Fall Training... and... Mushrooms.

Chicken of the Woods stretched out on a downed oak
Every fall finds the upland hunting enthusiast in a state of anticipation, counting down the days until the seasons begin.  It has been my experience that the majority of upland hunters are appreciative of every opportunity to spend afield, and they never turn down the chance to put great table fare on a plate! Sadly, many excited upland hunters walk by opportunity on every preseason dog tune-up and early season foray. We're talking fall mushrooms. Though the ruffed grouse is the undisputed king of game birds, hens and chickens of the fungi variety give it a run for the money in the fry pan. We'll go over just a few of the easy varieties that you should always be on the lookout for, and with a little bit of knowledge, the early season training and scouting can give a full game bag a whole new meaning!

The "chicken of the woods" mushrooms are one of the most recognizable mushrooms that appear across the woods from August through November. You can stack these gems up like firewood, because when you find one, they usually grow in large quantity; one chicken clump from last year we were lucky to find stretched from ground level to 20'-30' up in the old dead oak tree and totaled 40+ lbs. The key with chickens is to catch them when they are very young and bright orange; younger chickens will be much more tender and less wormy (chickens are usually pretty buggy which ups the protein levels!). As the name would suggest, chickens taste like chicken and also have a very similar texture when pan fried like a chicken breast. Chickens prefer to grow on dead oaks, and you can up your odds by taking the dogs for an early season tune-up through some oak stands.  Watch for the bright orange growing on dead trees, and they will be hard to miss! In regards to cooking, treat them like chicken instead of mushrooms and you'll be very happy with the results, and they make a great vegetarian substitute for chicken!
Good sized, fresh lobster mushroom

Lobster pushing up through the pine needles.
Another easily distinguishable mushroom is the lobster. The bright orange mushroom you see from a distance while bird hunting and walk a wide circle around for fear of its toxicity would likely be the lobster. I passed by these mushrooms for years in the woods making sure my dogs wouldn't touch them, only to find out that not only are they not toxic, but they are extremely delicious! Lobster mushrooms have a firm, meaty texture, and hold up to cooking well.  When picking, just trim all the dirty spots off with a knife, fry up in some butter, and drop in a stir fry or wild rice pilaf. You'll find these aplenty in the same aspen choked woods you will stomp through hunting feathers, and they will usually grow in small to large patches.

Lucky find with this beautiful fresh "hen of the woods" aka "Maitake"

The great fabled fungi variety of myth and legend would be the "Hen of the Woods," aka "Maitake" not to be confused with "Chicken of the Woods."  Hens are by far our favorite, but they can be much more difficult to find in some areas.  Hens are named for their appearance, being of similar coloration to many game birds, with subtle tans and greys in feather-like 'mushroom petals' growing in a clump. They grow around the bases of large mature oak and some other hardwood species such as maple. Hens are renowned for their flavor and health benefits, and thankfully they grow in larger clumps so when you do actually find one you get some quantity! They tend to grow in the same places year after year so you can develop a nice little milk run as you dial in on some spots. It doesn't get any better than a few venison medallions cooked medium rare with some pan fried hen of the woods mushrooms on top, or a luxurious Canadian bacon, jalapeno, and hen of the woods pizza. Yum.

There are many more fall mushroom varieties you can safely harvest in the fall, but these three are great 'gateway mushrooms' for their ease of identification.  Get out following rain and cold fronts as these are big triggers for mushrooms to really pop up in the fall.  Research the mushroom species carefully, and to be safe, talk to a mushroom expert to get on the right track. Be extremely cautious when harvesting and eating wild mushrooms as many are very poisonous, but do not let that word of caution discourage you because a small amount of knowledge can fill up your game bag well before the highly anticipated seasons make their way across the calendars!

Fungi, fur or feathers, good hunting!
Aaron R.

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