Honey Holes and Secret Spots: the Currency of Foraging

Hank Shaw is an avid forager and hunter in California, and author of several super great cookbooks for wild food. His website, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, has the largest collection of wild food recipes on the internet, and I can attest from personal experience that every recipe I've attempted from his site has produced fantastic results. He has started a podcast recently, which is worth a listen, and this month he talked about scouting.

Scouting is the sometimes tedious, always time consuming, rarely discussed dirty work behind every successful forager and hunter. Scouting is the act of researching the environments to forage and hunt in, and observing the species a forager or hunter is interested in collecting. It often pays off in identifying "spots" where foraging and hunting outcomes are likely to be successful. The best of these might even qualify as "honey holes": spots that produce bonanzas for the lucky few that know about them.

Shaw discusses the hard and necessary work of scouting in his podcast, and spends some time trying to impress on his listeners why foragers, anglers, and hunters are rightfully cagey about sharing their "spots." Scouting is laborious, often involving all day and multi-day excursions to tramp over miles of ground, exploring poorly marked roads, discovering ambiguous land ownership boundaries, locked gates, late season snow and countless other barriers. I appreciate his thinking on this subject. He does a great job of illustrating, for instance, why a guided experience is worth so much (the value of the guide is really the value of their scouting). Shaw describes scouting knowledge as a kind of currency in the foraging and hunting world, the exchange of which is accompanied by rules of etiquette and standards of reciprocity.

He's right, I think, but it does strike me that in such a world, where the currency of scouting knowledge is so hard won, newcomers to foraging and hunting are at a real disadvantage. So often I hear from people who are interested in foraging: "I would love to try [mushrooming|clamming|fishing|hunting], but I just don't know where to go!" What they don't know is that asking a mushroom hunter where the mushrooms are is like asking a pirate where the buried treasure be. And with no stockholds of scouting knowledge of their own, they have nothing of value to exchange. Knowing, as the old GI Joe cartoon used to say, is half the battle, and in foraging that's a hard won battle. But I think there are some ways to share the joys of foraging and hunting with newcomers that don't involve handing over a treasure map, and which allow new foragers to build up a little currency of their own.

Here's a list of foraging opportunities I'm always happy to share:

Don't Clam Up about Clams

Some foraging opportunities don't involve secret spots, and razor clamming on the Pacific coast is one of them. Razor clam seasons are limited, and when an opening is announced you can almost hear the collective roar of traffic headed for the beach. Once there you can expect to share the beach with thousands of other people, digging shoulder to shoulder. And everyone is going to get their clams. It's almost magical, really, this kind of mass-foraging. This month I helped a couple of families get their first taste of razor clamming. There were no secrets at stake - I showed them how to find the season information on the Washington State Fish and Wildlife website, how to interpret the maps they provide which describe which beaches are open, and how to apply for the necessary licenses. Once there a few minutes of instruction for how to spot clams and how to dig them was sufficient to get them started, and off they went! Everyone got their limits, everyone had a good time, and I suspect they'll be among the thousands of people out digging clams next year.

They're Everywhere They're Everywhere!

Stinging nettles are a great entry-level foraging outing, and I'm always happy to point people to reliable patches of nettles. Why? Cuz we're not going to run out of nettles. Where they grow they are prolific, and they grow in all kinds of places. Blackberries? Truly there's nothing to hide. What people are often asking, when they are asking about where to go, is really "Can you show me how you do it?" and sometimes "Can you teach me what to do once I've got [whatever]?" The best way to encourage someone who is new to foraging is to spend a little time with them doing something that seems so easy to you, but foreign to them. Oh, you brought along tongs for picking nettles? Leather gloves for handling blackberry vines? Those are the "secrets" that will give them the confidence to try this thing again on their own. Maybe these aren't the most exotic foraging fare, but they are dependable, tasty, and they don't have a high scouting overhead.

Teach a Man to Morel...

If I had a reliable annual morel patch, you'd be the last one to know about it. Even when I'm out picking with a group of friends they can tell when I've gotten into some mushrooms because I crouch low to the ground, out of sight, and go completely silent while gleefully picking away. But in truth I'm not guarded about my morel "spots," because I chase fire morels. The year following a forest fire can yield bumper crops of morels, but the thing about forest fires is they occur in different spots every year. And the mushroom yields usually fall pretty dramatically after that first year, so sharing the burn area you picked last year isn't really passing along a high value secret for this year's picker. When people ask me where my morel spots are, I tell them "I don't know yet", not because I'm being cagey but because it changes year over year in response to the previous wildfire season.

This reality makes two things true for me:

1) I feel free to share the "how to find likely morel spots in burn areas" strategies and tactics that I use each year to identify my scouting targets. This means sharing web resources like the geomac viewer, to identify fires in areas that look good for mushrooms, the inciweb website to learn more about those fires, and to see detailed maps of burn areas, and caltopo, an amazing mapping tool that can help produce insights into vegetation, steepness of terrain, and other useful details. The truth is that the hard work is still ahead -- actually heading out for some exploration early in the season to assess points of access, extent of the burn, and likelihood of mushrooms -- and one in 20 people might actually do this work themselves. And if they do, they may very well decide to pick in another area, in any case.

2) I feel free to bring other people to this year's "spot". If the picking is good it feels great to bring people along for a successful morel experience. Since I'm not likely to pick that same burn the following year, and since the area is likely to produce so many fewer mushrooms in subsequent years, it's not like the spot is "blown" once shared. Giving new foragers a taste of good mushroom picking is often all that's necessary to get them started on their own foraging journey. Next year, they'll be out scouting for their own burn sites (and maybe taking me along if they score a good one!).

I Can Show You, But You Aren't Gonna Like It

There are some foraging activities that demand a little more stamina than others, and winter squid fishing in the Seattle area is one of them. Squid fishing is a bit of an open secret, it feels like. The "spots" are well described - any of the public piers in town. The gear is simple, the season is long, the license is cheap...so why aren't more people doing it? People often express an interest in it to me, and I'm not cagey at all about inviting people along. It doesn't take too long for the reality of my "secret spot" to sink in, however. In the deep, dark winter nights when I enjoy a little squid jigging, a newcomer can expect bone-chilling cold, frequently accompanied by rain, and hours of relentless humiliation as the skilled squid jigger [not me] standing immediately to their left is hauling one squid in after another while they come up empty. Once shown the "secrets" of squid jigging many people decide it's not for them, so I don't worry too much about the local pier becoming overwhelmed by newcomers. And for those few that are willing to climb the learning curve, figuring out the subtle feel of a market squid grabbing a falling jig while warding off hypothermia, they're likely to make welcome company for one of my own late-night outings in the future.

These are all activities that I don't mind sharing with anyone who cares to ask. It's a chance to help people have great first foraging experiences, and to build their confidence to do it again. None of them require sharing truly exclusive and hard-won scouting secrets, and so aren't weighed down by issues of etiquette and reciprocity that accompany "honey holes" and "secret spots." And it gives newcomers a chance to start building their own treasure chests of knowledge. When out for nettles you might notice a flush of Agaricus augustus, or maybe trip across some fiddlehead ferns. The pile of woodchips near the blackberry bramble might just produce some lucky strike morels. And those little finds are indeed bits of valuable currency that can be exchanged with other foragers -- exchanged for those harder-won insights like where the chanterelles grow thick like a golden carpet, where and when the lobster mushrooms plow up the forest floor like rows of tractors, where thick blueberry patches lie off the beaten path, where turkeys roost but don't get much pressure.

And if you happen to have a secret spot for bagging mule deer on the eastern crest of the Cascades let me know - there's some clams|nettles|blackberries|morels|squid in it for you...


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