DEARY, Idaho -- Lori Carris crept through the forest, knife in hand, searching the ground for her tiny prey.
Spotting it, she dropped to one knee and slashed with the knife. The morsel fell into her hand.
''Lori is the mushroom queen,'' said an admiring Jack Rogers, a fellow mushroom hunter in the Thatuna Hills, near Moscow.
Spring means the start of the month-long morel mushroom season in Northwest forests. Amateur and commercial pickers scour the forests, looking for the spongy fungus whose nutty taste is a complement to steaks, pizza and eggs.
Last year's big wildfires that burned 6 million acres in the West are expected to produce a bumper crop of morels because mushrooms thrive in recent burns. But a cold spring and drought in the Pacific Northwest have delayed the emergence of wild mushrooms from the ground.
Hunting for wild mushrooms is a hobby, much like hunting, fishing or stamp collecting. Organized clubs in many cities stage weekend ''forays'' into the woods where prized locations are jealously guarded.
The spring season usually occurs in May. There is a fall season in October.
The Spokane Mushroom Club in Washington just celebrated its 35th birthday. More than 100 members foray into the woods in search of mushrooms, President David Jones said.
''I've been mushrooming since I was in the first grade,'' Jones said.
Mushroom hunters are aided by the U.S. Forest Service, which provides maps of recently burned areas to guide them to the best potential sites. It's unclear exactly why morels thrive in burned portions of forests, but there is no question that is where the best pickings are.
Morels can grow in much of the nation, except for the coastal plains of the southeast. They are generally picked by recreational 'shroomers in the East and Midwest.
Commercial picking primarily occurs in the huge forests of the West, where mushrooms can be concentrated enough to justify hiring pickers.
Keith Blatner, a Washington State University scientist, produced the best-known report on the impact of wild mushroom hunting in the Northwest. The report found that selling morels was worth $41 million to people in Washington, Oregon and Idaho in 1992.
There were 10,000 commercial pickers, who can earn as much as $8 a pound for morels. The mushrooms, which have heads that resemble honeycombed peach pits, are sold for much more to restaurants, specialty stores and for export.
But for many people, mushroom hunting is more about having a good time in nature.
''Part of the fun is going out and finding them. It's an adventure,'' Rogers said.
On a recent sunny Wednesday, Rogers and Carris searched along a logging road just north of the town of Deary in the Idaho Panhandle. Both are plant pathologists at nearby WSU, but this trip was for pleasure as much as business.
Carris, who conducts research on plant diseases caused by wild fungi, loves to eat wild mushrooms, saying there is no substitute for the taste of morels in the spring or chanterelles in the fall.
''The common grocery store mushroom is grown in steer dung,'' Carris said. ''That brown stuff on the bottom, cut that off.''
Rogers, who studies how fungi inhabit trees, said the Northwest is home to more species of mushrooms than anywhere else in the nation. Morels are prized for their texture and taste, and farmers have not figured out how to cultivate them.
They stick out of the forest floor and look a lot like pine cones, making it easy for them to hide in plain sight.
Mushrooming is not as popular in the United States as it is in Europe, in part because people here worry they will be poisoned if they eat the wrong type, Rogers said.
Poisoning is a real concern, Rogers said. Even safe mushrooms can make some people sick.
Mushrooms should be thoroughly cooked and a person who eats a type of mushroom for the first time should consume only a small quantity, to make sure they can tolerate the species, Rogers said.
''You shouldn't eat things you don't understand,'' Rogers said.
The ancient Romans would serve poisonous mushrooms to their enemies to kill them, Rogers, a West Virginia native, noted.
Carris teaches weekend classes for potential mushroom hunters, but acknowledged she doesn't reveal all her secrets.
Carris hears stories of people fighting over prime picking sites, sometimes even shooting at each other. But such incidents are rare in northern Idaho.
''We don't run people off our sites,'' Carris said.
Indeed, on this day, Carris and Rogers ran into three other people searching for mushrooms along the same logging road. All had mushrooms in their buckets.
Not all forays end in success. Sometimes, there are no mushrooms to pick.
''You can't get morels on demand,'' Carris said.
But finding an entire area saturated with mushrooms, known as a ''flush'' is big excitement, she said.
On the Web:
The Great Morel site: http://www.bright.net/(tilde)wildwood/info.html
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