheeler will be out searching for them.

“That’s the wonderful thing about mushrooms,” he said. “From early spring ’til after snowfall, you can find mushrooms that are good to eat. All you have to do is take a look.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.