The forager must resist the temptation to think of the forest as a grocery store; however, if one is patient, observant, and a little bit knowledgable, there's a good chance that Nature will provide.
I've only fished one time this year. I loaded all my fishing gear one other time, and drove down to the Whitewater region--a considerable journey--but I forgot to fish. Well, I got distracted, is what. I went to a reliable spot for ramps and dug a few clumps, then I went to another woods where I had found a big patch of ostrich ferns last year, and there I gathered some fiddleheads.
The fiddlehead woods is also a popular spot for mushroom hunters, those seeking morels, specifically. I had run into a local forager at this spot a couple of years ago, and this year I met another local 'shroomer, a young guy who was frantically searching the grass for his lost cell phone. He was sure he'd had it with him in the woods, because he'd actually been talking on it while he was foraging. And now it was lost. I couldn't help thinking there was a lesson in there, somewhere.
But I helped him look for a while, to no avail. Then I went to gather my fiddleheads, and I wasn't going to look for morels, because I can never find them, and there are other ways to spend one's springtime hours in Great Nature's embrace, such as fishing. But on my way out I made the mistake of looking around a likely-looking tree (dead elm, bark just starting to peel), and I found a couple of very small morels. Then of course I had to keep looking, and at length I found a few larger ones. I was happy about that, naturally, but in the course of the hunt I had frittered away the afternoon. Any insect activity on the stream would occur in the heat of the day, this time of year, and it was already starting to cool. I took my foraged vegetables and headed home.
We had to settle for a pan-seared rib-eye from Greg's Meats on Highway 52 near Hampton, MN, instead of fresh-caught stream trout. Everyone has to make sacrifices, sometimes. (Greg's has really nice meat at very fair prices; we love their steaks, and their pork is also very good and cheap.)
The next time out, then, I left home a little earlier, headed for Wisconsin this time. I did gather ramps along the way, but I reckoned it too late already for fiddleheads. From the ramps woods I drove to the river, and stepped into the water a little after noon. Later in the summer, fly fishing for trout in a clear stream at midday would be generally futile. At this time of year the warmth of the day can bring hatches of caddis flies, small moth-like insects which, as they emerge from their immature, larval state, dashing toward the surface in the very midst of their transformation from odd little worms into wingèd beings, cause much excitement among the trout.
This is called a caddis hatch, and is something all fly fishers look forward to all winter. There wasn't a major hatch this day, but there were enough flies about to keep the trout interested, from time to time. I caught a few fish, all too small to keep, until a nine-inch brook trout came to hand and then to creel. I'd been out a couple of hours now. I had fished downstream as far as I intended to go. Where the river curved ahead of me I noticed a lot of dead elms in the woods along the bank. I went to have a look.
The first thing I found was the mushroom at the top of the picture. It's called a "Dryad's Saddle" (which is very poetic, mythological, even), or a "Pheasant Back" mushroom (more descriptively). It's a polypore, polyporous squamosus, to be exact, meaning that instead of the familiar gills of button mushrooms, its underside is covered with tiny holes, or pores. The reproductive spores come out here. Its an edible mushroom, and quite good when young and tender. All the guidebooks note its distinctive aroma--like watermelon rind. As a polypore it's in the same category as the esteemed boletes, what the Italians call porcini and the French know as cèpes. And the texture is very like those mushrooms, though the flavor is less compelling. Nonetheless, it's worth becoming acquainted with. It can be found in quantities in spring and early summer.
So I harvested the Pheasant Back, and then I flushed a grouse, like the bird on the plate above. Then I spotted a dead elm which looked to be in the perfect state of decay to host morels, and I propped my fly rod against a sapling and got down on my knees to peer into the dusky underbrush; the evidence of what I found is in the picture. I was pretty pleased with myself, and continued on the search around numerous other trees, also in that perfect state, and found absolutely nothing.
When I came back to the stream the insect activity had picked up, and trout were rising in response. I caught a few fish on dry flies, and two brown trout went into the creel.
As I walked back upstream toward the car I was thinking of a feeder stream I had passed on the way down, and planning to look for watercress there. But along the trail before I reached that point I saw a small patch of ferns, some still in the fiddlehead stage. That would round out the plate nicely.
This was one of those days that make me love our sometimes fleeting, often reluctant northern spring. It was a day that unfolded with some purpose and a lot of serendipity. You might say that the bounty of wild food I brought back was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and there's some truth in that. But more, to me it's about just being there, with an open mind and open heart and open eyes.
That approach can lead to a day that unveils itself in wonderful and satisfying discoveries, and ends with a meal that is so much more than a meal, more than food on a plate no matter how delicious.
The trout was poached in court bouillon a la truite au bleu. It had been killed a few hours earlier, so it didn't curl in the classic manner. The ramps flavored sautéed potatoes. The fiddleheads blanched, tossed in browned butter. The mushrooms simply sautéed. All very simple, to taste the real flavors of woods and stream.
This is my favorite time of year for eating wild foods...until the next time of year comes along.
Text and photos copyright Brett Laidlaw 2008