Using Huckleberry Rakes For Picking Wild Huckleberries
Guest Article by Malcolm Dell
So, you are about to foray into your favorite woodland, and enjoy another wild berry picking experience. Did you know – if the crop is moderate to heavy – you could pick four to ten times as many wild huckleberries in an hour, with an inexpensive tool known as a “huckleberry rake”?
How to get more berries in your bucket!
The actual berries on most species of huckleberry plants, grow ONLY on the current year’s growth. So don’t try to “bull” your way through the plant. Since the tines of a rake are usually metal, and quite sturdy, there is a high risk of damaging the wild plant if you try to rake more than absolutely necessary. Plus you will hang up, and get more leaves in your bucket, which are time consuming to pick out.
If the berries are really sparse, you are best to hand pick. However, the heavier the huckleberry crop, the more a rake increases yields above handpicking … for obvious reasons!
Huckleberry rakes work best with a small, manageable clump of berries. Short, quick, relaxed strokes, with just the right amount of berries and branchlets as a target, will net you the greatest yield. Until you get the hang of the wrist action, chase the smallest branchlets first, at the tips of the main branches. Slide the tines in just under the lowest huckleberry in a clump of maybe three to five berries, to start, then pull the tines up and through the loose bunch of wild huckleberries.
Your first swipe: “What just happened?”
Probably one of two things. Either you went too slow, and the huckleberries were pinched and squeezed, while your rake hung up a bit on the tiny branchlets. Or, you went too fast, and most of the berries flew OVER THE TOP of your rake, peppering the surrounding vegetation. Just like the rookie shrimp fishermen in the movie Forrest Gump, who only got old boots and a toilet seat in their first catch, your first raking efforts may net you more leaves than berries.
Not as easy as it looks, but you will get better, fast! If you are a fisherman or fisherwoman, you know what I’m talking about when I describe “setting the hook”. You get the line semi-taut, and then at just the right moment, you feel a tug, give a little snap of the wrist and “fish on!”. You can describe and explain how to do the wrist motion all you want, but until you experience the sensation a few dozen – or even a few hundred – times, you just won’t know how to set the hook, and catch that lunker.
So, lets try again. As you slide the tines under the huckleberries, maybe six to ten berries this time, you want to bring up the rake against the slight “pressure” of the attached berries — just like taking the slack out of a fish line. Note that if you try to take in too many branchlets with one swipe, the pressure turns your rake into a snarl among the twigs, reducing the effectiveness of your efforts, and increasing the risk of damage to the plant.
The instant you feel the slightest hint of back pressure, you will do a short, gentle “snap” of your wrist, upward or outward. Too slow, and you snag the branches and bruise the berries, taking in lots of leaves. (This happens because you are pulling the berries off, instead of popping them off.) Too fast, and more berries fly over the rake, than into the rake.
Practice, practice, practice!
Don’t give up! At first you may feel like it would be faster to pick by hand. And it would be! But hang in there, things will change, and once they change, you will rack up gallon after gallon of huckleberries with a rake much faster than you ever thought possible. Once you get comfortable, each wrist movement will bring in up to a dozen (or more) beautiful purple berries in the blink of an eye.
Using both hands with a huckleberry rake:
As you get the hang of the basic stroke, and get a feel for how many branchlets and berries you can really rake in with one stroke, without snagging, you develop a sort of rhythm. Now it’s time to add your other hand as a feeder to the huckleberry picking production line. In fact, you probably were already doing this by now, instinctively.
A huckleberry bush often displays berries across a span of ten or twenty inches (or more) around the top and outside of the plant, while your rake might only be six inches wide. You can really only rake a swath four inches wide or so, cleanly. But by using your hands in tandem, you can cover a lot more of the plant in less time.
Your free hand gathers branchlets together, between the thumb and fingers. You pinch the twigs; either together to make a larger clump of berries, or away from the main plant so they are easier to rake cleanly without snagging. And try to avoid as many leaves as possible.
Then in comes the rake. Swish. Repeat. (You will always get a little snagging, so don’t worry about it, just work to avoid pulling off branches when you do hang up. Better to back out, and take a smaller stroke, than damage the plant.)
Feel the rhythm!
Again, you will get a rhythm going, this time with both hands. Some strokes will not need the second hand… a branchlet with nice berries is hanging out there, all by its lonesome, and a swish with the rake will do the trick. In “heavy” huckleberry bushes your second hand will get a workout.
An experienced “raker” is a joy to behold, as he or she works around the plant, no wasted motion, short and easy wrist movements, gleaning most of the plant, while standing in one spot. Maybe a short step to the side of the wild huckleberry plants to change the angle, and get any remaining berries. Then he or she works right on through the patch in a semi-systematic fashion, with short interruptions where a stray berry gets popped into a mouth, or the picker takes a swat at an insect.
A final plea.
NOTHING damages a wild huckleberry plant more than clipping or breaking off a branch, or even the entire plant, which I have seen people do. Wild huckleberries take 5 to 15 years to reach a productive stage, and when you cut them back – even though it might make picking easier – something else is likely to grow back where that huckleberry plant once stood.
Huckleberry rakes are the best tactic for getting four, six, even ten times as many berries in your bucket in an hour, without damaging the wild resource. But even a rake, just like a hammer or screwdriver, can be misused, and cause damage. Operate your huckleberry rake ethically, and all of us will enjoy our wild huckleberry resource for many generations to come!
Malcolm Dell is an avid huckleberry picker from Idaho who also enjoys cooking and baking with wild huckleberries! For more information on using huckleberry rakes, including videos using the rakes, check out Huckleberry Rake Techniques. For a good source of inexpensive, but effective, huckleberry rakes, check out: Huckleberry Rakes.