Hunting the Morel

morel musrhroomsSpringtime in Appalachia is the highlight of my year.  As the winter snows change to spring rains, the grip of cabin fever starts to loosen and the transformation in mood can only be matched by the transformation that takes place outside.  Vibrant green begins to appear on the dreary brown hillsides, coaxed from hiding by the warming sunshine.  Spring “peepers” start to sing their long awaited lullaby at sundown, and there is a sense of renewal in the air.

For some, it may be time to get outside and start working on projects that have been discussed during the cold winter months, or it may signal the return of the annual ritual known as spring cleaning.  For a great many others, however, the arrival of spring means it is time for another ritual.  It is a ritual that is passed down through families like a treasured heirloom, tied to secrets as sacred as a marriage vow. For those folks, the arrival of spring means it is time to grab a pocket knife and an empty sack and hit the hills searching for the morel mushroom.

Now, I wish I could share childhood stories of combing the hillsides of Eastern Kentucky with family members, visiting secret spots only known to a handful of people…walking for hours, eyes always on the ground, looking for “dry land fish”, as they are known locally.  The truth is, when it comes to hunting morels, I’m fairly new to the game.  To be honest, I had never hunted them before about 6 or 7 years ago.

It was at that time that I was introduced to “the hunt” by my wife.  After she got past her initial shock over the fact that I had never been mushroom hunting, she decided to take me out and show me how it was done.  After signing a non-disclosure agreement and swearing on everything that is holy to never share with anyone where she was taking me, we hit the woods.

One of the things she explained to me was something that I’ve later seen referred to as “mushroom blindness”.  That is, the morels are extremely hard to find until you actually find one.  Once you have found the first one, or maybe someone in your group has found one and let you gaze upon it before it is plucked from the ground, the mushrooms tend to be more easily found.  The idea is that your brain sort of “locks in” on the shape and pattern of the morel and makes it stand out just enough from all of the leaves and debris on the ground.  In my experience, it is a very real thing.  Once I find my first mushroom of the hunt, I tend to give a quick glance over some of the areas I’ve already checked, just in case I missed some.

My first outing was not very successful.  I think maybe she found three, and I spent a lot of time circling poplar trees and cursing under my breath that someone had likely already been through and picked them all.  Frustrations aside, I was determined to go again…and go again we have.  On my next outing, we found over 100 morels, and I was hooked.

Every year around this time, we start getting excited about the prospect of finding the elusive morel.  We go out in search of new spots during the early part of the year, looking for patches of sycamore or poplar trees, especially on south-facing slopes, which is where they tend to pop up first in the season.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time online looking for clues or patterns that may help improve our harvest, but there seems to be so many factors involved that one never knows from year to year what the season will be like or where exactly they may pop up.  You want it to be warm…but not TOO warm…wet, but not TOO wet…shady, but not TOO shady.  Predictable they are not.

That being said, there are a few things I’ve noticed that tend to hold true and are worth noting:

  • First, be 100% sure that what you are picking is a morel and is safe to consume.  Go out with an experienced hunter if you’ve never found them before, and let them help you identify the different varieties you may encounter.  There are a few things in the woods that look similar to morel mushrooms that you definitely do NOT want to be eating, and those varieties may be different for the part of the country where you live.  The Missouri Department of Conservation has a nice page to help you out, but if you have any doubts, be sure to consult an expert before eating a mushroom found in the wild.
  • The morels tend to pop up first on south-facing slopes.  Those areas receive more sunlight and tend to warm faster.  The morels need a temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit before they can start to emerge.  Here is a handy soil temperature map.
  • The trees above seem to be as important as the ground below.  Many mushroom hunters believe in a relationship between trees and morels, and there seems to be science to back that up.  In our experience, we have really good luck around Ash trees, as well as sycamores, tulip poplars, and elms.  Many folks also report good results in old orchards.  Here is a great site to help you identify trees by their bark, which is helpful, since the leaves are usually not fully sprouted when morels are starting to emerge.
  • For your collecting bag, try to find something made of mesh or netting.  We use small laundry bags, but many folks use a mesh produce bag, like the ones that potatoes, oranges, or onions are sometimes found in.  The idea is that the holes in the bag allow spores from the mushrooms to fall back down to the ground, ensuring that the crop can continue to thrive in the area where you’ve picked them.  I’ve seen arguments saying this is likely not the case, but I’ve also seen testimony from people who claim that new morel patches have sprung up alongside their yearly hunting paths where there used to be none.  In my opinion, it is at least worth trying!
  • In this part of the country, prime morel hunting season often corresponds with turkey hunting season.  That means that there is potentially another kind of hunter in the woods along with you.  It is always a good idea to be safe, and wear something that stands out and can’t be confused with any type of game animal.

Whether or not you find any morels, the hunt itself is a lot of fun, especially if you have a hunting partner.  Just make sure they aren’t TOO competitive!  It is also great exercise.  Walking up, down, and around the hills for the better part of the afternoon can be quite a workout, but you hardly even notice it, especially if you start finding mushrooms!  And there is just something special and uplifting about walking through the quiet woods on a gorgeous spring day.

There are tons of web sites devoted to the search for this tasty and elusive little guy, and they can be a great help to both beginning and seasoned morel hunters.  If you are just starting out, see if you can maybe tag along with someone who has been hunting before.  A good morel hunter likely has tons of valuable tips and strategies to share, even if they may not share their favorite hunting ground.

I’ve gathered a collection of some of the web sites I found helpful as I started to dive in to morel hunting, and I hope they will be of some help to you, too.

Happy Hunting!

Where to find Morels

Arbor Day Tree ID Guide

Tree Bark ID

Soil Temperature Map

Morel Mushroom Hunting Club

The Great Morel

Morels (Morchella) on Wikipedia

How to Find Edible Morels

The Elusive Morel

Hillbilly Haute Cuisine

Searching for Morels in Kentucky’s Woods (my wife’s mushroom story)