Cumberland Times-News

April 13, 2013

Ramps+morels=West Virginia

Cumberland Times-News

— Here we sit, impatiently waiting for the time to go by so we can hit the woods after a big gobbler. By the way it would be nice if winter is over before gobbler season comes in, but the way things are going this year it might not be.

Many folks here in the mountains are filling this time by pursuing a type of hunting that requires no official season, just the coming of longer days. The hunting of ramps and morel mushrooms is a passtime that certainly predates any formal season for the hunting of wild turkey gobblers. These old mountaineer traditions provide a seasonal delicacy for the table as well as a darn good excuse to get out in the woods.

Ramps come first, and some folks dig them as early as February, although late March and into early April seems to be the most favored time to start ramp’n. The location of ramp patches is a well-kept secret by many, even a family secret passed down through the generations.

Folks here in the mountains at times have the mistaken impression that ramps only grow in the high country. I can tell you for a fact that I have dug ramps in the low West Virginia hills along the Ohio River and was surprised last year to see huge patches of ramps growing along an Eastern Panhandle stream that I was kayaking with friends. I am bad about this too and won’t name that stream in print.

So ramps are everywhere and make an enjoyable spring meal. My favorite recipe involves putting the green beauties in a casserole dish with scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and potatoes, sprinkle with longhorn cheese and bake. Of course I think anything would taste good surrounded by all that pork fat. I also like a raw ramp or two on a deer burger.

The aromatic qualities of the ramp are well-known, and true. Some former work buddies of mine were crazy about the things, starting to eat them as soon as they poked their heads up under the winter leaves. By April those guys could be funky to be around. The old saying about breath knocking a buzzard off a manure wagon certainly applied.

Ramp dinners at fire halls and other civic organizations will soon begin, and there are people who follow them from one week to the next during ramp season. They might be in Springfield this weekend, Franklin the next and then over towards Terra Alta after that in pursuit of a good ramp feed. I try to avoid talking to those folks indoors until about mid-May.

The morel mushroom has no such smelly side effects, is delicious on the plate and intriguing to hunt. Morels definitely need warmer days, preferably just after that first warm spring rainfall, to bring them up from the ground. Old timers always told me that around the base of an ash or apple tree was a good spot to look, and even said dead elm trees are good locations.

To some this is an obsession close to that of buck hunting. Folks will mark the location of mushroom patches on topographic maps. These days they probably just save them as a waypoint on their GPS. An old mountaineer might tell you where you can dig a ramp, but you better be prepared to find your own mushrooms.

Pursuit of these tasty morsels is legendary in the hills, an activity that will cause some to push the envelope. While still with the DNR I worked more than one case of trespassing that involved mushroom hunting.

I usually find mushrooms while turkey hunting. Easing up a ridge toward an active gobbler I will look down to see a morel right at the tip of my boot. These days I leave them right where they are growing, having some years ago developed an unfortunate allergy to the things and can now just admire their beauty in the woods.

Hunting mushrooms has given rise to two units of measurement common only to these hills. Hunters will tell of a patch so big they picked two bread sacks full. The granddaddy of all patches might produce a full Kroger sack of mushrooms, and that was a lot of eating back in the day of paper only grocery bags.

One last thing. In southern West Virginia they call morel mushrooms by the name of Molly Moochers. Don’t know why, but that is cool.

Enjoy the hunt, and the meal.

Dave Long is a retired West Virginia natural resources police officer and a frequent contributor to the Outdoors page.