Michigan outdoor enthusiasts looking for fishing excitement and hunting thrills all rolled into a single outing should consider trout fishing and morel mushroom hunting in combination. The Great Lakes state offers some of the hottest trout fishing in the Midwest with long seasons and flexible regulations. But if you want a little icing on your cake try mushroom hunting in conjunction with fishing outings.
Mesick is best known as Michigan’s “Morel Capitol” by those who seek mushrooms found along Hwy. 115 northwest of Cadillac. Mesick hosts miles of land open to the public and enough hills, ravines and ideal mushroom habitat to support an army of hunters in search of tasty morels. The hunt begins in late April, but if we have a traditional spring the hottest mushrooming will take place in May. Often it takes warm rain and bright sun to heat the soil in upper Michigan enough to support growth of mushrooms. If I had to pick the best time to chase morels I’d hang my hat on the second week in May when spring green-up is in full swing and warming trends cause morels to pop up overnight. The Mesick area is also close to some of the best trout fishing Michigan has to offer. The big Manistee is kissin’ close and it is only a short drive to the Little Manistee, Pine River, Betsie River and literally hundreds of miles of small brookie creeks and cedar swamp tributaries. Some of the waterways hold steelhead during prime mushroom season but far more are home to brook trout and native brown trout. In fact northwest Michigan hosts fantastic mushroom hunting locations from Manistee to Traverse City and the fishing is also top notch.
From my travel trailer site in Vacation Land Trailer Park in Benzonia I can cast for steelhead and brown trout in the deep swirling holes of the Betsie River at dawn. Then, following a hearty breakfast of eggs, ham and hot coffee I can romp through miles of the Manistee National Forest in search of morels. Often I finish the day with a few hours of trout fishing as the setting sun sends shadows across local trout streams and bank hugging browns come out to feed. Come sunset I’m ready for a hot meal of fresh picked morel mushrooms fried in real butter and extra crispy pan fried trout with a dash of salt and pepper. Every time I feast on morels and fresh caught stream trout my mind drifts back to younger days when I shared the woods with my parents and grandparents and how trouting and mushrooming was an important element in my outdoor heritage. For me catching fish and finding morel mushrooms is like celebrating Christmas in spring.
My daddy taught me how to slink upstream on tiny brook trout streams in northern Michigan and sneak into easy casting range of a finned quarry hiding under brush, logs, undercut banks or swirling deep water concealing its outline. At a young age I learned stealth fishing tactics that have served me well and brought many fish to the creel. The trick is simple, move slowly, approach likely trout hideouts like a cheetah sneaking through tall grass for a gazelle. Try to avoid direct sunlight, stay in the shadows and wear drab, natural colored clothing like green or brown. The idea is to slip kissin’ close to a wary trout, make a soft, gentle cast, put the hook in its face and patiently wait for a strike. Such tactics require advanced woodsmanship skills, but the end result is a savage strike from a wild fish and a light rod bent double. My deadliest offering is a garden worm. Oh sure, waxies and jigs work, fresh cut skein will fool them, casting spinners is a riot and fly fishing is fun too, but a lively worm is deadly on stream trout. I learned years ago to dig worms from my buddy’s chicken farm and I keep them in fresh soil and chilled in the refrigerator. At times nightcrawlers are ideal for bait but crawlers are often too big for small stream trout and you will miss a lot of strikes because fish will grab the crawler tail and dash for cover, missing the hook. The trick is to use a small hook, say a size #8, stream trout. A size #5 split shot is pinched on the line about a foot above the lively offering, although high water demands you use more weight and drought means you use less weight. The idea is to use enough weight to keep the worm in the fish’s face but not too much to stop a downstream drift. The more weight you use the tougher it is to make a silent cast. Heavy weights tend to plunk too loudly on the stream surface and spook fish. One way to reduce the sound is to use the pendulum underhand flip cast.
If there was one weather condition that makes stream trout go bonkers it is rain. A warm spring rain enriches stream flow with oxygen, nitrogen and causes trout to become active. In addition, rain washes worms and crawlers into the river and trout begin to feed like it’s Thanksgiving. You can tell if recent rain has fired up brown trout because when you clean them you will notice they have a stomach bulging with fresh worms recently devoured.
Rain is also the key ingredient to fantastic morel mushroom growth. Give me a night when air temperatures stay above 50 degrees and fresh warm rain and by noon the next day locating morels can be a cake walk. But there is much more to finding morels than rain. There are several morel hunting tactics that can make the difference between finding a few or filling a bushel bag.
Begin by focusing your attention on banks of streams. Many trout stream meander through ideal morel habitat with nutrient rich soil, tag alders lowlands and constantly changing substrate. These are prime morel habitats because the ground is often water enriched, moist soil that has been disrupted. Savvy morel hunters often seek clear-cut forestry locations in search of disturbed soil that promotes accelerated mushroom growth. But you should search along trout streams, while fishing of course. If you locate a clear-cut invest your time searching the perimeters and several yards outside the perimeter where spores may have germinated. Often times the wind carries mushroom spores to areas surrounding forest logging operations.
Perhaps the best advice I can offer is to not look for mushrooms on the ground. Well, the hottest tactic going is to look for dead trees. Keep looking up into the forest canopy and locate trees that are dead and decaying. Dead elms are the key in southern Michigan, but in orchard country you can find morels popping out under dead apple, cherry or peach trees. Apparently the decaying bark creates an ideal environment to fertilize mushroom growth. If you want to drastically increase your morel finds, quadruple your take, and pick major poundage, then learn how to identify dead trees supporting morel growth. Once you spot a good looking tree, then and then only rush below the decaying branches and begin your intense ground search. Hey, I’ve put this strategy to good use in southern Michigan and literally went road hunting for mushrooms by driving country roads, and locating morels under dead elm trees. This tactic is extremely deadly for those big’ole whites that you can sometimes actually spot from the road. Try this tactic and I GUARANTEE you will be elbow deep in fresh mushrooms this spring.
In Benzie County, along Lake Michigan I know a fruit farmer that stacks dead trimmings and often the mushrooms surround his tree trimmings. I’ve also seen morels grow in rows between fruit trees where sun, shade, ideal soil and rain create a perfect mushroom environment. His apple trees have produced fantastic mushroom finds for me. In most cases they tend to zoom out of the soil where apple trees are dead or decaying and essential nutrients are produced by the rotting bark or roots.
Finding morels is time consuming and requires patience, skill and good woodsmanship skills. Oh, of course, they are not always up. This point was best proven at my friend’s cottage on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Every year for some strange reason a couple dozen large whites come up in his yard. He checks the terrain almost daily, some days they are non-existent, while other days they are standing tall as flowers. The trick to finding great quantities of mushrooms often hinges on weather, rain and ideal conditions. Go hunting when mushrooms start popping and you can up your chances of success. Sometimes it takes several outings to determine if mushrooms are growing.
With fond memories I recall opening day of trout season as I slipped through a cedar swamp and eased to a secret hole on a tiny trout stream. It was warm, fresh rain filled the forest with a fog that helped to conceal my stealthy approach. I eased close to the bank and positioned slightly upstream from the dark pool surrounded by low overhanging cedar boughs. Years ago a large pine crashed into the tiny stream, blocked the flow but eventually the current eroded the sand under the large tree trunk and the structure created a brown trout hideout. It was the kind of trout hole you dream about on cold winter nights. A sanctuary for fish where they back into the deep undercut bank and hide from predators and disappear into the safety of the black abyss.
Distant robins welcomed the dawn with a beautiful chorus as I flipped a five inch garden worm into the swirling current. For an instant the offering squirmed in the watery pool, then the line touched bottom and began a slow drift below the huge tree. I was ready when the tap-tap of a bite got my attention, then the line tightened and I jerked the rod to set the hook. The fish responded by dashing for cover under the tree but I held the line tight to the rod, and pulled the frisky prize from the pool onto the sand covered bank. It was a beautiful brown covered with large dark spots. It was the first trout of the season and when I flipped the prize onto the bank something caught my eye. There in the plush green grass was a huge morel mushroom. Immediately I had an adrenalin rush at the sight of the tasty prize and close inspection of the surrounding area provided a dozen mushrooms. Wow! I was in heaven to find morel mushrooms and catch trout at the same time. For me it was an outdoor experience I’ll never forget. But one thing is certain by combining trout trips with mushroom hikes you can double your pleasure. Yes sir, double your fun. What a great way to enjoy Michigan’s great outdoors!