It’s mushroom season – morels are starting to pop throughout southern IL and the “find line” is moving north a little every day. Sadly, that also means some conflicts inevitably arise.
There’s an almost subculture among long time morel hunters, and like any subculture it has own inherent ethics, rules, and customs. As more and more people, each year take to the woods in search of morels it’s important that we all understand safe, ethical, and legal mushroom hunting practices.
First let’s look at some of legalities –
Trespassing is trespassing. End of discussion. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t hunting turkey, it doesn’t matter that once three years ago you went with a friend on this property. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t know where the property lines were. It doesn’t matter if you only went “a little” over the property line, or nine miles deep in someone’s woods. It doesn’t matter that you “know a guy who said it was okay - he hunts here” Trespassing is still trespassing, and many property owners won’t think twice about calling the CPO or having you ticketed. Just don’t do it.
There are many different phone apps these days (I use onX Hunt Maps) that clearly show both property owners and property lines. With onX Hunt Maps there is a 30-dollar annual fee, but that is far cheaper than a trespassing fine, and I have also found it useful for identifying property owners to ask permission to access property. It’s especially useful in areas where public land and private land are adjoining or patchworked. Additionally, it allows you to pin your spots, set tracks as journey through the woods, and is one paid app that I highly recommend for all outdoor enthusiasts.
If you do ask permission for property access it’s always a good idea to offer the property owner a Landowner Permission Card that is available free from IDNR. It really helps cut down on any conflicts down the road and helps to indicate to the property owner that you are willing to follow the rules on their property, and do things in correct and safe fashion.
Additionally, if someone is gracious enough to offer you access to their property you should always share your harvest, send a nice thank you note, and never take others along with you unless it has been specifically cleared with the property owner. Remember they gave YOU permission, not you and dozens of your friends.
Things get even more complicated for public land hunters.
It’s vital that during spring turkey season you stay out of the woods until after 1 pm. It’s not a way for all the turkey hunters to get all the mushrooms first – it’s a way to keep you from being accidentally shot. It’s a method to help decrease conflict between user groups, and foremost it’s a safety issue. It doesn’t matter if you are in a no hunting area – it’s turkey season, and you should treat every piece of public land as if it may be holding a turkey hunter somewhere, or within gunshot range. NO mushroom is worth a fanny full of shot or worse.
Additionally, you should always check with the individual site for any closed areas, natural areas, or preserves where mushroom hunting is not permitted. In general, in IL if it’s a designated nature preserve, ecological area, or natural area you can’t remove anything; and that includes mushrooms. This also often applies to some National Historic areas.
If you are foraging on federal properties such as National Wildlife Refuges or USCAE recreational areas, make sure that you have appropriate vehicle stickers and passes. Some fee areas require these for entrance or parking .
Lastly, thanks to social media, Craigslist, and few television shows, folks believe commercial mushroom hunting is the way to make a quick buck. Be very aware that you cannot commercially hunt on IL public lands, so if you decide to do so, know that you are doing it at your own peril. Additionally, groups or even single folks who commercial hunt on public land can very quickly decimate entire areas.
Commercially selling wild harvested mushrooms in IL is a bit of grey area.
IL Department of Public Health tells us that “Due to the difficult and complex nature of mushroom identification, the challenge is best left to mycologists, or mushroom experts. For instance, while mushrooms in the genus Amanita are responsible for the most mushroom-related deaths in Illinois per year, some edible species within this genus are revered as the most delectable. Due to the ease in misidentification, the sale of wild harvested mushrooms is not allowed at farmer’s markets in Illinois.“
But I can’t find any specific regulation (please correct me if anyone knows of a source!) that regulates the sale of wild mushrooms on a person to person basis. My best suggestion is contact your local CPO to double check on any mushroom related legal question, and when in doubt – don’t.
Be very cautious when buying mushrooms through social media, web sites such Craigslist, etc. There is literally no way you can be sure of freshness, quality, care taken in harvest etc. Do you really want to trust someone you don’t know to ensure that the mushrooms were picked legally, ethically, and that the utmost care has been used in storage and packaging?
Now on to the subtler ethics, morals, and social mores associated with mushroom hunting.
Whether it’s morels or any other wild edible, always use sustainable and ethical harvest practices. Don’t go in and completely decimate an area. Always leave a little “for seed”. A good rule of thumb is at least 10%, although some recommend a little more be left to keep patches active and thriving. Make sure that you are not destroying habitat tramping around. I’ve seen excellent patches completely obliterated by over harvest or groups who tramped through, raked back leaves, and left the spot as bare as Wal Mart parking lot when they were finished. This helps no one. Be certain that the population can withstand the harvest. Don’t harvest in areas such where contamination by chemicals etc. could be possible. Harvest using the correct method to promote the patch/stand. Don’t just go ripping things our willie nillie with no thought to the underlying damage you may be causing. Think like a conservationist. Wild harvesters have long understood that for us to continue with bountiful harvests, we must practice good wild harvest practices. Unfortunately, in this get rich quick age, and with the increasing trend for local wild foods and foraging many people never get around to considering the conservation piece. All they want is a plateful and pocketful of cash.
Be respectful of other mushroom hunters you encounter. While indeed public land is there for all of us to share – just like any other public land activity – be respectful of others and their spaces. Perhaps one of the worst things you can do if you see someone picking mushrooms along a hillside is to rush over and invade that space. Best case is to speak politely, wish them luck, and make a note of the spot for future forays. Don’t crowd or intrude on other foragers who are picking! It’s also very rude to hang just a few yards behind and follow someone through the woods. In today’s age many can perceive that as unusual or threatening behavior, and you might find yourself being reported to a CPO. There’s no need to have wars in the parking lots, be ugly, or threaten anyone you encounter along the trail. Although, somedays I think public land mushroom is just as fraught with this unpleasant behavior as public land waterfowl hunting and the battles at the ramps and walk ins.
To tell or not to tell – well, I honestly don’t know any long-term mushroom hunter that will very willingly give up their best spot, private or public. They may take you along – with either the clear message that you shouldn’t come back without them, nor bring others to the spot, or assume you understand the unspoken rules. This is the fastest way to find yourself blacklisted in the mushroom hunting community. Once word gets out that you return or worse yet bring everybody and their brother to show them patches that you were shown by some trusting friend, you may well find the invitations to go shrooming drop off dramatically.
If you visit from out of state to our IL mushroom hunting areas – remember, you are a visitor, and while we certainly welcome visitors, we don’t want to hear how much money you have spent to get here, how you have made a 6-hour drive, how much more entitled you are, or how you are here to commercial hunt…on and on and on. Just mind your manners, be polite and do not be surprised when no one answers your questions about where the best areas are located. Explore the area, get a feel for it and be nice to the locals. They are after all, the ones who will be rescuing you if you get lost or in trouble.
If you happen to know of or stumble into a patch that is a very easy walk, close to parking etc. be mindful that this may be one of the few patches that an old timer can still physically hunt. Just my own opinion, but taking over or intruding on an old timer’s patch because it’s “easy picking” is one of the worst things a mushroom hunter can do. Some day if you are lucky you will have lived long enough to no longer be able to easily run up and down the hills and hollers. Keep that in mind, and offer to help any of the old timers you encounter or share your harvest with them.
When you get down to brass tacks, it’s simple; follow the rules and regulations, try to understand the sub culture and local attitudes about mushrooms, be nice. Share and respect public land for what it is and understand that it is often multi use property. Don’t encroach, invade, or overstep. Don’t give away the locations to areas shared with you by others unless they have specifically given you permission to share or bring others.
Be nice boys and girls – the mushroom wars are just starting. Let’s try for a little bit of a peace accord this year, shall we?