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Where wildfires once blazed, mushroom hunters thrive

High-tech mapping has made foraging easier and faster. What’s gained — and lost — in the hunt?

By Julie H. Case

Photos by Brian Plonka

In a blackened scar cutting across a Montana conifer forest, Jon Sommer is on his knees and counting. “One hundred and four,” he chortles over a two-way radio. He sweeps his knife inches above the ash-covered ground and cuts the stem of yet another mercury-gray mushroom. His bag bulges with morels, dense and big as his fist, and I think about what a huge haul this is.

Morel mushrooms (pronounced mor-ELL), the fruiting body of the Morchella genus, may be America’s favorite fungi. Typically the first edible mushroom to appear in the spring, especially in snow-prone regions, morels have a cult-like following of people who go to extraordinary lengths to find them in the wild. Morels are pine-cone shaped, pitted and laced with vertical ladders of ridges; as deeply-colored as their native environment, they can be incredibly difficult to spot. The blond Morchella americana blends among ash, elm, and poplar; Morchella tomentosa grows a deep blackish gray at the site of a forest fire. If Amanita muscaria, that quintessential red-capped mushroom portrayed alongside garden gnomes the world over, stands out in the wild, morels do not.

That’s why Sommer is so happy to have gathered those 104 morels — not over the course of a week, or a day, but in just 15 minutes. He’s in a “honey hole,” a bonanza of mushrooms, and he’s not stopping until he has harvested everything in sight.

We’re in central Montana, high up in the Crazy Mountains and the Custer Gallatin National Forest. It’s mid-July. The year prior, a lightning-sparked wildfire burned here for weeks, charring soil and blackening nearly 22,000 acres of predominantly conifer forest.

Many morel hunters forage for “natural morels,” or mushrooms that grow under ordinary circumstances. But some fervently search for “burn morels,” which can fruit in proliferation the first year after a fire. It’s unclear why that happens: changes in soil pH and mineral chemistry, reduced competition from other soil microbes, or a response to the plant roots, bugs, and bacteria killed by the fire that leach into the soil. The question remains of ongoing intrigue to scientists and amateur mycologists alike.

Whatever the reason, morels love a good burn. And so do morel hunters.

A smudge of ash on his lean shoulder, dark-rimmed glasses glinting in the sun, Sommer has just beaten me. As he and foraging cohorts Tom McKinnon and Jay Berger had raced toward what proved to be fertile ground, I’d been plodding across the charred landscape, gathering gallons of morels. I’d humblebragged over the two-way radio that slow-and-steady wins the race.

“Sorry I’m taking so long,” I’d sigh. “I just had to stop and empty my bag. Again.”

An hour before Sommer found his honey hole, I’d pulled 84 perfect morels out of a spot that covered roughly 8 square feet. At my favorite honey hole back home in northwestern Michigan — a fallow apple orchard — I count myself lucky to gather a full dozen from beneath one tree. In my favorite Michigan forest, I might gather at best two dozen natural morels in a day.

Sommer and the rest of us did not choose this spot by accident. It took extensive work and planning. I’d joined with Trent and Kristen Blizzard, authors of Wild Mushrooms: A Cookbook and Foraging Guide and the Modern Forager blog, who are some of the nation’s foremost experts on the forager lifestyle associated with burn morels.

The foraging subculture and amateur mycology scene is enormous, if hard to quantify. During the pandemic, experts teaching foraging courses saw a boom in interest; mycological societies sprouted new members and swelling numbers on their mushroom walks and forays. Today, the North American Mycological Association has 90 associate clubs, some of which have thousands of members.

“Last year, the combination of the best mushroom year I’ve ever seen, the lack of in-person indoor activities caused by COVID-19, and the myriad of stuff in print and on screen suddenly showing fungi as really trendy and cool and important, led to a big upsurge in new members — mostly young,” says Susan Goldhor, president of the Boston Mycological Club, which has an estimated 1,500 members. And no other mushroom garners as much obsession or dedication as the morel.

With their nutty, meaty flavor and textured structure — hollow, pitted, and laced with those laddered ridges — morels hold a unique place in the culinary world. They pair equally well with venison preserved in the freezer, trout just plucked from a river, or the first ramps of the year. Sauces can cling to them; flour sticks nicely for a good fry.

Some morel aficionados claim a preference for one species over another — many a Michigander swears the white-yellow Morchella americana are more buttery and sweet than the classic black Morchella angusticeps. Lately, I’ve heard people profess disdain for burn morels, including the dense Morchella tomentosa, claiming not to like their flavor or texture. Me, I treasure them all. And while many a chef cooks their morels in cream, I like mine fried in butter and salt. It lets their savage, marrowy flavor shine.

For decades, obsessive morel hunters have spent March and April watching for “the cottonwood trees’ leaves to be as big as a mouse’s ear,” as one folksy common saying goes. They’ve returned again and again to familiar forests filled with dying ash or elm. They’ve stalked abandoned apple orchards in hopes of finding that massive patch of morels. In some families, the locations of honey holes are written into wills and handed down among generations.

More recently, though, the hunt has become more high-tech. Foragers have shared tips and proof of their hauls in Facebook groups, measured ground temperatures with fancy new devices or inexpensive barbecue thermometers, and stalked The Great Morel’s annual crowdsourced morel sightings map to see where morels are popping — state-by-state, county-by-county, day-by-day. (Foragers often share approximate locations where they found morels, but never their exact spot.) The ability to find ideal morel terrain is becoming more accessible, in large part thanks to the evolution of highly precise mapping technology and geographic information systems (GIS), available to nearly everyone.

GIS is a process of creating maps, visualizing data, and finding hidden patterns within datasets, explains Bahare Sanaie-Movahed, a geospatial and GIS specialist in the Northeastern University Library’s Research Data Services.

“It’s about telling a story about your data,” she says. The practice traces back to a London doctor named John Snow, who had an idea that cholera was a waterborne disease and that a London outbreak in 1864 was coming from a specific water well in the middle of the city.

“He backed up his theory by creating a map and then showing those households around that water well and saying that these water wells are affecting these people,” says Sanaie-Movahed.

I hunt yellow-orange chanterelles in Washington’s rainforests and the oak-filled parks along New York’s Hudson River. I seek out Red Hots-scented matsutake in the moss of a pine forest. And I chase morels.

Nowadays, foragers use geographic information systems to create maps showing recent wildfires and charred soil, U.S. Forest Service land, roads, and slope angles, all in one place. Among those creating such maps are the Blizzards, the Wild Mushrooms authors. Though they’re not professional mycologists — and though Trent is allergic to Morchella and cannot eat morels — they are among the nation’s foremost experts on mapping, hunting, and collecting burn morels. They’ve developed intricate knowledge about what kinds of burned forests are best for morels (conifer, and especially high elevation, subalpine mixed conifer), how easy it may or may not be to access those burns, and more.

Every winter, well before the start of morel season, Trent Blizzard charts all the previous year’s wildfires. Increasingly, it’s a lot of fires to plot. In 2021, more than 7 million acres burned across the U.S.; in 2020, a record 10 million acres burned, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information and the National Interagency Fire Center.

Blizzard even maps for burn severity using infrared satellite pictures and a burn ratio algorithm based on tree canopy that captures fire-induced changes in spectral light. He ranks the fires from A to C, from the most promising for morels to less hospitable terrain. Then, he pulls all his intel into Quantum GIS, an open-source geographic information system, and publishes the burn maps for Modern Forager subscribers.

One such ultra-precise map is the reason I ended up here in the Crazy Mountains, the final leg of a several-state journey to figure out if I can take the guesswork out of this long-standing hobby and discover what’s gained and lost if I do.

I have been foraging since I was a child. Morels were my first fungal love, since age seven, when I climbed off a school bus and spotted one growing along the newly tarred road. I’d proudly carried that mushroom home to my morel-loving father and been rewarded with his delight. Twenty-five years later, when I lived in Seattle, my obsession evolved to include all fungi.

Today, I chase mushrooms across the U.S. I hunt yellow-orange chanterelles in Washington’s rainforests and the oak-filled parks along New York’s Hudson River. I seek out Red Hots-scented matsutake in the moss of a pine forest. I pluck massive, 12-pound maitake, or hen of the woods, out of Central Park. And I chase morels.

But over my four decades of victories and failures hunting morels, I started craving more precision. That’s what led me to Asheville, North Carolina, in spring 2022 to visit Laurie Jaegers, a longtime member of the Asheville Mushroom Club. Jaegers lectures on morels and is a legend in the amateur mycology subculture. She is among those who have, since 2009, contributed data on mushrooms within the Rocky Mountain National Park to the U.S. Forest Service. She’s also an aficionado of Morchella. On a hot late-April day, Jaegers sat me down by the French Broad River to teach me a few things she had learned.

“How do you spend your winters?” she asked.

“Snowboarding,” I said, then realized how amateur a mycologist that made me sound. “And waiting for morels.”

Waiting for morels is not how Jaegers spends her winters. Like Trent Blizzard, she spends them studying and making maps. Like a cartographer diagramming fantasies, Jaegers marks the places where she believes morels will flourish in the coming year, based on slope angles, tree lines, and floodplains. She maps Appalachian ecozones known as “rich coves,” which have a high diversity of vegetation, relatively few shrubs, and soils high in pH, which she believes morels love.

Once she identifies those hollers and rich cove forests, Jaegers uses GIS to build and layer her maps. She adds in layers of public land — so you know if you’re trespassing in someone’s woods. Since 2021, she’s also used maps from the topographic mapping utility CalTopo, which reveal the underlying geology of areas she’s interested in. These days, Jaegers is looking for bedrock geology like limestone, which is friendly to morels.

I brought that intel from Jaegers back home to Michigan with me and ran with it for the next couple of months. In addition to using individual tree species parameter maps from the U.S. Forest Service (also built in GIS) to find swaths of elm or ash forests I thought could be productive, I began using CalTopo to identify areas full of limestone substrates.

All that tech for hunting morels? It became heady and overwhelming. A small part of me longed for the simplicity of wandering through the woods and hoping to get lucky. But a bigger part of me yearned for something certain, someplace where I could rely on a vast tract of morels and the sheer joy of working hard and getting filthy dirty to harvest great quantities of them. Which is how I ended up covered in ash, surrounded by crisped pine needles, and pulling gallons of morels out of Montana.

Joining that summer burn morel foray with the Blizzards was a reunion of sorts. I’d known Trent during my teen years in Michigan’s pinky region, where I was raised and where he spent summers. We reconnected in our late 40s upon discovering we both belonged to the obsessive foraging subculture.

Wildfires have long been known to create perfect morel conditions. In July 2021, the Alder Creek and Christensen fires sparked in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest east of Wisdom, Montana; they merged several weeks later to create a massive 50-plus-square-mile burn. Studying precipitation there a year later told us the area could be a boon for morel fruiting.

When I arrived there with the Blizzards, the forest was a still life in charcoal. Carbonized ghost trees pierced an azure sky. We picked our way to higher elevations and found nothing, then worked our way back down a logging road and into lower elevations, where we found a few sparse pounds of morels. Most of what we gathered was dried out and small. The morels were there; we just weren’t sure they were the morels we really wanted.

Then, from the Crazy Mountains, 200 miles north and east, Jon Sommer fired up his Starlink and gave us a call. The burn where his group was, just north of Livingston, was exploding with mushrooms. He and Berger and McKinnon, his traveling companions from the Colorado Mycological Society, had gathered several pounds of morels practically within their campsite.

Sommer hadn’t arrived there by accident. Like the Blizzards and Jaegers, he’d schematized it. He studied precipitation maps from NOAA, tracking periods of intense rainfall and dry spells to determine the best soil conditions for morels. He studied interactive maps for mushroomers from the U.S. Forest Service — which allow foragers to layer everything from the number of acres burned in previous years to places that require a permit for commercial harvesting to forest boundaries, roads, and road closures.

Sommer identified a couple of roads that appeared to swing into the American Fork Fire burn — 14,000 acres consumed by the 2021, lightning-caused fire. But the roads looked sketchy — perhaps not even real. So before leaving for Montana, Sommer took all his modern-day mapping and did something very 20th-century: he picked up the phone and called each ranger station in the area’s two national forests to find out which roads were open.

Voilà. Shields River Road, the main access into the area, was fully open.

Well, fully open by most standards. Potholed for 14 miles from the town of Wilsall, it made our road trip feel like driving by Braille. By the time we neared the Shields River campground, our home for the weekend, the road was one-and-a-half lanes of packed gravel. The prospect of meeting another car towing a camper head-on, and having to back out, sent terrors down the spine.

But to Sommer, that road was a goldmine.

“I won the lottery,” says Sommer. “It’s super-rare to find a road that’s that good, that gives you that much access right into the heart of the burn at pretty close to the highest elevations.”

And then, we all won the lottery. By the time the Blizzards and I arrived at the dispersed campsite, the Colorado crew had about 35 pounds of morels between them. Generators fired up; they were already running multiple dehydrators to preserve their haul.

For the next several days we worked together to rid that burn of its morels. Up and down hillsides we’d go, radioing our location back and forth. The Colorado crew followed Modern Forager’s burn maps, imported into the Gaia GPS app on their phones; I followed a burn map on GPS navigation app onX, marking spots where I’d found great quantities of morels in case I wanted to return and check for more.

Our eyes flitted from screens in our hands to those carbonized hillsides. Hands in the ashy duff, hands in our baskets, we pulled morels out of the burn by the gallonful all day. At night, we’d sit by the campfire sharing digital tracks of our journeys through those crisped landscapes. The river ran, the generators hummed, and beneath it all the thrill of the hunt vibrated within us.

We emerged five days later, still striped in charcoal, with hundreds of pounds of morels.

What was lost in my new reliance on tech for morel hunting? Maybe the wild ramblings, the solitary treks through spaces that might, or might not, deliver me a motherlode. What was gained? Community. Another layer of friendships in this subculture of the mycologically obsessed. Easier access to veins of morels fruiting across vast hillsides. Joy. Stories of the hunt captured on maps, tracked like so many spore prints scattered across a carbon copy of the landscape, digitized.

What didn’t change? The way, at the end of a day hunting, the forager is left with those endless, drifting mind’s-eye visions of morels stretching like some otherworldly procession across miles and miles of scarred hillside.

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Julie H. Case's writing has appeared in Afar, The Washington Post, Fast Company, Travel + Leisure, and Wine & Spirits. She chronicles her morel hunts on her website So I Gather and on Instagram as @foragerinchief.


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