The activities of mushroom hunters are often just as elusive as their precious prizes.
"It's like an Easter egg hunt," said Paul Hopfenbeck, of Bellevue.
"We're obsessive mushroom hunters," said his wife, Linda Johnston. "We've had a pretty good spring. But it's been a lean year. We've found about 70 winners."
Approximately 45 people turned out for a Wood River Land Trust-sponsored morel mushroom walk at the Cedar Bend preserve in west Hailey on Wednesday evening, May 31.
"I'm glad to see so many people here to find out about mushrooms," said outing leader Kathy Richmond, of Southern Idaho Mycological Association. "What a weird thing to do, you guys."
The thrill of discovery and the exchange with nature—not to mention the opportunity to make a nice mushroom and steak dish—keep the faithful coming back for more.
"Last year, we had two or three fridges full," Hopfenbeck said. "We eat them every way you could possibly eat them."
Although Johnston and Hopfenbeck can find their way around a morel, they came on the walk to learn about other types of mushrooms.
Mushroom characteristic knowledge is vital, especially when a slight mischaracterization can be deadly.
"When I started learning about mushrooms," Richmond said, "I learned about the bad ones first. I really learned the most by joining this club. We go out and pick everything we see, then we go back and study them. We're real nerds about it."
To identify a morel, she said, look for sawtooth edges.
"Once in a while there'll be a characteristic really specific to what it is," she said.
False morels are a popular—but gradually toxic—alternative to the real deal.
"People say, 'Kathy, I've eaten those for 20 years. I'm going to eat them,'" she said. "I say, 'Are you aware of the studies that say they have cumulative effects?'"
Another way to identify morels from false morels is to cut them open, she said. Morels will be hollow inside. Also, false morels are more contorted and odd looking, she said.
Bellevue resident Elva Kinkade tried to apply her knowledge to the search.
She uncovered an oyster mushroom "and two or three other kinds I can't remember," she said. "That's why I'm here—to learn."
"If I could find a morel," she added, "I would be in the height of my joy."
Participants fanned out on the east side of the Big Wood River, along the 4.5-acre preserve. The Wood River Land Trust hopes to expand the preserve by 80 acres via a trade being negotiated with The Idaho Department of Lands.
"I encourage you to come back and enjoy it many times over," said the land trust's executive director Scott Boettger. "We want to get you excited about these areas. We all lose when they're turned into something other than preserves. The more advocates we have for these places, the better."
Although they might not reveal their favorite places to hunt for mushrooms, Richmond and other fans of fungi might be found lurking in the shadows, poking at the ground in search of booty.
"It's kind of a strange hobby," Richmond said. "I'm just absolutely hooked on mushrooms."