How To Prepare For Morel Hunting
Tom Nauman likes to joke his first mushroom hunt was in the womb, and over 65 years later he’s still hunting for fungi. His love for shrooming has taken him all over the Midwest where he has hunted in seven states, started mushroom championships and festivals, and opened an outfitting business, Morel Mania. Out of all the wild mushrooms to forage in the United States, morels are one of the most popular.
Morels are honeycomb-shaped fungi that look straight from a Dr. Suess book known for their unique flavor and elusive nature.
If you know where to look, though, Nauman believes that there are enough morels to go around for everybody.
When To Pick Morels
Morels have been found in all 50 states, and their growing season only lasts one to two weeks. In the Midwest, that growing season is in the spring. “When the ground temperature reaches 50 degrees, that’s when the morels typically start,” says Nauman. “But they’re still tiny then. When the ground temperature gets to 55, that’s when you can start finding them in good size.”
I always looked for the first dandelions bloom in the yard and the first ant hill, and the first morels happened within two or three days. And if you wait till you see lilacs bloom, that’s typically midseason. It’s not so much a calendar thing. It’s a nature thing.
Once morels first popup, they’ll grow for about two weeks, assuming temperatures stay low enough on the ground. So if you’re hunting you have a small window of opportunity to fill your fungi pockets. Morels will taste different depending on when you picked them with in their growth cycle. Typically, the smaller the morel, the stronger the flavor. “I would rather have a pound of two, three and four inch morels than 10 pounds of the giant ones,” says Nauman. “There’s more flavor in the smaller ones.” But, to each their own.
Before you start your hunt, it’s important to become familiar with what these funky fungi actually look like. As with any type of wild mushroom, if you have any doubt about it, it’s better to play it safe. As Nauman likes to say, “There are some mushrooms that will feed you enough nutrition to last a lifetime — which may only be eight hours.” Luckily, morels are very easy to identify, and once you’ve seen one it’s hard to mistake it for something else. Before you go out, Nauman highly suggests buying a field guide, taking a class, or going with someone who really knows what they’re looking for.
Morels come in a variety of colors: white, grey, black and yellow. According to Nauman, there are three rules that make a true edible morel:
- It has true pits and ridges in the cap rather than wrinkles or folds.
- If you slice it and open it up, it’s completely hollow, both the cap and stem.
- The cap and the stem connect at the base of the cap, rather than the stem going all the way up into the top of the umbrella part of the mushroom. There is one exception to that and that’s the half-free morel, because the stem goes halfway into the cap.
Sometimes, beginner shroomers will mistake mushrooms from the Gyromitra family for morels. Don’t be fooled! These can be very dangerous to eat, but as you can see are radically different from morels when looking at them side-by-side.
Where To Find Them
Morels are mycelium, meaning they’re fungi that have formed a special relationship with tree root systems. So, the popular adage with finding morels is, “Find the tree, find the morels.”
“If you look for an elm tree that has passed away in the past four to five years, that will be your most productive area,” says Nauman. Ash trees, poplars, cottonwoods, old apple orchards, and sycamores are other potential hotspots. If you’re living out West, burn sites from wildfires are a gold mine for finding morels. “But the number one rule is morels are where you find them,” says Nauman.“I once found a morel in the middle of corn stubble, two to three hundred feet from any tree. Why? I don’t know.”
Early in the season, morels will start growing typically under leaves any where from the trunk to the drip line of the tree. The drip line is where the canopy of the tree ends, or in other words, where you’d be protected from rain underneath a tree’s canopy. Once they start growing, typically they’ll push the leaves out of the way if you let them get big enough.
If you’re hunting on public land, you may have to start your hunt early season. Know that foraging is permitted on most National Forest and State Park land, but is prohibited in National Parks. If you’re an avid shroomer, “of course it’s better to have a friend that owns some land and we’ll let you hunt,” says Nauman, “but that’s not always possible.”
Foraging Gear, Tips And Etiquette
The number one rule when hunting for any type of mushroom is to stay patient. As good as morels taste, the thrill of the hunt is what keeps so many shroomers coming back each spring, so finding them should be as enjoyable as eating them. “It’s like an adult Easter egg hunt,” says Nauman. Here’s what he says you’ll need:
- Long, tough pants and preferably a long, loose fitting shirt because you’ll be trudging through woods and briars, as well as potentially tick-infested areas
- Tough hiking boots
- A hiking stick to move leaves and brush out of the way
- Compass or GPS
- Field guide, and/or a knowledgeable partner
- Mesh bag or basket, rather than an enclosed bag that will cause spoilage.
When you’re hunting, it’s common etiquette to not pick away every single mushroom you find. This way, the mushrooms left behind can drop spores and ensure that there are more shrooms to come the next year. Using a mesh bag or open basket will also increase the chances of mushrooms dropping and spreading spores. Nauman says that some people will dig up the whole root of the morel, but he says that cutting them at the base of the stem will save you a lot of cleaning later.
Eating And Selling Morels
Morel hunting can be a fun and lucrative way to pad your wallet each spring — Nauman has seen morels go for $10 to $320 a pound — but each state has its own rules for selling wildly harvested goods. In Indiana, Iowa and Missouri, any wild mushroom that’s sold has to be inspected and certified by the state. In Illinois, it’s actually illegal to sell foraged mushrooms. So, check with your state so you don’t accidentally put illegal goods onto the black market.
Nauman says he likes to keep his morel dishes simple: lightly fried with a little butter. He and his wife Vicky, another morel maniac, like to dehydrate some of their stash to keep for soups on Christmas dinner.
For Nauman, a lifetime of foraging has been all about the thrill of the hunt. So, here’s to happy hunting.