By Tom Nauman
Darrell Cox of Urbana, Illinois is the 1999 Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Champion. Cox claimed his title by finding 120 morels during the two hour competition hosted by the Village of Magnolia, Illinois. Men's first place went to Eric McDiarmid of Charlotte, Michigan, who found 43, while Women's first place was captured by Pamela Kodros of Alton, Illinois who found 24.
Ray Francis of Orion, Illinois turned in the largest mushroom at 14.5" height plus circumference. Other winners were: Smallest mushroom - Eric McDiarmid (5/16"); Men's Second Place - Brian Brummer of Effingham (40); Women's Second Place - Kari Rieger of Peoria (20). The 450 competitors ranged in age from 84 to 20 months. There were 290 men and 160 women. Sixty-eight traveled from out of state to compete.
Illinois towns have a nice tradition of recognizing individuals, groups, and events by erecting signs that say what the town or townspeople are famous for. I'm sure you've seen them. They might read, "Home of the 1996 IHSA 7th grade Class A Football Champions". Or, "Home of Johnny Doe - 1995 Second Runner-Up National Geography Bee". And they're not home made signs either, I think most are produced under the guidance of the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Magnolia, Illinois has such a sign. It reads "Home of the State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship". I still get watery eyed every time I see it. As far as I know it's the only such sign in the state that has anything to do with mushrooms. The town of Tower Hill, Illinois, which is south of Decatur and east of Pana, could also have a mushroom related sign. It would read "Home of Leonard Pease - 1998 National Grand Champion Morel Mushroom Hunter". Let me say that I'm not chastising the good people of Tower Hill for not having a sign. Maybe they don't want outsiders to know that there are mushrooms nearby. Leonard himself attributes some of his successes to being from a place where there are relatively few morels and having to know more about them in order to find any at all!
And he does know a lot about morels. He also charts temperatures and rainfall for most of the areas he regularly hunts - all are handwritten in a spiral notebook. He hopes to have software ready by next season to help others know when and where the 'shrooms will be for any given area.
He does something else before a competition that amazes me. He scouts the area! I don't mean the exact location because most are kept secret. For example, Leonard arrived four days before the National Championship at Boyne City, Michigan. He went hunting daily and kept notes of where he was finding mushrooms. So on the day of the National, he had a pretty good idea of where the mushrooms would be. He not only knew what direction the slopes would be facing, he knew how high up the slopes to look and what foliage the mushrooms would be near. I've always said that mushroom hunting is 90% luck. The other 10% is knowing when and where to get lucky. Leonard definitely has the 10% mastered.
He scouts the area before most major competitions. And he has won or placed in all except the one at Magnolia. And for those of you who think that there is no honor among mushroom hunters, Leonard disqualified himself from this year's competition at Magnolia because he has hunted the spot with me on many occasions and figured he had an unfair advantage.
This year marks the 39th year that Boyne City, MI has hosted the National Championship. This makes Leonard Pease one of 38 individuals (actually less than that because several winners have repeated) to claim National Champion status. What's really amazing is that he is the first Champ that wasn't from Michigan! In fact, Roger Thurow from Ludington, MI was the first to win (1993) that wasn't from the five counties surrounding Boyne City.
You Illinois "tree hunters" like me that have hunted in Northern Michigan know that there's something different about the woods there. The squirrels are coal black, so are most of the mushrooms, and they don't usually grow near dead elms. So at the starting siren most Illinois hunters would have two strikes against them. Leonard's victory was no small feat.
This story about Leonard is overdue. It should have been written last June at the beginning of his champion year. Maybe by my delaying it Leonard can bask in the glory a little while longer. Then again, he's probably scouting Michigan right now planning a repeat victory. Good Luck, Leonard We're proud to know you.
Remember, whenever you want to try eating a mushroom you're not familiar with, check it in at least two field guides. If they say it's edible, try just a nibble, wait 24 hours, and if there are no ill effects then consume larger amounts.
Please feel free to contact us with questions or comments. Especially if you have ideas or suggestions for future columns: Tom and Vicky Nauman, Morel Mania, RR1 - Box 42, Magnolia, IL 61336, Phone 309-364-3319, Fax 309-364-2960.