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Mushroom Hunting A Spring Outdoor Obsession By Gary Howey

It won’t be long before outdoorsmen and women will be infected with a disease, which will spread quickly throughout in the upper Midwest. It’s been known to infect men, women and children, infecting young and old alike.

The cause of this infectious disease is a fungus that goes by the name of morel mushroom and once they start to poke their heads out of the ground, men and women will leave their home, jobs and families, heading for the river bottoms, island and hills on mushroom hunting excursions.

Morels, which found throughout our area, are easy to recognize, delicious to eat, which makes them the most popular wild mushroom in the upper Midwest.

They are elongated with an off-white stem, a crown covered with white ridges with dark brown pits. They can vary from off-white to gray in color. The easiest way to explain what a morel looks like is to look for a mushroom growing on the ground that resembles a cone shaped brain. 

There are three different types of Morel mushrooms, the Yellow or Common grey Morel as seen in this photo, the White Morel and the Black Morel. (Dustin Lutt Photo)

There are three different types of Morel mushrooms, the Yellow or Common grey Morel as seen in this photo, the White Morel and the Black Morel. (Dustin Lutt Photo)

Morels appear in the spring of the year when temperatures reach 50 degrees, with the largest numbers found when temperatures hit the mid 50’s.

There are several things that mushroom hunters use as an indicator letting them know when it’s time to start looking for morels. The old timers say that mushroom hunters don’t need to start hunting until the oak leaves are in the mouse or squirrel’s ear stage.

Really, I can honestly say I haven’t known anyone who’s measured a squirrel or mouse ear, but I’ve been told they’re about half the size of your smallest fingernail.

In our area, there are several things indicating the mushrooms will be up. If you have a lilac bush in the area, keep an eye on it, when the lilacs are blooming, it’s a good bet you’ll find morels.

Other indicators include when the crab apples start to bloom or around the week of Mother’s Day.

Others use the almanac to figure out when they may appear. If you look in the almanac, take the average date for the last frost in your area and then add two weeks to that date, you should be pretty close to the peak morel season.

Moisture, sunshine along with warmer temperatures has a lot to do with when morels appear.

A week of 55-60 degree daytime temperatures after the frost is gone with no freezing temperatures at night will generally be a good time start looking for morels.

Along with warm temperatures, moisture is also important. Many mushroom hunters say that the best time to hunt for morels is after a rain, when temperatures are around 60 degrees with high humidity.

Morels appear earliest in sandy areas, on south facing slopes or in fields that have been burnt as these areas warm up quickly, retaining heat longer.
One of the most asked questions pertaining to mushrooms are where do you find them?

The first morels show up on islands in the river, sandy areas and fields with dead or dying trees. My most successful hunt was along the river, early in the season in a cornfield that hadn’t been planted yet. The field was loaded with them. It was a new field cornfield and until a year or so before had been a wooded area. The decaying roots from the old elm and cottonwood trees that were grubbed out, making them ideal places for the morels to take root.
I’ve also found mushrooms around trees that had been declining for several years, eventually dying and were now lying on the ground. Mushrooms seem to appear around these dead cottonwood and elm trees about the time that their bark starts to fall off.

The first morel is always the toughest to locate because they blend very well with the forest or vegetated ground. Once you’ve found one, kneel down, looking closely because morels are like Perch, if you find one you generally find a bunch.

One thing, when it comes to finding morels, there’s no set rules as to where the morel might be located. Conditions change from day to day during the spring and a hillside that was barren on Monday may get a rain shower or warmer temperatures, causing the hillside to be loaded with morels by Wednesday.

My preferred method for locating mushrooms isn’t very scientific; it’s the old wonder around aimlessly method, picking my way through the vegetation until I spot one.

It’s a good idea to stop from time to time and kneel down; getting a better view of the area as many times morels will be pushing up through the leaves and can be hard to see.

For years, morel hunters have hit the woods with bread sacks, ice cream buckets and other non-porous containers. Some seem to believe that these things have lead to less morel mushrooms.

Mushrooms reproduce through spores, which need to be returned to the ground in order to grow and if they are picked, placed in a solid container like those mentioned above, we may be denying the morels the opportunity to disperse their spores and re-seed the area.

In order to allow the morels to throw their spores, it’s not a bad idea to use collection bags that are porous such as onion bags or some type of a bag that allows the spores to be release back into the air.

Mushroom hunters or shroomers as they’re called down south have their own language and in mushroom hunters’ jargon, a bunch of morels is known as a “mess”.

Once you’ve found a mess of mushrooms, they need to be cleaned up and prepared. The first thing you’ll want to do is to split the mushroom in half from the top to the bottom. The rinse them off over running water as the crooks and crannies of the mushroom may contain sand or insects. After you’ve rinsed them thoroughly, you’ll want let them set in water for a short period in order to flush sand, debris or stubborn insects out of them.

Don’t let them soak in water for an extended period as they will soak up the water and become spongy.

Then, this is the best part of mushroom hunting, when you get the skillet or deep fat fryer out, batter and season them, then frying them up and eating them.

There are numerous ways to prepare morels including, fried or in mushroom soup. One of my favorite ways to prepare the morels is to fry them up in some type of batter. An excellent batter is made by combining equal parts, beaten eggs with milk and crushed up saltine crackers. After rinsing them, let the mushroom drip off on a dry towel, then dip in the mixture made from the beaten eggs and milk, coating them thoroughly. Place the coated morel into a pan and cook in butter until crisp. Don’t over cook them, as they will dry out.

Morels are best when prepared fresh, but if you have a good mushroom hunting season and would like to preserve or save some of them for future use, mushrooms can be dried, frozen or blanched.

Morel hunting is excellent ways to get outside, to not only enjoy the outdoors but and enjoy the bounties that Mother Nature provides.

This spring while you’re out walking along the creek, river or hillsides look around as morels can be found throughout our area and you never know where they might appear.

They’re excellent eating and a great way to start out the season!