If you get excited at the thought of filling your basket with plump morel mushrooms, you better listen up. The following mushroom hunting secrets can guarantee success to fuel your morel mushroom dreams…


April 01, 2016

If morel mushrooms are difficult for you to find or not showing up where you live they soon will be. Are you ready to find them by the bushel full? Michigan is blessed with some of the best mushroom populations in the upper Midwest but spotting morels can be difficult. The trick to success hinges on how much you know about why they suddenly pop out of the ground and where to target patches full of big morels.

Morels are very fickle and they don’t like to show in any numbers until air and soil temperatures are ideal. The trick is to keep an eye on the temperatures outside. Morels suddenly sprout when air temperatures reach 60 degrees and above during the day, and night temperatures are above 40 degrees. Ideal night temperatures stay above 50 degrees all night. Savvy morel pickers use a common thermometer to monitor and constantly check soil temperatures. Morels pop like popcorn when the earth gets between 45 and 50 degrees.

Edward Carlin with a handful of morels found in his yard located at a cottage along the Lake Michigan shore near Whitehall. While grays are more flavorful, big whites are easier to locate and often grow in open terrain, lawns, fields, ditches, fencerows and more. photo by Kenny Darwin.

There is a lot of mystery and old wives tales revolving around morel mushroom growth and how to find them. Hey, forget moon phase, barometric pressure and locations that always produce and concentrate on looking under dead or decaying trees. Sure, moisture can be important, hill slope can help or hinder and lay of the land counts, but the most important element is decaying trees.

My strategy is simple. I’ve found that morels flourish under dead and decaying trees. They are sort of tree huggers. Their favorite tree in southern Michigan where I hunt is elm trees. Learn to identify elm trees, the morel favorite and I guarantee instant mushroom success. When you locate a dead elm with abundant mushrooms at the base study the tree, learn the texture of the bark, scrutinize the degree of decay and use the information as a rule of thumb to locate more trees with identical characteristics.

Truth is I seldom wonder through Michigan’s forest looking on the ground but spend much more time and effort locating dead trees that support fungal life by the bushel. Once I locate dead trees I zero-in on the forest floor around the base and downwind area. It can be an adrenalin rush identical to harvesting a big buck, catching a lunker trout or anchoring a boss gobbler when you stroll up to a dead tree and find morels growing by the dozen. What fun!

Once you succeed with this strategy it gives you a rush that keeps you looking all day long, never bored, energetically positive about being outdoors. Although there is something powerfully addictive about being outdoors on a warm spring day with birds singing, plant life springing to life and the sweet smell of Mother Earth. Savvy hunters learn to cherish morel outings and frequently take pause to enjoy the environment, rekindle their outdoor spirit and recharge their body and soul.

I’ll never forget a turkey hunting trip near Dansville State game area when I spotted several elm trees with bark starting to peel. I knocked on the landowner’s door, got permission and soon stood in the middle of a white phase morel patch that filled my shopping bag to the brim. In less than an hour I picked over 200 tasty morsels. Since then, I no longer wonder aimlessly through Michigan’s forests in search of mushroom, instead I look for dead elm trees and search beneath the decaying bark. Sometimes the morels are hugging the base of the tree and there times they are scattered in a downwind pattern from dead elm. When I venture into upper Michigan I still concentrate on dead trees but I shift to apple orchards or decaying poplar and ash. You can instantly up your odds for a bountiful harvest of morels this season if you search under dead and decaying trees.

Once you hit on locating mushrooms under dead trees you quickly identify which trees produce. When an elm is dying it produces ideal mushroom habitat for a period of about three years. Few appear the first year the tree is dead but when the bark begins to peel and pieces touch the earth it creates a mushroom honey hole. Once the tree is climatic, all the bark has peeled off, the number of morels will slowly decline. The trick is to locate trees that are in the active phase of decaying and morels will be there. But bear in mind that morels also show up wherever they show up and some years are better than others.

Years ago while fishing trout along the Pine River west of Cadillac I ran into a team of professional mushroom pickers who had a truck full of morels. They parked next to me and when I came off the river I could smell morels as I approached the downwind side of their vehicle. They told me they were looking for newly logged areas on state land where the soil had been disturbed. They insisted that morels popped up downwind from logging operations and viewed logging areas as prime morel locations.

They also said wildfires promote mushroom growth. That’s when I drove to an area where Highway 55 and 37 in Wexford County where logging operations disturbed the soil with heavy machinery. Not far from Peterson’s Bridge the woods was torn up and morels were everywhere in the disturbed soil. I halted trout fishing and filled my coolers with fresh morels that I shared with family and friends.

Funny how after years of chasing all over west Michigan in search of mushrooms two savvy pickers put me on the hot tactic for filling my trunk. Knowledge regarding mushrooms, when they grow and where they grow is the key to success.

I’ll never forget a trout fishing outing on the Betsie River in May when temperatures soared into the 70s and hot, humid weather was followed by spring thunderstorms. The next morning I slipped along the bank of the beautiful trout stream in search of German brown trout but instead I hit the mother lode of morels. Apparently the temperature was right and the added oxygen, nitrogen and refreshing rain fueled morels to show themselves. I set my rod against a cedar tree, took off my fly vest and proceeded to fill my trout wicker basket to overflow capacity with succulent morels. That night I dined on butter fried stream trout smothered in fresh mushrooms. The moral to the story is rain, moisture after a long dry spell, high humidity and warm air and ground temperatures can result in colossal mushroom growth. A warm spring rain is just the right medicine for getting morels to show themselves.

Early in the season check the south slope of hills where the earth warms first. That’s where morels will start showing up first. Keep in mind mushrooms like loamy soil like you find in creek bottoms, along trout streams but not water logged cedar swamps. Morels like well-drained, moist but not wet soil, with a mix of sand, clay, and of course decaying trees that provide calcium and lime. Grays are the first to show but they are smaller, have more flavor and meatier almost like eating steak. Grays have a nasty habit of growing in thick cover and sometimes are difficult to see in leaves, fallen branches, rolling terrain that has a lot of brush. Yellows or whites are larger, easier to spot, arrive later in the year and can spring up overnight.

There is an art to spotting mushrooms. Don’t rush in, take your time and slowly scan around dead trees and work in a semi-circle. Some hunters are gifted morel spotters others need to find a few before they get the hang of it. I like to carry my grandfather’s old walking stick and use it to move leaves and help scan the forest floor. My walking stick is powerful medicine that makes me think of years hunting morels with relatives from long ago, it makes me reflect on the true art form of stalking for mushrooms like a predator seeking hidden game. Take my word for it; a walking stick is a helpful tool. Mine helps me to forget my hectic modern life, slow my pace and become a more proficient mushroom hunter.

When you start picking, try to not rip the fungi roots from the soil. Pinch off the mushroom with your thumb nail and leave the roots and base to grow and regenerate in the future. Savvy hunters carry an onion bag and allow spores from the harvest crop to drop on the ground and hopefully create more crops in the future.

Last year went in the record books as one of the coldest springs in history and then we had too much cold rain. For me it was a tough year for morel mushrooms. Too bad, because 2014 I found so many mushrooms that I got tired of eating them. I hope 2016 has perfect weather and yields a healthy crop and you take my advice to help you locate a bushel basketful.