July 01, 2017

Michigan is blessed by many wild harvestable resources…. but the “oysters” you are thinking of are not one of them! These “oysters” are every bit as tasty and desirable as the oysters dredged up from the sea bottoms; but much easier to obtain and virtually free of charge….

Introducing the Michigan wild oyster mushroom! While the highly coveted morel mushroom sprouts only during a brief period in early to mid-spring; the oyster mushroom, second only to the morel in taste, sprouts throughout the spring, early summer, and fall months. This is especially true in northern Michigan, which is a definite advantage to Michigan gatherers.

I have been a dedicated mushroomer and gatherer of all of Mother Nature’s bounties for well over 50 years. Oyster mushrooms are usually found by accident while spending time in the woods hiking, scouting, seeking morel mushrooms, fishing, or hunting. The act of pleasurably discovering and harvesting wild oyster mushrooms holds special memories for me.

Typical stump/log oyster mushrooms. Author photo

Once, while deer bow hunting with my now departed buddy Bob Husak in the mid-1970s, we had such an unexpected oyster mushroom experience. We were hunting a distant partially flooded small woodlot near what is called the north fields in the 9,000 acre Shiawassee River State Game Area near Saginaw, Michigan. This particular foot and boat traffic only site was nearly two miles from the Turner Road parking lot and was far out of range of most other hunters.

Bob and I had both laboriously taken some real nice bucks during both the early October and late December archery seasons and the traditional two week mid-November gun seasons. This hunt was during the early season just prior to the duck season opener on October 10, 1974. The DNR had just started flooding this area for the duck hunters. This annual process caused many of the trees to eventually die and begin to decay. We had scouted this area many times prior to our hunt that season. Due to the extreme distance from our truck, we had agreed to shoot only bucks with eight or more points.

We parked our truck at 4 a.m. and entered the woodlot in the pre-dawn darkness at 6 a.m. We erected and ascended into our respective portable tree stands to begin our vigils. As it began to get light, I noticed highly visible clumps of white on numerous trees near my stand. I immediately knew that they were fresh oyster mushrooms!

About that same time, I heard the unmistakable sound of a deer approaching through the six-inch deep water. As the buck got closer, I could only count seven points. It traveled by me within 20 yards and made its way toward Bob’s position. He shot that buck and it dropped within 50 yards…. It indeed did have eight points! I failed to spot the short brow tine on the right side of the buck’s wide rack. For some reason, large “unbalanced” racks were common in this area. Bob was sitting less than 80 yards from me and chided me as we both descended from our stands.

He had watched me “pass” on the buck and stated: “You need to clean your glasses!”

I replied: “Maybe so; but they were clean enough for me to see all those freshly sprouted oyster mushrooms on many of the trees around me!”

While Bob field dressed his buck; I took my climbing sticks to each tree and began my own harvest…. It took both of our back packs to hold them! It took the better part of the rest of the day to drag Bob’s buck and tote my oyster mushrooms back to our truck. In the parking lot, more hunters were excited about my huge oyster mushroom find than Bob’s somewhat average buck! We had fresh venison back straps cooked with tasty oyster mushrooms and onions fried in butter for a special dinner that night. A most memorable oyster mushroom experience!

Basic Oyster Mushroomer’s Field Gear

In addition to the basic mushroomer’s field gear which includes a good mushroom field guide (for safety sake know your mushrooms), loose-fitting temperature-appropriate clothing, waterproof footwear, a brimmed hat, walking stick, a small folding knife, a compass, GPS unit (optional), fanny pack, and a cell phone; there are specific things that need to be included. First is a reasonably large back pack and extra nylon mesh bags to hold your harvested oysters. On a good day there may be lots of them! And second, you need a way to harvest high-growing oyster mushrooms. It is illegal to use screw-in tree steps on state or federal lands! There are three viable solutions. At least four strap-on tree steps or at least two stackable, light-weight climbing sticks.

Both options are a bit cumbersome to tote along. I often choose a better third option if I am not bow hunting and have climbing capabilities anyway. I prefer to use a camouflage-painted light-weight aluminum telescopic tree pruning saw that I can use as a walking stick as well! When high oysters are encountered, I extend the pruning saw and, with a quick jerk of the saw blade at the base of the oyster mushroom, I “lop it off”…. then either my companion or I play a game called “catch the oyster in the hat”. I often have this useful tool on hand while scouting for potential hunting stand sites. Initial pruning of shot-interfering small branches can be easily done from the ground before the hunt or from my treestand during my hunt. Hunter-gatherers often find many such sites while mushrooming!

Facts About the Oyster Mushroom

Oyster mushrooms, Genus Pleurotus, grow in single to densely clustered and often overlapping clumps on stumps, rotting wood, on downed logs of trees of many species and on standing dying timber as well…. especially poplar and cottonwood in Michigan. This widespread edible mushroom is named for its shape rather than its taste. It is sometimes found in great quantity and may be dried and stored like morels for years with excellent results! Oyster mushrooms, unlike morels, are easily cultivated and grown commercially…. wild, fresh, and free is always better and tastes better too! The flesh of this mushroom is firm, thick, and nearly white. The odor and taste is heavenly mild! Specimens collected for the table should be inspected for shiny, black, beetles, which lay their eggs on the deeply furrowed gills, and beetle larvae, which tunnel into the mushroom flesh. All can be easily removed by soaking your oyster mushrooms in cold salt water for a few minutes; then rinsing them off with clean cool water and set on a towel to dry off before cooking or drying for future use. Store in sealed glass or ceramic containers in your pantry or out of direct sun in your kitchen…. a visually aesthetic and sure sign that “a great cook lives here!”

Personally, bugs don’t bother me. All mushrooms have great taste but little or no nutritional value…. but bugs do! They are 100% protein! While on “missions” in Laos during the Vietnam War; then SGT. Lunkas often encountered indigenous local tribesmen who “turned me on” to eating various bugs and beetles for energy and survival. Often far from U.S Army support, this was a necessity. My favorite was a very large beetle that could be eaten raw or cooked “in the shell” over the coals of a small fire…. and absolutely delicious!

Edible mushrooms were there, too, to “flavor” the less tasty bugs and beetles. I ate well and even gained weight in the jungle! I look at it this way: “Compare eating bugs with eating a wormy apple in the dark. It tastes good and you don’t even know the worms are there … pure protein too!”

Reference the author’s “Fifty Years of Lessons Learned of a Michigan Outdoorsman Book Trilogy”. Google Joe Lunkas for book descriptions, author information, book availability, and purchasing options. Also; browse through the five plus pages of entries during your initial Google search for additional information about me and my writings.