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Gourmet Mushroom Hunting in Montana Just One More Reason to Live Here - A Comprehensive Guide

I remember as a kid running around in the woods with my mom and dad, if they “felt shaky” then we knew that they could sense the antler nearby. Of course, they always let us pretend like we spotted it first. The same thing happened with mushroom hunting except for us kids, being close to the ground, were already pretty darn good at being the first spotters! Apparently, we weren’t alone, I’ve heard many tales of people dropping off their children in the woods with a couple of plastic bags, “Don’t come back ‘til it’s full!”

Well, as the years went on, the teens left me uninterested in finding the gourmet treats, and it wasn’t until my late 20’s that I actually realized I loved mushrooms, possibly more than chocolate, and again decided to go on the hunt.

Now if you aren’t from the big sky originally, or have ever lived elsewhere, you know that it’s pretty dry here, in most spots anyways. I never would’ve imagined I’d find any of those spongy guys hiding in a bed of pine needles next to the cactus, it’s true though, they do exist! In fact, they come out in droves every once in a while if you know where to look.

It should be of note here to never trust a forager of mushrooms, huckleberries, or otherwise wannabe treat finders though. If they give you hints on where to look, time of year to start hunting, or the best place to go, turn around, because it's most likely them trying to throw you off the trail.

Next task, teach the dog how to sniff out mushrooms.

Montana Mushroom Hunting - Types of Mushrooms

First, let me not leave you hanging with that last bit of advice, I’ll tell you right off the bat that I am NOT going to give away mushroom picking spots. That’s a sworn secret in any mushroom hunter’s book. Unless you and I are frying them up later with some venison steaks, you’ll never know… I will, however, give you some tips on identifying the main ones and where to look for them!


A true treasure in just about any part of the U.S., morels are known for their hardy flavor and distinctive looks. Often described as looking like brains, these come in many coloration varieties but have only one look-alike that is easy to distinguish. The time of year to find them is earlier than most when the snow is melting and the rains set in. These can grow on their own or in clusters and can be anywhere from itty bitty to hand-sized. Morels are prized nationwide and it is often thought that they won’t grow out west. If this is your stance, you are indeed misled (probably by morel hunters), as they actually do thrive really well under the right circumstances.

Lighter colored morels, for example, often appear in wet areas, like river banks and in cottonwood groves, the darker ones turn up around aspens later on in the spring. Both can be found just about anywhere though depending on the weather and wetness that year. Our strategy in the springtime is to simply start stuffing as many plastic shopping bags in our pockets as possible, you never know what you might find.

Interestingly, following fire routes is another well-known technique, and any mushroom enthusiast usually has a map of last year's burn sites posted above their bed. Morels, for whatever reason, like to pop up after a fire from the previous year. Being an easy and popular sign to follow, the competition is fierce. In order to be the first to that guaranteed treasure, you'll need to get to any burn areas quickly or the precious morels will most likely already have been plucked. Check with the forest service if you are lost on where last year's fires were, they should be able to give you some hints.

In cooking, these pair well with just about anything and are often breaded and fried alongside main courses. Though the higher elevations tend to sprout a little later on, a good number of hunters like to point out that the search is on “once the lilacs begin to bloom.”

Oysters (King)

The oyster mushroom is commonly known due to its appearance in grocery stores and restaurants on a regular basis. Growing in multiple forms, from pink-colored to king-sized, the oysters are well-liked and well hunted. Easily recognized as growing out of the roots of deciduous trees, these mushrooms are often referred to as “Stumpies” and are a sight to find.

Oysters only grow in “King” sized here in Montana, but that just means one stump will produce a good pound or so. They are also extremely easy to recognize with their large and lighter-colored growth at the base of trees. If you thought morel competition was fierce, you’ll have to disappear further into the forest to find unpicked fresh oysters.

Usually, wetter areas are the place to look, like along the banks of major rivers and during the rains of early spring. These mushrooms tend to come and go over the years unless you are an annual avid collector, if found though, many foragers consider them as a precursor to the morel spring harvest.

Oysters have something of a sweet flavor and are often sliced thin and sauteed with a meat dish. Do not overcook, but be sure to add a lot of butter to really combine the flavor with a tasty and rich meal. We like to treat them like portobellos, especially if you find a large one to bread and saute.

Chanterelles (Golden)

Known to be at the top of the “gourmet” mushroom list, you’ll hear of these more often than not in fancy dishes. They have something of a fruity flavor and come in bright colors that look beautiful when discovered

Lodgepole pines and spruce forests are the keys to finding these golden nuggets of the mushroom world. Popping up towards the middle of July, the edible pieces will continue to fruit until it freezes or dries up. If it happens to be a wet fall, chanterelles may be found well into the later months.

Growing with a distinctive bright golden hue and funnel type shape, these delicacies sprout in clusters. If you find one, you’ll almost definitely find more in the surrounding area and elevation. They do grow directly out of the ground, meaning that they are unfortunately often covered in dirt or debris and are tricky to spot, and possibly even trickier to clean off. Many hunters have said they bring a brush to clean them in the field before heading home to cook.

It should be known that there are a few lookalikes of these distinctively colored fungi and, although not deadly in Montana, they won’t leave you with a pleasant experience. The most commonly colored lookalikes grow out of wood though, so in order to ensure you get the right ones, simply leave those trees alone.

Chicken of the Woods

Not sure where you grew up, but it has always been “Hen of the Woods ' in my book. Just thinking of hen of the woods is actually making my mouth water, as they are some of my favorite mushrooms. Unfortunately, it turns out that these aren’t the same thing. I'll reassure you though, you won’t be disappointed in Montana’s version of mushroom poultry.

Growing in shelf-like formations, the chicken of the woods, or sulfur shelves, are not overly common, though they are reported enough to appear on our list, and mainly in the northwestern corner. Besides growing in distinctive clusters, the orange to sulfur coloring is their main giveaway, with the young ones still a little paler. Younger ones look solid and have a rubbery texture that slices and cooks into a perfect piece of fruit with a consistency almost like chicken. Often, these are used as a substitute in vegetarian dishes. The older they get, the less tasty and more brittle they become, making the mature mushrooms best left to themselves.

Mainly growing out of oak trees, these may also sometimes be found on specific types of conifers, though we always suggest making sure you know for a fact that you have identified the mushrooms correctly. They'll grow from spring to summer if you know where to look, and will often come back every year. Unfortunately, these mushrooms do like to eat the tree on which they thrive and will cause problems in homeowners' yards if left to grow.

These do have one particular characteristic that is cautioned after though, no matter your knowledge or taste, sometimes certain people do have an adverse reaction to this species. It is always cautioned to start with the younger mushrooms, and only a small portion, to make sure that they don't make you feel ill. Though not so worrisome that you'll end up in the hospital, some people are sensitive or allergic to these beautiful fungi and will have a problem eating too many. Don’t let the possibility turn you off though, morels have been said to have the same effects if you happen to be one of the unlucky few.

Conifer Coral

Conifer coral, also sometimes called bear’s head, or possibly a combtooth or western coral hedgehog, is an impressive mushroom, though not as popularly found due to its growth along the sides of logs. Being white to cream-colored and sometimes growing fairly large, it is difficult to imagine missing one of these beauties with their multiple branches and shaggy manes.

The best time to find this species of mushroom is in the fall on fallen conifer trees. Preferring a moist climate, Idaho is particularly known for its beautiful specimens. If found in Montana, it is almost exclusively in the western areas. Many have also reported that they often spot these fungi growing from partially submerged downed trees.

Because these species grow back year after year in the same spot, a noticeable rot is produced on the trunk. Take note if you find one and guard the secret carefully! If you are lucky enough to stumble upon a growth, marinating and sauteeing is the preferred method. Hunters have described them as having a flavor similar to fish that may be worth trying in a curry.

Fairy Ring Mushroom

We’ve all seen them, the little patches of dark lawn grass that at least one theory is going to describe as a magical fairy gathering place. Though many mushrooms grow in a circle, these will appear in no other way, are fairly easy to identify, and have an almond-nutty taste that makes them popular in cooking.

While fairy ring mushrooms may appear just about anywhere, they are most often found in lawns and urban areas when the ground is warm and the weather is wet. The more rain, the more likely these little guys are to pop. You’ll also often find them at the local farmers market, if so, you know it's time to go scouting for your own.

Looking a lot like a version of the psychedelic kind, many people refrain from eating these in case they might be of the inedible variety. Fortunately, once identified, they usually grow back in the same spot so you’ll always know whether or not you have the right ones. If you find a nipple shaped brown cap, with widely spaced and nonuniform gills, only a few inches tall and growing in a ring, you've found some fungi likely to be a part of your next meal.

The easiest identifier of fairy ring mushrooms though, because they are part of the white-spore family, is to take a print. Although the quick test is a dead giveaway, there are other identifying markers. As one of the sturdiest mushrooms, you’ll find the stems are able to bend without breaking, and many hunters like to give them a “shake test” to know for sure. A "shake test" involves grabbing the stem between your fingers and shaking vigorously. Unlike any dangerous counterparts that will fly apart, the entire mushroom should remain intact the entire time.

Puffball Mushrooms

As a child, the white golf ball looking things that often grew in our yard were not thought of as edible, but rather a fun outdoor plaything. I remember often stomping on them with my sister, and I've heard from a good number of people that they liked to pop them as a kid to watch the “puff” come out. Turns out they are edible though, and the “puff” is actually the spores being released and lost to the wind, much like a dandelion.

Puffball mushrooms grow in many varieties, shapes, and sizes. Some are small, and some grow to be massive. Though not considered to have any of those highly sought after flavors the coveted morels and chanterelles seem to keep, they are popularly eaten sliced or cubed, and then fried with onions and butter.

With the many varieties popping up everywhere, you may find puffballs growing from dead trees or the ground, and, yes, they do have some lookalikes that you don’t want to mistake them for. These look very similar with the exception of the gills on the inside. Small puffballs should always be sliced open to check for gills, if none are present, then enjoy your meal!

King Bolete

The bolete mushroom is just about as common as the aforementioned chanterelle, but instead of the detection of a fragrance when eating, these add a particular nutty type of flavor, which can be very popular when paired with the right dish! The bolete mushroom family has multiple types found throughout the world, including a lookalike, though the king bolete is the Montana one we’ll be focusing on.

The king bolete is just that, a massive mushroom. The easiest identifier is its size, which can be as large as a dinner plate in some circumstances. Looking much like a field mushroom with its coloring and toadstool like appearance, the king bolete is easily identifiable by its lack of gills. Instead of thin membranes, a glance under the hood will show off an unusual skin-like texture with millions of tiny pores.

King boletes are another species that will also grow back year after year and prefer the wet and cooler temperatures usually found in the fall. They also like to grow at the base of certain trees, such as oaks. Be aware, there is a false king bolete that is extraordinarily similar, except it has yellow spores and bruises bluish-green to brown. These also prefer hemlock groves and will make foragers sick. Most boletes, in general, are considered edible though, some just may not be as tasty as others.

There is interestingly also another mushroom of a similar species that looks almost exactly like the king bolete and is known as a slippery jack. Some people may refer to them as the same fungus as they are both similarly edible and found in almost the exact settings. Closer inspection of the spores will give you an exact identification if that is important to you!

Shaggy Manes

Though not often foraged for or found in the state, these are a nice little delicacy. White, oval-shaped, and looking like a peeling birch tree, these small mushrooms put off subtle flavors and are often made into a mushroom alfredo. Careful, combined with other strong tastes, they may get lost. Most recommend to cook them till tender with some whiskey to create a fragrant white sauce.

Shaggy manes are often considered one of the foolproof four because of their easy identification, for this reason, “Lawyers Wig” is another common term when it comes to looks. Besides the “shag” you’ll also notice these mushrooms at their later stages when the bottom gills begin to wilt or ink. Giving this fungus species its other name, the “Inky Cap'.'

Shaggy manes are not actually inky caps though, and the real ones do not have the shaggy look but are instead smooth. Inky caps are edible too but cause problems in combination with alcohol. Even a drink within the last 48 hours can make a person violently ill. Besides not keeping more than a few hours after picking, this is most likely the main reason you won’t find these beauties in your local restaurants. The ink is actually interestingly used as a natural food dye too, if you have the time to collect or grow enough of them!

In terms of discovery, these often grow in the middle of lawns and even driveways. They prefer degraded soil conditions and might just be that mushroom you keep movwing over. When collecting, first know that they are delicate and fall apart quickly. If gathering for a dinner presentation, bring a tin and be sure not to just throw them in the bag. Growing directly out of the ground in summer and fall time, these do go bad quickly as the ink starts to accumulate underneath the gills. If you see this, a little is ok, any more and it might be best to simply let that one lie.

Apricot Jelly Mushroom

Now, this one is interesting. Known as an apricot jelly mushroom mainly because it looks and feels just like a dried apricot, these are found when it rains, a lot. Ranging all over the Pacific Northwest, you may or may not come across these gorgeous little orange-salmon colored mushrooms, but if you do, cook them thoroughly with a little butter and add them to a wild game dish, or dry them as they rehydrate well. Most gatherers report a very mildly sweet taste.

Found where the conifers are, these grow straight out of the ground alone or in a cluster. Oftentimes, they are growing out of buried dead wood, so a downed forest may just be the hotspot. Although they appear from the spring to fall time, again, a lot of moisture and warmth is needed for this unique little fungus to sprout into their telltale trumpeting shapes.

Tree Ears

Wood, or tree ear mushrooms, are a lot like the apricot jellies in texture, though they have an ear shape (hence the name) instead of a trumpet or cone looking growth. These also appear darker, in the brown range, and the older they are, the tougher and blacker they will get.

If you’ve heard of these fungi, you are most likely into Asian cooking, as they are extremely popular in the western world for their taste and their medicinal powers. As they dry really well, you’ll also often find them at Asian stores in a brittle form. A simple soaking will renew these back to their original form though before needing to be cooked. With a very earthy flavor, tree ears are popular for both their wide range of suitable dishes and, unlike a good number of other mushroom types, their ability to stay firm once prepared.

Tree ears are found in summer and through the fall in deciduous areas, and sometimes on fallen logs. You probably never noticed, but these are often the type of mushrooms used in Chinese hot and sour soup because they readily take on the flavors you cook them with and act as a viable protein substitute! They do only keep a short amount of time after picking unless you dry them though, so either plan to include them in supper that night or to dehydrate.

Fly Agaric

The fly agaric is just what you think it is, that iconic little red mushroom with white spots and, yes, is known for its psychedelic properties. While we do not recommend eating these unless you know what you are doing and feeling adventurous, apparently there is a select group of people that risks a mushroom trip for the taste of these little things.

The key here is to always boil in saltwater and cook them thoroughly, and be sure to remove all of the water before even thinking of adding them to a meal. Because of their reputation, most foraging books will note them as poisonous and inedible. Inedible, no, but proceed with caution. We didn’t expect anyone here to eat them but thought we’d add them for as a fun fact because, hey, foraging is all about the find

Montana Mushrooms - A Worthwhile Hunt

Obviously, mushrooms come and go, and any avid hunter knows that random ones can pop up just about anywhere if the conditions are right, and it’s almost guaranteed that we missed a few on this list. We personally love the idea of simply using mushroom hunting as an excuse to get out of the house, and to enjoy a tasty meal afterward! Although you can buy a good portion of the mentioned mushroom species, not all are that simple to come by. It’s a real treat to be able to host a dinner, cook a delicious meal, and to let your friends know, “I found these!”


Discovering the Natural Ecology of Montana with a Yellowstone National Park Tour

Yellowstone National Park is a wonderland of natural beauty, with its diverse wildlife, geysers, and hot springs. If you're interested in learning about the natural ecology of the area, joining a tour like the Full Day Yellowstone Wildlife Safari from Bozeman can be a great option.

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While riding in comfortable vehicles, your guide will also be attuned to your needs and desires. They will plan the day accordingly for walking, viewing, picnicking, and moments of wilderness solitude. The use of optics such as binoculars and spotting scopes makes for incredible and personal moments of connection with this wild place. Your guide is at your service to help you have the best experience from start to finish.

By joining a tour like this, you can gain a deeper understanding of Yellowstone's natural ecology, and appreciate the beauty and diversity of the park's wildlife and plant life. If you're looking to explore Yellowstone in a unique and informative way, consider joining the Full Day Yellowstone Wildlife Safari from Bozeman.


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