Hunting morel mushrooms is a popular supplement to many hunters' spring seasons, due in large part to the delectable taste of this highly prized, widespread, and easy to identify little mushroom.
In a stroke of good fortune for the hunter, morel season also happens to coincide perfectly with many spring turkey hunting seasons, creating the potential for a true hunter/gatherer experience. In this article, we'll cover the basics of morel mushroom hunting, including morel seasons, varieties, identification, and safety.
In many parts of the country, morel hunting season and turkey hunting season overlap significantly. If this is true in your area, it gives you a great opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. You can look for morels while you're hunting for turkey, and you may also be able to find them while scouting before the season opens.
In some states, morel hunters are prohibited from entering the woods until after turkey season closes for the day (usually midday). If you're turkey hunting, you'll get a jump on all those non-turkey-hunting morel hunters. Or, when turkey hours are over, you can walk back to the truck, toss your turkey gear in, and head back out to round out the day with some morel hunting.
Morel season happens at different times throughout the country, and each year the timing is slightly different. Depending on where you live, prime morel season could be anytime between April and June. At extremely high elevations, you can even find morels well into July.
There is endless debate about which natural signs indicate when morels will start to appear. Some people look to daytime and nighttime air temperatures, while others monitor the blooming of various plants or the phases of the moon. Still others start their hunting after Tax Day or Mother's Day.
One very simple and reliable method is to measure the soil temperature in your area with a meat thermometer. Morels typically don't appear until after the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees.
Morels grow in most states in the continental United States, with the exception of the arid southwest. The morel is deeply embedded in many local cultures throughout the U.S., a fact made abundantly clear by the number of colorful common names used to describe the mushrooms in various areas. Depending on where you are in the country, you may hear them referred to as dryland fish, hickory chickens, merkels, or even molly moochers.
Mycologists (scientists who study mushrooms) disagree on exactly how many species of morels exist. Some say there are dozens. Thankfully, scientists and mushroom hunters alike have developed an easy way to unofficially categorize them. They divide morels into three general groups:
Black Morels (above) - The first to appear, these morels have a rich, meaty flavor.
Half-Cap Morels (above) - Also called half-free morels, these appear inconsistently from year to year and have a sweet, fruity taste.
Yellow Morels (above) - Often the last to appear, the yellows are described by many as tasting like steak.
Although morels are some of the easiest mushrooms to correctly identify, they can be confused with poisonous look-alikes such as the false morels (aka "red morels", shown on the right). Each year, there are up to one hundred cases of false morel poisoning in the United States. In some instances, these poisonings have resulted in liver damage, kidney failure, coma, and even death.
Some people claim that false morels are safe to eat. Do not listen to them. Scientific studies have shown that false morels contain a poison called gyromitrin. While it is true that some people can eat false morels without experiencing any symptoms of poisoning, there is absolutely no way to know if you will be one of these people or if you will be a person that goes into a coma.
Regardless of what you've heard about false morels, DO NOT eat them. Cooking the mushrooms in an attempt to "reduce" the poison can actually create toxic fumes in your house, and people have been poisoned this way as well. Plus, recent research has suggested that the toxic substance in false morels may also cause cancer.
There are no shortcuts to tell the difference between a true morel and a false morel. Don't believe any old wive's tales about indicators like dead bugs. These are myths. The only way to know for sure that you are collecting a true morel is to positively identify it based on the physical characteristics of the mushroom.
If you're hunting morels for the first time, find an experienced guide to take you out and make sure you're identifying morels correctly. You can also brush up on your ID skills by getting yourself a good morel hunting book and checking out these pages devoted to proper morel identification:
Mushroom-Appreciation.com - Here is a great page on how to distinguish true morels from false morels.
TheGreatMorel.com - This page will help beginners become more familiar with the false morel and how to identify it.
After you've learned how to identify morels correctly and you're confident in your ID skills, you still need to exercise caution as you begin to collect them. In order to be totally safe, you should follow these three rules of thumb for morel collecting (they also apply to all edible mushrooms):