April brings warm rain, dogwood blooms and incredibly tasty morel mushrooms. Chances are this tasty gem has met your shadow during springtime walks in the woods. They are masters of concealment in dead leaves and under or around spring foliage. The average hunter may find 10 and walk past 100. Morel hunting is an enjoyable challenge.
Most Midwestern states offer unlimited public access where filling a bread sack with morels is possible. You will likely have competition so keep looking. No one can find them all. Dedicated hunters search from early morning to dusk. Most search to dine on the succulent morsels. Others sell morels at farmer's markets, mom and pop grocery stores, taverns or even door to door. Fresh morel mushrooms bring $5 a gallon in some areas and often more.
My first morel mushroom hunt happened 60 years ago with my mother. I was born the next day. She has never missed a mushroom season since. My brother and I join her when possible. Mom does not handle the Ozark creek banks or hills as easily these days, yet still manages to hunt through creek bottoms. Morel mushroom hunting is her only addiction.
"I guess you learn a few tricks after half a century of hunting morels," She said. "I always carry a heavy walking stick to move vegetation out of the way and to hit stinking snakes. You never know when one of the slimy things will just suddenly be there. But I have spots that have to be checked. I have several old red oak stumps and trees I look around every year. Some years they produce and some years they don't. But I always have to go back and look."
WHERE TO FIND MORELS: We start looking for morel mushrooms in late March or early April when woodlot plants are growing. Half-grown mayflowers are a good indicator of the required soil warmth when early morels start to pop up.
Dying elm trees produce a rotting root system that feeds morels. You may not find morels in the same spot after the roots are rotted away. Don't limit your search to only elms. Check unlikely areas. The darn things could pop up anywhere. Apple trees are good too. Constantly rotting fruit can produce morel mushrooms.
Areas with good leaf matting, typically under trees that drop their leaves and bark earlier in the fall and have longer to decay consistently produce. Light-colored barked trees like birch, sycamore and cottonwoods are good examples while dying elm trees may only produce morels for a year or two.
WATCH THE WEATHER CHANNEL: Morel mushrooms are temperature sensitive. Early-season hunters should start by checking southern hillsides and creek bottoms that are open to sunlight. Warming trends make eastern areas productive. Northern spots are best when air temperatures heat up at the end of morel season.
Page 2 of 3 - A combination of warm days and nights with adequate spring rains is best. The perfect morel environment is wet conditions and temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees. Dry springs seldom produce exceptional moral mushroom numbers.
More grow when it is wet, but some will grow no matter what. You might still find morels in good numbers, but they may not grow as large.
Morels do not grow by the sun, lacking chlorophyll the chemical that absorbs sunlight as energy to reproduce. They start popping up at dusk and grow through the night. When the sun comes up, morels dry out and release their spores, the seeds for new morels. Some catch a wind current and float to meet another spore from another morel to create more, occasionally making them grow in unexpected places.
TWO NEAT TRICKS FOR MORE MORELS: Experienced hunters use mesh bags to gather morels. A mesh bag allows spores to release for future mushrooms.
We use the same bag over and over, season after season without washing. Spores that may create new morels come from the mushroom's head. The ridged pattern of the bag helps release the spores. Some stay in the mesh and release later.
Always cut or pinch morel mushrooms off at the bottom. Leaving the roots often helps produce new mushrooms when conditions are correct.
EQUIPMENT NEEDED FOR MOREL MUSHROOM HUNTING: You will need a good pair of walking boots, light colored clothing in case early ticks make an appearance, a mesh bag, a good walking stick and your best pair of eyes. Then walk slowly and search. When the first morel is found, kneel down and look a little longer. My father always said: "Where you find one, you will find two or more."
He was always right.
EXERCISE: Start exercising before hunting woodlot hills. Walking daily will get you started. Make sure you consult a doctor before beginning any type of exercise program.
DISABLED HUNTERS: Wheelchair or disabled morel hunters are limited to paved paths at wildlife areas. Morels can occasionally be spotted from these trails, sometimes with binoculars. You may need a helper for picking out-of-reach mushrooms. Driving slowly down logging paths is another good way for disabled hunters to mushroom hunt.
COOKING MORELS: Soaking in salt water is good for fish, but not morel mushrooms. This does not kill or remove the bugs and the mushroom's texture will become slimly and salty. Instead, soak morels in cold water.
Page 3 of 3 - Try cutting your morels in little pieces to mix in omelets. Most mushroom hunters cut each morel in half and dip them in eggs. Each "shroom" is fried in cornmeal, flour or crushed crackers. Either way, fry until golden brown and don't invite company that night. Few entrées taste better.
Kenneth L. Kieser is a local outdoor enthusiast.