Charlie Brinton likes to pick huckleberries.

Charlie Brinton loves to eat huckleberries.

Small wonder then that when Brinton returns to his Baker City home after prowling a huckleberry patch, he's likely to be hauling a heavier load of berries in his belly than in his bucket.

"I tend to eat more than I bring home," Brinton said.

His affinity for these little but luscious fruits is hardly unique.

For many Baker County residents, picking huckleberries is a summer tradition as beloved as camping or fishing or cutting firewood.

Except you don't need a license or a permit to go huckleberrying.

Plus, compared with huckleberries, crappie makes a pretty poor topping for cheesecake.

What you do need, though, is to know where the huckleberries grow. You could ask around, of course, but such queries probably would prove as fruitful as, say, trying to get a deer hunter to give up his favorite places to stalk big bucks.

Fortunately, huckleberries thrive in forests throughout Northeastern Oregon, and most of the best patches are on public land, so you don't have to cajole permission from a property owner.

"There are nine species native to the region, and it has some of the best huckleberry picking in the world," said Dr. Danny L. Barney, a professor of horticulture at the University of Idaho.

Barney is superintendent at the university's Sandpoint Research and Extension Center, where he tends thousands of huckleberry bushes and has conducted huckleberry cultivation experiments for more than two decades.

You'll rarely find the berries at elevations below 4,000 feet, or above 6,500, Barney said.

Huckleberries ripen as early as mid-July, but in most years, and most berry patches, the first half of August is the prime picking period.

Although they're related to blueberries, huckleberries are about half the size of the commercially raised berries you buy at the supermarket.

That means you'll need fast and nimble fingers indeed to pluck enough berries to fill a one-gallon container.

What's not usually necessary, though, is to trudge miles through the woods huckleberries often grow in profusion right beside roads, Barney said.

He also suggests pickers look for places that were either burned or logged 10 to 15 years ago.

Huckleberries prosper in these openings in the forest canopy, where they bask in the sun for part of the day but still get some shade, Barney said.

The quality and quantity of the annual huckleberry harvest can vary greatly depending on weather and other factors.

Most years, though, you'll find berry-laden bushes in the Eagle Creek country northeast of Baker City, and around Granite northwest of Sumpter.

Don't be fooled by place names, either the Strawberry Mountains south of Prairie City are rife with huckleberries.

Although Barney said it's relatively easy to grow huckleberries in your garden, he discourages people from digging up bushes out in the woods and then transplanting them.

"What looks like a bush in almost every case is actually just a branch," he said. "When you plant them they almost always die."

The roots are usually deep underground and difficult, if not impossible, to find, Barney said.

He recommends huckleberry aficionados either grow plants from seed, or buy bushes from a nursery.

There's a wealth of information about growing huckleberries at this Web site:

Like Brinton, many huckleberry pickers prefer to munch berries as they move from bush to bush.

As for the berries that survive until you get home, the options are many.

Huckleberries perk up pancakes and pies with equal aplomb, or toss a handful into a cup of yogurt or onto a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

You can use the berries as the base for jam or jelly or preserves even syrup.

You should refrigerate huckleberries as soon as possible. And try to treat the berries gently, because their skin tears easily and if it does, the berries will quickly shrivel.

Frozen huckleberries, however, retain their flavor for months, so you can invigorate mid-winter meals with the sweetness of the long-past summer.