The Anatomy of a Good Morel Spot

Each spring there’s an excitement that grows with the increasing temperatures & weather of Spring. People take time off of work, search online message boards and social media for clues, and engage in an annual treasure-hunt for the Morel Mushroom.

I was trained in morel-hunting by my grandmother, during perhaps one of the greatest booms the sport might ever see. In southern Minnesota throughout much of the mid-late 1980s, Dutch-elm disease ripped through the region, killing off a vast number of elm species, and creating the all-too-perfect conditions which can create a flush of morel mushrooms. Morels are the fruiting body of a fungi that lives off of dead and decaying tree roots, so these roots in a certain age/condition are vital to finding morels in the first place. Back then, there were areas where it was hard to walk without stepping on one. Nowadays, there isn’t that much dead tree root throughout the soil, so the first step is to find dead trees, or what’s left of a dead tree, in order to find the food which they need to exist in the first place. I have found it to be true, that a good morel-hunter spends as much time looking up at the tree-tops for dead branches, as they do looking down for the morels themselves.

One weekend in May, my family went to visit some friends in South Dakota, an area where I had never morel-hunted before in my life. I asked around, and got some second-hand information from a friend in eastern South Dakota. I had a few leads on locations likely to hold morels, and decided to spend some time looking at aerial photos for similar locations on public land where I could look for them myself when out there visiting. This would be a challenge. It’s difficult to find spots near home, that you can check on constantly. Not to mention, I had no local knowledge of the area I was to be hunting, only some experiences in finding them throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin to draw upon. This report is dedicated to helping people look for the right areas, so that you can find locations likely to hold morel mushrooms, no matter where you might be.

This year, I’ve found morels under decaying ash, apple, and elm trees, though they grow under a variety of other tree species as well. For the most part, elms are the easiest to find as they tend to grow larger, and their white, bark-free branches are the most conspicuous and easily identified. The perfect elm tree is large (more roots), freshly dead, with most of its bark still intact. This tree, on a slope with some sunlight, yet a medium-dense understory, along with some moss and other forbs to keep it moist makes for conditions morels thrive in. In South Dakota, we first found dead elm on an open grassy site. Those morels were not very well protected and we found a few “burned” ones that were dried and crumbly. We focused on a river bottom after that, with more wooded understory, and found our first morel nearly 30 feet from the tree that produced it. As it turned out, sunlight was the limiting factor in this darker and deeper river valley, so all of our morels were found in a band next to the trail where enough canopy was opened for sunlight. My experience has been that you typically have a limiting factor, be it water, sunlight, slope, etc., and honing in on these limiting factors will help you pinpoint the location of other morels as a pattern emerges. Just like fishing, you find one, then another, and another until there becomes a rhyme and reason for their location.

Most of our morels were found on east facing slopes, with the south-slope mushrooms either only existing in thick greenery, or burned up, and along the edges of openings. We located the dead elm trees first and then searched the perimeter of their canopy, knowing that the root system comes out from the tree base just as far, if not further. Keep in mind, we found some incredible looking elm that had zero mushrooms under them. That’s part of the game. Sometimes they’re there, sometimes they’re not, but when you do find them, you’ve really done something. Morel mushrooms are a spring treasure to me, and even though fishing has my attention for most of the year, I always make time for this hobby!