Mushroom Hunting: Following the Season North

By Tom Nauman

This question came from Central Illinois. "Can you tell us when the usual "season" for morels occurs in Northern Wisconsin? We're talking pretty far north--like Eagle River or even Boulder Junction. We will be vacationing in the area toward the end of May and are hoping to be able to alternate between fishing and 'shrooming. (By that time, we should be pretty much recovered from the end of April/early May rush in Central Illinois.)"

There is an easy way to determine the correct time. For us in Magnolia (Illinois) we always count on there being mushrooms on the first weekend of May. It is often not the best weekend of a given season, but there is always something out there. We've been having our festival on the first weekend of May for the past five years. In '96 & '97 the mushrooms found that weekend were mostly small grey ones indicating that it was early in the season. Had the festival been a week earlier, we might not have had any mushrooms at all. In '98 and '00 The mushrooms found were mostly big yellows which are indicative of the latter part of the season. A lot of those from '00 were too old to consume. Had the festival been a week later, we wouldn't have had too many edible mushrooms at all. In '99 we hit the season just about right in the middle.

So for us, the "sure" weekend is the first weekend of May. Again, not always the best, but there's always something. Remember too that the weekend can be anywhere from May 1 through May 7. So for practical purposes we're talking about the first week of May.

From my observations, with all else being equal, the season travels approximately 100 miles to the north per week. I mention all else being equal because mushroom production is affected by temperature, moisture, soil type, and altitude. The Wisconsin State line is just about 100 miles north of Magnolia. So the "sure" week would be the second week of May. Eagle River is about 200 miles north of the Wisconsin/Illinois border, without a great difference in elevation. So the "sure" week there would be the fourth week of May. So I think your timing is great to find at least some.

Boyne City, Michigan hosts the National Morel Festival. It is always held on the weekend after Mother's Day which means it occurs on the third weekend of May. In latitude, Boyne City is about 50 miles south of Eagle River. So again, your timing looks perfect.

Additionally, you can create your own good fortune. Let's say you're near Eagle River and all you are finding is little greys, which are delicious, but you'd like a little more volume. You vehicle can become a time machine of sorts. Just drive 50 or so miles south and you should be a little later in the season. Remember too that the black morels usually appear before the little greys. So don't start driving until you're sure there's not a big herd of them around. The opposite is equally true. If the mushrooms near Eagle River are mostly old and spoiled, drive awhile north to travel to an earlier point in the season.

When you get to mountains, the 100 miles per week theory still holds true, but altitude wreaks havoc on just looking at a map and figuring out where to stop. The season begins later at higher elevations. It also makes a difference as to which side of the mountain you are on. The season generally begins on the south facing slopes as the sun warms them first.

The 100 miles per week theory may also be affected by moisture, temperature, and soil conditions. If you travel 200 miles north two weeks after a great season in Illinois to an area that is solid rock, or lacking rainfall, or the jet stream has brought in unseasonably warm temperatures, don't expect the same results.

Once the season starts, you can check the "Sightings" page on the net to find out how the season is developing and use the 100 miles/week formula to determine when the best time will be for a particular area. Morel Mania started the page in 1998 when fellow hunters emailed their successes to us, It seemed such a waste to not share the information. So now we post all reports to the page sorted by state. Last year we received reports from 32 states and 3 Provinces of Canada.

I hope this helps, let me know.

Remember, whenever you want to try eating a mushroom you're not familiar with, check it in at least two field guides. If they say it's edible, try just a nibble, wait 24 hours, and if there are no ill effects then consume larger amounts. All past articles are available Please feel free to contact us with questions or comments. Especially if you have ideas or suggestions for future columns: Tom and Vicky Nauman, Morel Mania, RR1 - Box 42, Magnolia, IL 61336, Phone 309-364-3319, Fax 309-364-2960,