It was late afternoon, April 12th. My birthday. I was hunting turkeys, but the morning had proved to be in their favor. I had harvested a jake a few days before, so I wasn’t too concerned. But I wasn’t yet ready to head home. Besides, turkeys will often take a break to get water, do some browsing and maybe even take a dust bath before getting active in the afternoon. It was a perfect time to do some scouting and maybe see if I could spot some birds.
I walked into a small valley. It was cool, and the ground was slightly moist. As I walked, I looked at the ground for signs of turkeys. Mainly I was looking for feathers and scat, maybe a track in the mud. As I scanned the ground an odd shape caught my eye. What the heck was that? A strange looking mushroom. I was not experienced with mushrooms, but this certainly looked like a morel mushroom to me. Morels are famed for their taste and their use in many delicious recipes. As I looked around I noticed more of these mushrooms. I was sure these were morels! I picked a dozen or so and put them in my turkey vest, determined to take them home and research them for a positive ID.
The day was getting warm, as it does in the California spring. Not wanting these potential prizes to wither in the heat, I decided to head home and see if my hunch was correct.
Once at home I discovered that morels are easily identified by slicing them in half from top to bottom. If they were hollow from tip to stem, in addition to other easily recognizable features, then they were morels. I had a nice bunch of morels!
I Became Addicted To Mushroom Hunting
Although I’d always had an interest in wild mushrooms, I had never pursued it. However, this one event fired me up. With these few mushrooms I was able to make several dishes from the wild turkey I had harvested the week before. Morels complimented wild turkey perfectly. From this, I began researching wild mushrooms. To date I have harvested morels, chanterelles, oysters, boletes and corals. Each has their own season and each has their own unique flavors and complementing recipes.
In my pantry I currently have dehydrated boletes, morels and oysters for use in soups and rehydrating for various dishes. I have several pounds of chanterelles in my freezer, dry-sauteed, vacuum-packed and frozen. In fact, I made chanterelle gravy just a few nights ago to compliment a buttermilk battered wild turkey breast!
During the spring I search for morels and spring boletes. In the fall I look for oysters. Winter is time for other bolete strains and chanterelles. Being fairly new to fungi, I have taken a slow approach to collecting wild mushrooms. I learn one species that I can positively ID with certainty. I spend time reading about the species and looking at dozens of pictures. Additionally I have a knowledgeable expert ID the first few I collect, to be certain my understanding of that species is correct. It’s a fascinating and addicting hobby that also provides a culinary reward!
Learning How To Forage Mushrooms
Foraging mushrooms is a vast subject, and there are very few experts on the topic. Eating the wrong mushroom can make you very sick or even kill you. Because of this, it is incredibly important to know exactly what you are foraging for. In addition to knowing the species you want to pick intimately, you also need to be aware of what specific micro-habitat they like to grow in, and what climates they prefer. This can be daunting, and unless you are willing take at least a semi-scientific approach to the hobby, I cannot recommend it for you. However, if you feel that this is a hobby you want to pursue I can start you off with a few tips!
Firstly, and most importantly, read everything you can about the species you want to forage. Figure out what species grow in your area and choose one to pursue. Here’s a few excellent resources for researching mushrooms:
In addition to these excellent resources, there are a few essential books every mushroomer must have.
- Mushrooms Demystified
- National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms
- All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms (for West Coast US foragers)
- California Mushrooms: The Comprehensive Identification Guide (for California foragers)
Finally, use your social media platforms to locate groups focused on mushroom identification and foraging. Look for meet-ups and classes in your local area to get hands on experience! Find someone who is willing to take you out on your few foraging trips, if at all possible. They key is knowledge. The more you learn about the species, the more successful you will be and the more accurate you will be in your identifications.
Mushroom Foraging Gear
Foraging mushrooms does not require any special gear. However, there are a few items that will make the experience more enjoyable and slightly easier.
Keeping mushrooms clean, dry and cool is essential to the overall quality of your harvest. Many people recommend mesh bags. The claim is that the mesh helps spread the mushroom spores as you walk about. This claim, however, is in question. My experience, and the experience of my foraging friends, has been that mesh bags tend to tear up more delicate mushrooms like morels.
I prefer a “bucket backpack, like the Peregrine Venture Bucket Pack. This gives you a sturdy and lightweight way to safely transport your shrooms and also provides a few extra pockets for carrying extra gear and water bottles.
When you’re foraging for mushrooms you’re looking at the ground. It’s pretty easy to lose track of where you are! While a GPS is not required, it’s something I definitely recommend. You can also mark the spots where you find your shrooms and easily return to the exact spot in future seasons. Many of my friends use their cell phone apps, such as Gaia GPS.
Since I know how fast cell phone batteries can die when in the mountains, I recommend a dedicated GPS unit. This should be in addition to owning a compass and knowing how to use it. The Garmin GPSMAP 64st is an excellent unit at the middle price range, but those on a budget may wish to opt for the Garmin eTrex models. An excellent compass is the Suunto MC-2G Global Compass. While a little spendy, a good compass is worth it’s weight in gold if you’re lost (and know how to use it).
An altimeter is an invaluable tool to a forager. Knowing what altitude the mushrooms are flushing at, and finding that altitude, is critically important. I prefer the old fashioned manual altimeters. You won’t have to worry about the battery dying and there’s less chance to break it if you drop it. I prefer the Sun Altimeter, which also includes a barometer.
Mushrooms will only flush if the ambient air and ground temperature are within a specific range. Because of this, a good ground thermometer can be especially helpful in determining if you’re in the right spot. For this I use the Vee Gee Scientific Soil Thermometer. It’s durable and has proven accurate to me in all my testing.
A knife is a must have for every mushroom forager. Cutting mushrooms to leave the base in the ground is good practice. Having a knife on your person while in the woods is common sense. Mushroom knives generally also provide additional features, such as a brush for cleaning dirt off the mushrooms, and sometimes tweezers for more delicate cleaning. I personally use the Maserin Mushroom Knife, but the Opinel is also a very popular choice.
Regardless of what knife you choose, be certain it is well-constructed and is made of quality stainless steel. You will be using your knife in moist, sometimes very wet, conditions. You do not want your most important tool rusting!
There’s a ton to learn about mushrooms. More than I could ever cover in a single blog post, and way more than I know. Do your own research and get to it! I am certain you will find that it’s fun and fascinating. In the future I will get into more specifics on mushroom foraging!