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Hunting for morels

Published: Thursday, May 15, 2014 11:17 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, May 16, 2014 2:17 p.m. CDT

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Hunters are out in full force this spring searching for an elusive prey that has started “popping up” thanks to the spring rains and warming temperatures.

Morel mushrooms are in season and one of the most popular and saught after fungi.

As first-time explorers and veteran hunters head out to their secret locations and use their specific harvesting practices, the main worry is if the journey will be a bust or a morel jackpot.

The hunt

Trekking off into the woods to search for the coveted morel mushroom is not for the faint of heart.

They typically appear from the beginning of April to the middle of May, but are very weather dependent. Morels need good moisture from spring showers and a spike of warm spring weather to start popping up to be harvested.

“When the lilacs start blooming, that is about the time people start seeing morel mushrooms,” said Chad Paup, Department of Natural Resources biologist for south-central Iowa. “The best time is early to mid-May, generally speaking, when the weather starts to warm up.”

Gray-colored morels appear first and are smaller than their other edible counterpart, the yellow morel. Each hunter has their own secrets to what location makes it a good fit to search for the fungi.

“It is all about having the right conditions,” Paup said. “Spots with dying trees that are just starting to lose their bark are good places where people tend to see morels.”

Elm trees are another popular sign that the area has the ability to support the morel’s ideal habitat. It also likes to protect itself by tucking in beneath or near thick cover or decomposing leaves and stumps to take advantage of the moist conditions.

It is like an Easter egg hunt for adults each spring, but instead of candy, there is a chance no prize could be found after tiptoeing through thorny and thick undergrowth for hours.

But each year, Iowans are willing to risk scratches, pricks and wild ticks for a chance at harvest morels.

“It is just starting to get good,” Paup said. “We had been kind of cool and dry, but now with this rain and some good weather coming next week, it would be a great time to get out.”

In order to help the morel population, hunters suggest using a knife to cut the morel off at ground level so the root system stays intact.

“There are a lot of wise tales out there, like pushing the stems back into the ground,” Paup said.

Some suggest It is also best to collect them in a sack with holes to allow the mushroom’s spores to fall to the ground and potentially cross pollinate to start new growth.

Personal use and sales

There is no limit to the number of morels that can be harvested, but gaining permission to search certain plots of land and competition can limit a hunters access to some morels.

Public hunting areas around 3-mile and 12-mile are open for hunting morels, but since the area is open to anyone it is usually very competitive.

“People need to remember that turkey hunting season lasts through Sunday, so both turkey hunters and mushroom hunters need to be respectful and stay safe if they are on public hunting ground,” said Union and Ringgold County Game Warden Corey Carlton.

For individuals using morels to cook with in their own kitchen, the biggest concern is making sure to correctly identify the grey and yellow morel mushrooms.

There are no training requirements to harvest morels for personal use, but it is a safe way to know for certain that the fungus being harvested is the edible morel mushroom.

The cost is a $45 fee for the training course to properly identify morel mushrooms through Iowa State Extension and Outreach. The workshops are three hours and the certification is good for three years.

“The aim of the workshops is to help assure that misidentified mushrooms are not sold as morels. People can be poisoned by eating mushrooms that are misidentified as morels,” said plant pathology professor Mark Gleason in a press release.

Because it is considered “wild” by the Iowa Food Code, vendors wanting to sell morels legally at farmers markets are required to pay $100 per license for each Iowa county they sell the morels.

The cost to buy morels varies each year depending on how many mushrooms hunters are able to harvest. With the added cost of the license and training, morels can range from $20 to $60 per pound.

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