Late Rains, Short Season: Chanterelles Are Finally Out, But Don't Wait

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Last year, Jim Byrd almost got tired of all the chanterelles. A wet, warm end to the summer season made ideal conditions for them to pop up everywhere and local mushroom hunters were swamped.

Not so this year, said the Winlock resident and wild mushroom enthusiast. Most years, chanterelle season begins in August. This year’s long, dry summer meant the season has just begun. And mushroom hunters are scrambling to get out and find these forest beauties before they’re gone.

“Once you get the cold and get the first real frost that’ll be the end of it,” said Byrd recently during a mushroom hunting trip. “At least for chanterelles.”

But the good news is there is still time, said Byrd. And there are so many mushrooms out there to be had, not just now but throughout the year. Byrd grew up in Lewis County eating wild mushrooms. But he really got serious about the hobby just a few years ago when he saw a listing in The Chronicle asking for people who might be interested in starting a local mushroom group. He came to the first meeting and was among the founding members of the Southwest Washington Mycological Society. When he joined the group, chanterelles and morels were the only mushrooms he really knew how to identify. Now he has found both white and golden chanterelles, lobster mushrooms, and even truffles in this area. 

“I enjoy getting out in the woods and looking around,” Byrd said of what drew him to mushrooming. “I also like eating them and the challenge of identifying them.”

Byrd said his increase in mushroom hunting skills can be attributed to the many experts who are part of the mycological society. When it comes to being a beginner mushroom forager, Byrd said the best way to learn is from experienced mushroom hunters. He recommended anyone interested in learning about mushroom hunting join the Southwest Washington Mycological Society. He said not only do members have access to great educational materials but they often organize foraging trips where novices can learn by doing.

When you’re ready to go out mushrooming, Byrd’s list of essential mushroom hunting gear includes: good waterproof boots; a high visibility vest (especially important if you are mushroom hunting during an animal hunting season); weather appropriate clothing; a compass; a whistle, which can be used both to locate hunters you are with but also could help if you got lost; and water to keep you hydrated. 

Once you’re geared up and ready to go, Byrd said the next thing is to find a good place to hunt. He said this time of year when he is looking for chanterelles, he looks for a second-growth forest of Douglas-fir, meaning the land has been logged before and the Douglas-fir trees there are 30-70 years old instead of old-growth. You want the forest to be fairly shady and to see a lot of fir needles on the ground. He said he has also noticed that where there is salal, there tend to be mushrooms. He said for most hunters, finding a good spot is a lot of trial and error. He uses Google Earth to look for lands as well as doing a lot of driving around and looking.

“You get an idea of the kind of habitat you’re looking for,” Byrd said. “Or maybe you’ll get lucky and have somebody tell you where to go, which is pretty rare. People are pretty protective of their favorite mushroom spots.”

Byrd also uses a GPS system with an application that allows him not only to see where he is but ownership of the land there. That way, he said, he can tell whether or not a piece of land is okay to enter. He said you should never enter land with No Trespassing signs or private property without permission. And whereas logging companies used to all allow people to walk on their lands, some now require permits so check before you enter lands. For the most part, Byrd said he tries to stick to publicly owned land such as that listed as belonging to the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife or Department of Natural Resources. Some state-owned lands require passes such as the Discover Pass or Fish and Wildlife area passes for use, so make sure to check with agencies before using lands. One word on a GPS unit, Byrd said: If you’re buying one for mushroom hunting don’t go cheap.

“You want one with a high sensitivity chip set,” he said. “They’re the only ones that will work in woods like these.”

Byrd said one of the biggest lessons for new mushroom hunters is learning to identify mushrooms by both genus and species. He said this is the only sure way to know if one is safe to consume. But it can be tricky. He gave the example of the genus Russula, a very common forest mushroom that has a classic button mushroom shape. But not all Russulas are created equal. There are hundreds of species within the Russula genus ranging from tasty and edible to edible but bitter, acrid or peppery. While their tastes differ wildly, their appearances can be very similar. Byrd said if he cannot immediately look at a mushroom and know for sure its genus and species he will not assume it is safe to eat. If he is unsure, sometimes he will pick a mushroom and take it home to examine further. But still, he said he tends to be very cautious, erring on the side of throwing it out if he cannot be absolutely sure he has identified it.

“It’s a very small percentage that will kill you but there are many that will give you enough gastric distress you’ll wish you were dead,” Byrd said.

Chanterelles can be a chore to clean as they are often covered in dirt and fir needles. Byrd said the best way to clean them is with a soft, dry brush, a pair of tweezers and a gentle air source such as an air compressor or bellows. Once cleaned they can keep for a few days in a brown paper bag or loosely covered in the refrigerator.