Mushroom hunter shares ‘dryland fishing’ tips

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By Ron Benningfield

When Marty Stillwell goes fishing, he doesn’t require a rod and reel, or pole; he doesn’t even need water.


All the Mt. Sherman resident carries is a sack to put his catch in and plenty of patience, for Stillwell is a dryland fish hunter.

Dryland fish is what many people in Kentucky and Tennessee call a type of mushroom known as a morel. Other terms also exist for the delicacy - hickory chicken, sponge mushroom or merkels (miracles, based on a story of how a mountain family was saved from starvation by eating morels).

These distinctive mushrooms (genus Morchella) have a honey-comb-like upper portion  composed of a network of ridges with pits between them.

The morel gets its fishy nickname because, when sliced lengthwise, breaded and fried, its outline resembles a fish. 

Another similarity is that neither true fishermen nor morel hunters will share just exactly where they find their catch. And size matters to both groups.

“My brother found one so large that when he cut it in half, it covered a slice of bread,” Stillwell said. 

Morels come in various sizes and colors, but their shape is the distinguishing factor.

“Little black ones come up in March followed by the larger, white ones,” said Stillwell.

They can pop up overnight, especially after a spring rain. Hunters usually first find them in early spring and they can be harvested as late as May. 

Hunting them is a lot like stalking other game – or fishing. The “shroomer” must use all his skills to find them, and there’s no guarantee he will come home with any.

“I’ve been skunked before,” Stillwell said, “but I have also found a lot of mushrooms with 400 being the most I’ve ever picked on one trip.”

He said the little “fish” are “all over LaRue County, but you’ve got to take your time looking for them.”

When he enters an area where he thinks the mushrooms will be, he stops, squats down to get a better sight angle, and slowly scans the area around him.

“I find more black ones in the woods, especially among poplars and hickory trees,” he said. ”Usually, if you find one, you’ll find eight or 10 more without your having to move.”

The white ones, he has observed are commonly in briar patches, thickets, and on creek banks. He also mentioned cedar thickets and mossy areas as likely fishing spots.

“You can pick them one day, then come back to the same spot after a rain, and there’ll be 35 or 40 more,” he said. 

Though the morel is much different in texture from most other mushrooms, the hunter has to be cautious because false morels, which look to the untrained eye like dryland fish, can cause sickness and can be fatal. One major distinction, according to Stillwell, is that the morel’s stem is always hollow.

Though many recipes exist for cooking the mushrooms, Stillwell prefers the way his wife Kristy soaks them in salt water, rolls them in flour and pan-fries them.

“Now, that’s some good eating,” he said with a grin.