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Morel Hunting with Man's Best Friend

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Morel hunting is a popular pastime in our area. The mushrooms are considered quite the delicacy.

But even when you know where to look, finding morels can be tough.

Jason Harkness, a morel hunter from Bettendorf, is getting a little help these days, thanks to a partner with a real nose for the job.

'Her name is 'River's Edge Lucy's Black Betty', but we call her 'Boo'," said Harkness, when we met up with him and his black lab at Crow Creek Park on Friday.

Trained as a bird hunting retriever, Boo's skills as a mushroom hunter were recently discovered - accidentally:

"I found a mushroom and I was all excited, I said, 'Yay, look at the mushroom!' She smelled it and she got excited, and then I used a command that I use whenever we're hunting, 'Go smell, go find it,'" Harkness recalled.

And Boo did just that, helping her owner find dozens of morels that day.

"I only picked two, and she found the rest," Harkness said.

Harkness says he considers it a gift - a thank you from his dog:

"I mean, how great, we spend so much time together, and work so hard together training to be a good hunting dog and to be a good family dog to get along with the dogs we have at our house and so on and so forth, so I was very, very excited about my dog finding morels," Harkness said.

And this gift happens to be particularly delicious.

"Absolutely like nothing else," Harkness said when asked about the morel's taste. "It's indescribable, there is no other flavor even close to a morel."

But while the taste may be unique, you do have to be careful not to collect a poisonous lookalike called a False Morel.

"A false morel looks very similar to a morel, except the stem and the cap are not connected. The stem goes all the way up to the top of the cap," Harkness explained.

"But with the advent of smart phones and Google and image searches, just be safe and be smart about it."

Harkness can spot the difference easily. He has a lot of knowledge and experience in finding morels:

"It has to do with specific soil chemistry and the moisture content and the temperature," he said. "I literally walk around with a thermometer early in the season and start testing in my areas where I know mushrooms normally grow."

Harkness says he's confident his dog can smell the difference between morels and false morels, too.

"They can differentiate between all different types of things. Their sense of smell is really ridiculous," Harkness said.

And Boo continues to prove it, finding the first morel of the hunt on Friday on her own.

"I would have never known it was there," Harkness said.

Still, Boo has more to learn:

"If she was formally trained, she probably wouldn't trample on them, but sometimes she was stepping on them," Harkness said.

And Boo is not quite consistent with her skills hunting morels yet. That's something the pair continues to work on.

It's clear the Bettendorf man and his dog share a love for the hunt, and Boo has an obvious love for pleasing her owner.

"It's about trust and understanding the animal and the animal understanding you," Harkness said.

With nice weather on tap for this weekend, a lot of people may be tempted to head outdoors and enjoy a little morel hunting. But there are some rules people need to understand before they do.

While you don't need a license or anything to hunt for morels in Illinois or Iowa, you always need to make sure you have landowner permission or are on public land to be sure you are not trespassing in your search.

"Just like hunting during normal hunting season, it's always wise to ask permission," Harkness agreed. "Don't cross fences, don't think you can just go ten feet or ten yards. If it was your property and someone was coming onto your property and you had been waiting all year long through a deep dark winter just drooling for those morels and then some jerk comes and picks them, that would be pretty devastating. So just respect people's property."

Harkness says he finds most of the morels he gathers on public land, and he does have agreements with a a couple of local landowners as well. He says he's willing to go where other people won't in his search:

"We go to public hunting areas, we walk, we wade through water, we cross downed trees, we go through ridiculous conditions," he said. "And we do that to hunt and fish anyway, so we might as well do it to go pick morels."

Morel mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungus that lives underground.

They're typically found around dead trees, often elms, but Harkness says he's found them around all types of trees and even in the cracks of parking lots.

"I've found them all over the place," he said.

Boo will no doubt be a big help in finding the tasty treats in the future.

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