It’s Spring! Who Needs the Grocery Store?
By Jason Herbert
The month of May is a magic time of year for outdoor enthusiasts. Spring has sprung, things are greening up again, the weather is nice, and there’s a lot to do outside. It’s also the perfect time to harvest my ideal wild meal.
If I close my eyes and dream, my ideal spring meals look a bit like this. The deep fryer is going in the back yard, I’m relaxed in my chair, sipping a home brew and playing fetch with the dog. On the menu we have breaded and fried bluegill fillets, sautéed morel mushrooms, and thin sliced wild turkey breasts in a white gravy. Other than the beer (which I make) everything on this menu is wild harvested.
Be it an emergency situation, spring camping, or simply gathering from God’s natural food basket- the “spring trifecta” is about one of the best meals an outdoor enthusiast could ever eat- are really not that hard to gather.
These tasty little morsels can be caught any time of year- but I prefer the cool waters of spring to fill my freezer with bluegill fillets. Generally right around May the fish are bedding in the shallows. Usually the first signs of bluegill beds will appear with masses of male fish coming into the shallow, sunlit water to start to clean off beds. The fish prefer to create the bowl-shaped beds on a solid bottom, such as gravel or hard sand. A big bedding area will look like a bombed out part of Baghdad, with pits and pock marks everywhere. Once the males have cleaned off the bedding areas, the females will come by and drop eggs. The males will then fertilize the eggs, and protect them for a while after. Bedding fish are very territorial, and will almost bite on anything. I like to fly fish for the bluegills, allowing for a delicate presentation of my lure without scaring the fish. I usually use a terrestrial pattern, such as a cricket or grasshopper. Another strategy when the fish are bedded deep is to simply go “old school” and drop a worm down on a hook. Many spring fishermen use red leaf worms or wax worms. Either way, the fish will bite them.
When spring bluegill fishing, be sure to bring a basket and a sharp fillet knife! Once the fish are located and biting, it’s fast and furious until the limits are met. Often, the fish bite so fast it takes longer to clean them than it does to catch them. I like to fillet the fish and then skin them. Once I have clean, boneless fillets, I either freeze them in water for later, or bathe them in my favorite breading to fry later.
Be sure to check local season regulations. In my home state of Michigan we need a fishing license to fish and can keep 25 bluegills per day.
There’s not a lot better than a fresh spring morel mushroom. When the mushrooms are a-poppin’, drop everything else and get out to gather as many as possible! I have my old familiar spots, and there I always start by looking near dead trees. The mushrooms grow on decaying root material, so dead tree roots are always a great place to start. Once I’ve found some near dead trees, I tend to wander around and look for them elsewhere too. I’ve found morels in the strangest of places, so my advice is to look anywhere. I usually start with the easy ones near the dead trees, then start to wander until my bag is full, or it’s dark.
When I do find a bunch of mushrooms, time is of the essence. If I plan to eat them soon, I’ll place them in a bowl in the refrigerator. I do not wash the mushrooms until I am ready to eat them, so just keeping them cool will do for now. If I can’t eat them right away, then I will dry them in my food dehydrator and either freeze the dried mushrooms, or place them in an airtight jar. When re-constituting dried mushrooms, simply place them in a bowl of water and return a bit later. With a bit of a bath, they’ll be just like new!
I have tried all sorts of mushroom recipes, but then I rely on my two old standbys. My favorite is to sautee them with some onion, butter and garlic in a hot frying pan. It doesn’t take long, and everything will taste delicious. Another tried and true way to eat morels is to bead and fry them as well- just like my bluegills! Either way, morels taste amazing and really can’t be cooked wrong.
In Michigan there is no license required to harvest wild mushrooms, but I’m not certain about any other states. Also, of course, be sure to have permission when accessing private land, and beware of turkey hunters!
Probably the hardest of the spring trifecta to harvest- hunting turkeys is no easy task. I can talk endlessly about turkey hunting, but here’s my strategy in a nutshell. I like to scout turkeys weeks before the hunt begins. I look for three things, where they “roost” or sleep in the trees, where they eat and drink, and where they “strut”- or showoff for a potential mate. Roosting areas are usually tall trees, located near water or some sort of physical feature. The birds like to roost on the sides of hills, so they can fly high into a tree by leaving the peak of the hill without expelling too much energy. Roosts can be easily located by driving around or walking in the early hours of the morning before work when the sun is just sneaking over the horizon. Many “toms” or male turkeys will be roost gobbling for anyone in the county to hear.
Turkeys will eat anything they can get into their mouths, but I like to start looking for them in pasture or grain fields, as well as open ridges and flat river bottoms. Wherever there are bugs, worms, berries, grains, or green leaves- there will be turkeys eating them. I’ve found anything from 6” praying mantis’ to whole acorns in turkey crops- really, the sky’s the limit when it comes to what they will eat.
Often, if the area is open and well lit- the birds will also be strutting where they eat. To watch a strutting turkey is a thing of beauty. Such a primal dance, the strut is when the turkey makes himself as big and fat as possible, and literally just struts back and forth, hoping to get the sunlight to shine off his iridescent feathers, and attract a mate.
Many companies convince hunters that they need an array of calls and decoys to shoot a turkey. As an advanced turkey hunter, I’ll never leave home without all of my calls and decoys- but often they are not necessary. The art of calling and decoying turkeys is a great skill set to possess, but for beginners-I recommend people simply find out where the birds will be and just sit tight. In Michigan we hunters need to purchase a turkey license, and we have only a limited time to hunt them. Most hunters use a gun to kill their turkeys, while some brave souls with a lot of time to work with, use their bows. As always, be sure to check with local regulations before embarking on a turkey hunt.
I take every ounce of meat possible from my turkeys, but others don’t. Look online or have a veteran show how it’s done. The breasts are huge, but often overlooked is the ample thigh meat too. There are several ways to butcher a turkey- like I said, do a bit of research first.
Sometimes less is more. In our fast paced, drive through society- often the best meals go overlooked. With a bit of woodsmanship, time and luck, we spring outdoor enthusiasts can eat like kings with the bluegill-mushroom-turkey trifecta!
Jason Herbert has been published in most major outdoor magazines, speaks at events throughout the Great Lakes region, and works as a marketing consultant in the outdoor industry.