Some of Jason Stark's fondest childhood memories are from spring outings in search of morel mushrooms.
"I grew up in east central Illinois, and we went every year," he said. "It was a family thing."
In the years since he moved to Augusta, he often wondered why more Southerners didn't participate in a pastime that has become legendary in other regions.
Part of the answer is that most people don't believe morels can be found here. Stark has learned, through careful searching, that they are wrong.
"I kept hearing reports of morels in places like Milledgeville and Monticello," he said.
It took many miles of walking, but there are indeed plenty of morels in Augusta and nearby counties.
Identifying habitat for one of nature's most delectable wild foods takes detective work -- and the location of favorite hot spots must be kept on the downlow.
"If too many people know about an area, it gets cleaned out fast," Stark said. "That's why mushroom hunters are so secretive."
Successful mushroom hunters also need a little background in dendrology -- the study of trees. Pine forests are rarely productive, but certain combinations of other species can create the perfect mix.
"We got a poplar here, another poplar there and a white ash tree," Stark said as he wandered a timbered forest last week. "We should find mushrooms here."
Poplars, he said, are a key to finding morels, and when the poplars are accompanied by ash or elm trees, it's even better.
"Some people think it is the combination of trees that makes it work," he said.
Within seconds, he spotted the first morel, barely protruding from the loamy leaf matter on the forest floor.
"You pinch them off at the stem to leave part of it in the ground," he said. "And when you find, one, you need to really look because there are probably more."
The variety found in the Augusta area is known as Morcella delicioso -- one of the tastiest of the morel family.
In Stark's native Midwest, morel season was in April and as late as May. It took a lot of searching in Augusta to realize the morels arrive about a month earlier here.
"Here we only have about two weeks," he said. "Three if you're really lucky. It goes by fast."
Regardless of how good a location is, a hunter would be lucky to fill a small bag.
"It's like an Easter egg hunt," Stark said. "You have to be patient."
Morels are a treasured delicacy, but they should not be eaten raw. Stark's favorite recipe involves slicing them lengthwise, breading them and quick-frying the pieces in hot oil.
"Afterwards, you can salt them," he said. "They are delicious."
The morels found in Augusta are smaller than in many regions, he said. Typical sizes range from one to three inches.
Filling even a small bag on a productive day can take hours.
"But it's fun -- it goes by really fast," he said.
Chasing morels, he added, is infinitely more challenging than other wild food activities such as picking blackberries.
"There's a good reason they call it 'mushroom hunting,'" he said with a laugh. "But I can still dream of 'mushroom picking.' "