Strategies for finding morel mushrooms
Successful Mushrooming Requires Basic Knowledge...
May 01, 2009
There are many reasons for being in the spring woods but few pursuits cure a bad case of winter doldrums better than mushroom hunting. Although reason enough to spend quality time outdoors, hunting the elusive morel mushroom blends nicely with post-season deer scouting. Last season's deer trails, scrapes, droppings, occasional dropped sheds and rub lines are clearly visible on the forest floor. These signs provide valuable insights for the serious deer hunter concerning this season's potential hotspots. Combining this information with previous season's in-season observances, projected food source availabilities, resident deer herd characteristics and intrusion factors of other hunters in the area often gives the hunter the "competitive edge" needed to harvest a trophy buck.
Mushroom hunting also coincides with pre-season scouting for wild turkey and continues through the seasons. Morels and turkey sign seem to coexist on south-facing slopes and near dead and/or dying elm, ash and apple trees as well as on the edges of clear cuts, poplar stands and logging roads. Fortunately turkeys don't appear to eat morels but rather are seeking the bugs, seeds and sandy gravels that are often found in these areas. The sharp eyes of the mushroom hunter picks up and digests all this information and files it away for future use. Successful hunters of all types are, by nature, opportunists.
Michigan's trout season opener the last Saturday in April also falls during the traditional season of "morel madness" throughout Northern Michigan. Morels and fresh-caught stream brook and brown trout compliment each other nicely in the buttered frying pan! Our many miles of trout streams provide travel corridors for many wildlife species and often create excellent mushroom habitat.
I am fortunate, by choice, to live within five miles of Mesick, which many consider the mushroom capital of our state. Each spring the Mesick Mushroom Festival and numerous other festivals in Northern Michigan draw mushroom seekers from far and wide to the hundreds of square miles of Federal and State lands that seem to feature "just the right" combination of moisture, ground temperature and tree species conducive to black, tan and white morel mushroom production. Successful mushroom harvesting requires basic knowledge of mushroom growth requirements, a sharp eye and a bit of "old-fashioned luck". As is the case with all hunting endeavors, being in the right place at the right time is the key to success. Although the elusive morels often don't follow the rules, there are guidelines that greatly enhance your odds of success.
Being safe, comfortable, prepared and sure of your location at all times is essential for a pleasurable and rewarding mushroom hunting experience. Here is a list of recommended basic equipment:
Quality, comfortable, well-broken in walking boots.
Good, comfortable wide-brimmed hat to shade eyes from sun and rain.
Roomy fanny pack to carry necessities (don't forget toilet paper!)
Stout hickory walking stick topped with a camera mounting stud for self-timed photos, to steady oneself on hillsides and to rummage through leaf litter and vegetation to expose morels.
Small digital camera with self-timer feature.
GPS unit and a compass (batteries and reception can fail!) for navigation through the mushroom woods.
SECRET log book record exact GPS locations of morel "mother lodes."
Probe-type thermometer to determine ground temperatures in specific locations.
Water bottle and energy snacks.
Light, compact thermal vest or rain poncho for added warmth as required.
A good mushroom identification field guide to identify other edible mushrooms when encountered.
Small folding knife to cut morels just above ground level.
Nylon meshed bag(s) to properly transport morels. NEVER use paper or plastic bags! Mushrooms are fragile and need good air circulation to maintain freshness!
Search in the right areas with the optimal ground conditions. Concentrating in areas with the right soil composition, tree species, soil temperature and moisture content is critical to success. Timing of your hunts needs to be based on these variables rather than a particular date on the calendar. In areas of Northern Michigan where the black morel ranges, they can be found just after the snow melts in areas where the ground temperature at 2-4 inches below the surface has reached 47 to 55 degrees F. Ground temperature can easily be measured with a basic cooking-type probe thermometer. After insertion in the ground, wait 5 minutes to take the reading.
Ground temperature can vary significantly within a small area depending on the soil type, biomass content, moisture content and sun exposure. Generally, south-facing slopes with sandy loam type soils are the first to warm and should be concentrated on during the early season. As the season progresses, start looking on the north-facing slopes in the same areas. Be vigilant! The early black morel can be difficult at best to spot. Often, only the very tip of its head is visible poking through the leaf litter. Sometimes, in a known black morel haunt, it may be necessary to carefully peel back the loose layers of leaf litter to expose these smaller prizes of the morel family, which some claim to be the best tasting.
Morels generally hate clay and water saturated areas. Oak and hardwood stands, in general, have soil that is too acidic for morels. Concentrate on areas with stands of aspen, ash, poplar, elm and tag alder with well-drained but not overly sandy type soils. These soils are often too dry for morels. Old apple orchards with dead or dying trees are often hotspots for morels seeing the essential nutrients produced by the decomposing root systems. The same can be said concerning the other key tree species mentioned.
Imagine the drip line (width of the tree's crown and the furthest extent of the root system) when it was a healthy tree. Carefully search the area between the drip line and the tree trunk of each candidate tree. When prospecting a new area, focus on the dead and dying trees first as you are working the area.
Seek out areas of recent ground disruption created by selective cut and clear-cut forestry operations. Disrupted soils often promote accelerated mushroom growth the year after the disruption. The same can be said of burn areas the year after the fire. Throughout the country, commercial mushroom picking operations flock to these areas and harvest unbelievable quantities of morels. This is big business! Morels have a market value exceeding $40/pound and up in the fresh-picked state. My strategy for investigating either clear cut, selectively cut or burn areas is to search the perimeters and areas within 50 yards outside the perimeter. I particularly focus on the south and southeast perimeters reasoning that the prevailing northwest winds will carry morel spores into the surrounding forest areas to eventually germinate and produce morels. Morel spores are extremely hardy and can lay dormant for years waiting for "just the right" conditions to germinate.
A key fact that many prospective new mushroomers don't realize is that it requires about five years for the mushroom spores to germinate and produce. It is a good idea to record in a log book the exact location (GPS coordinates are great) of "mother lodes" you encounter so you can return in subsequent years to reap the bounty of these released spores. Remember, only those spores that come to rest in "just the right" areas will ever produce. Each mushroom, given the opportunity, will release millions of spores into the air for random natural dispersal. Never pick every morel! Leave a few for "seed." Normally, some morels will be crumbly and past their prime condition for eating. Leave these morels for seed!
Whether you are stream trout fishing or simply mushrooming, focus your attention on the banks of the stream. Many trout streams that meander through our woodlands deposit nutrient-rich soils in the form of narrow, high ground banks as they continue through aspen and tag alder lowlands before entering a main river or lake. These are prime morel and trout habitats. Add an old, broken down beaver dam and you have an area of dead and dying elm and ash trees in the previously flooded area that often host bumper morel crops. Once you find morels, usually whites, tans and some hardy grays during the later part of the season, radiate outward into the surrounding woodlands for others. I always carry my meshed mushroom bag on early trout fishing excursions. Morels trump trout when they are present. At best, morel season extends into early June. I have the rest of the summer and fall to catch trout!
Treasure your mushroom hunting locations! Sharing general knowledge in the world of mushrooming is good. Sharing specifics concerning locations is not! At best, you may get five years or so in any specific spot. Be a responsible mushroomer. Pinch or cut off morels at the base of the stem. Never pull them from the ground or disrupt the underlying soils if you want subsequent year's harvests.
Tread lightly in the area and keep your eyes open. Scan the area while standing as well as kneeling from all angles. Spotting the elusive morel is an acquired skill that requires constant honing. Black morels often just barely poke their heads through the forest litter. Grays, tans and particularly whites, which are often the last to appear, can stand over a foot tall and are easy to spot from a considerable distance. Good hunting!