Opening Day: Hunting morels, trying to fish, enjoying reopening of some outdoor sites in NE Illinois

Enjoying the reopening of some IDNR sites on Friday, namely Kankakee River State Park for soaking up the outdoors, hunting morels and trying to fish.

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The lunchtime view of Langham Island on opening day at Kankakee River State Park. Credit: Dale Bowman

The lunchtime view of Langham Island on opening day at Kankakee River State Park.

Dale Bowman

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Two wild turkeys scurried off when I pulled in by Warner Bridge at Kankakee River State Park at dawn Friday. I’m enough of an outdoors meathead to clutch at signs.

Friday was a momentous day in the outdoors. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources loosened its complete closure of all sites, in effect since March 15, and reopened some sites on a limited basis. It was also confusing, with some sites surprisingly being open and others being closed.

I had much anticipation. Even scraping frost off my windshield brought pleasure. Spotty, dense fog popped up, another piece for memory. It was the first time I had hand sanitizer in my bag and a face mask in my pocket.

I thought Rock Creek might be packed with anglers trying for the delayed opening of trout season, but the water was roaring nearly bank-full. Only one fly-fisher was gearing up as I crossed the Deselm Road bridge.

Dawn through the fog over Warner Bridge on opening day at Kankakee River State Park. Credit: Dale Bowman

Dawn through the fog over Warner Bridge on opening day at Kankakee River State Park.

Dale Bowman

Nobody was at Warner Bridge at dawn, but the Kankakee River was high enough to flood and close the bike path under the bridge. I tried my best imitation of the late Norm Minas and fished the flooded path but got nothing for my efforts.

So I drove to Davis Creek, where I saw a runner and a couple of other cars. I tried fishing flooded bases of trees with no luck. When the sun burned off the last of the frost, I went looking for morel mushrooms.

Foraging for morels is allowed at most IDNR state parks, state recreation areas and state fish and wildlife areas. It is not allowed at most forest preserves and park districts.

I was not alone at my prime spot for morels. Another couple was ahead of me, the woman’s pink hat bobbing in the distance.

Jay Damm emailed that he started finding morels in the south suburbs.

‘‘Most of mine were found on the edge of the woods in partial sun, as it’s still on the early side of the season,’’ he emailed. ‘‘With all the rain we’ve had, it should really give them a boost. Mother’s Day weekend should be prime.’’

So I focused on where the early sun hit.

Another longtime reader, eager for morels, figured where I was going and messaged last week: ‘‘It’s been real hard not to get dropped off on [Route] 102 and go stealth in there. But I don’t want to be that jackass.’’

My hope, despite the irritation with the hiccups in shutdowns and open-ups associated with the coronavirus, is that the outdoors folks in Illinois keep their heads on what is important (the health and lives of our citizens) and not just on our gut need to hunt, fish, hike, bike, bird, paddle, boat or forage.

But, boy, did I need that Friday.

A sea of mayapples while looking for morel mushrooms on opening day at Kankakee River State Park. Credit: Dale Bowman

A sea of mayapples while looking for morel mushrooms on opening day at Kankakee River State Park.

Dale Bowman

After two hours, I switched and fished a reopened Forest Preserve District of Will County spot. Even there, the Kankakee tributary was too high and fast. Other than the hike in, I didn’t put much time in and returned to KRSP to fish at Langham Island.

I chatted with a conservation police officer. We both thought it was a normal crowd for a beautiful Friday. The big question comes Saturday, when it will be even nicer and pushing 75 degrees.

On Friday, I saw runners and families walking and biking but not many anglers with the high water (other than some trout anglers). I also saw a couple of guys shooting archery, many hunting morels and dog walkers.

I planned to hike upstream across from Langham Island, but high water made that untenable. So I fished multiple presentations tight to the eddies and pockets around the flooded tree bases. Nothing doing.

I pulled out my Thermos of homemade beef stew, sat on a concrete parking stop and soaked in the scene: flooded trees, the river humping at flood stage and Langham Island on the other side with a pink/purple line of eastern redbud sharp against the first higher green buds.

It was time.

What the hell? In these times, I had time.

I gave looking for morels another shot. More vehicles were in that lot, but nearly all the cars had a parking spot between them. I went to a new area and saw a family looking. By the sounds of it, they had more success than I did or just really enjoyed the day.

All in all, I was encouraged that people both wanted to get outdoors and to follow the basics of not congregating, practicing social distancing, wearing masks when apt and keeping their hands clean.

A sign of the times on opening day at Kankakee River State Park. Credit: Dale Bowman

A sign of the times on opening day at Kankakee River State Park.

Dale Bowman

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