Boom! The thunderous gobbling abruptly ends. It’s the perfect end to a perfect morning. Subduing the flopping bird, it’s time to head back to the truck. Easing back down the wide creek bottom that led to the roosted bird in the blackness before sunrise, a curious object under a dead elm catches your attention.
Kneeling down to examine the Christmas-tree-shaped oddity that closely resembles a miniature magnolia seed standing at attention, another seems to pop up out of nowhere a foot from the first. Looking around you realize there are a dozen or more of the camouflaged creatures in the immediate vicinity. These are morel mushrooms, second only to truffles in value as a gourmet food.
In Georgia, these mushrooms are mostly found north of a line from Lake Eufaula, across Tifton and over to Effingham County. Chances of finding morels below that line become slim.
There’s a fast movement of mushroom hunters that’s growing across the state. Some of these hunters sell them (they average $45/lb. fresh), while others just enjoy the hunt and tablefare they provide. A word of caution though, some mushroom hunters are pretty protective of their spots. However, I’m writing to GON readers, so there’s a great chance you are the only one now interested in mushroom hunting on your property.
We have grays and blonde morel mushrooms. The grays are usually smaller and can be very hard to spot, even when standing amongst them. The blondes can get quite large, up to 10 inches, and are a golden-honey color that can really make them stand out.
When harvesting and eating mushrooms from the Georgia woods, it’s important to remember that not all mushrooms are good to eat. However, when we talk about morels, there are virtually no bad lookalikes of this species. When morel mushrooms are halved from top to bottom, they are completely hollow. The false morels, which don’t look that much like the true morels, are solid. It’s always a good idea to cut each one to make sure no insects have made their way into the mushroom.
They are delicious sautéed and eaten with meats as a side treat and also battered and fried by themselves. They are a great addition in pastas and rice, but you don’t want to use such strong sauces that they mask the flavor. Most people believe that mushrooms are high in protein, which is a misconception, but they are very high in essential elements and minerals.
All kinds of critters of the woods love these little jewels, especially hogs and armadillos.
Morels are usually found in wide creek bottoms under ash, poplar and elms but can occasionally grow on gentle hillsides, especially on burn sites. They like soft, loamy soil where a stick is easily pushed in the ground 4 or 5 inches. Other plants that share their environment are wild blueberries, ginger, sorrel, ferns and Osage orange trees.
They grow for only a few weeks in a given area and progress northward with warming temperatures, usually when soils approach 50 degrees. Last year morels began showing up in the middle Georgia area in mid March, and we found a baby one near Ellijay in May. One of the experts we met said to really hunt for them when the redbuds start blooming.
This year’s colder-than-normal temperatures will likely mean morels will be a little behind schedule. An expert we met said to expect finding morels around the end of March in the Macon area and maybe sooner farther south. Also, we learned that if we continue to get average rainfall, the state should be in for a banner year for morels.
I am by no means an expert when it comes to identifying different types of mushrooms, but in the last year I have learned a lot. I joined a few clubs by Googling “Morel Hunting” and “Georgia Mushroom Clubs,” and my wife and I are learning from some real experts.
When you head to the woods turkey hunting this spring, carry a paper bag (don’t use plastic) and a knife to cut the stems off. Morels shouldn’t be pulled up, and it’s best to keep dirt from getting on mushrooms, as it can be very hard to remove.
One of the clubs has a place on its website where folks can contribute current finds, which is great for tracking morel progress, as well as learning about other varieties. That web address is www.morelmushroomhunting.net. You don’t have to be a club member to view this, but you do to contribute.
As you chase longbeards this spring, keep an eye on the ground. Hopefully you can find some superb mushrooms to eat with that turkey.