If you’re a hunter or a lover of morel mushrooms, your time is at hand.
We are just days, maybe even hours, from morel season, the time when thousands of eager Missourians and Kansans take to the woods in search of the prized, precious, and delicious fungus.
If you’re up to speed on the time and places these tasty, earthy, treats start popping up around the region, this article likely isn’t for you. However, if you’re new to the area or just unaware of the culinary highs morels can provide and the sheer joy hunting them down brings, well, read on.
How about we start with some insight from www.morels.com, a website from the Missouri Department of Conservation devoted entirely to the one-of-a-kind morel?
The site quotes the author of “Missouri’s Wild Mushrooms,” Maxine Stone, who said a few more warm days should start the morels popping. But, what are morel hunters looking for? “A morel is either black, or yellow, or gray, and it has ridges and pits,” said Stone. “When you cut it down from the top to the bottom, it’s totally hollow inside.”
Stone goes on to recommend those hunting for morels for the first time go with folks who know they’re way around the prized catch. And, not just people who can find them, but hunters who know what a morel looks like. Never, said Stone, should anyone ever eat a wild mushroom without first identifying it.
I’ve personally hunted morels off and on, mostly off, for 20-plus years, but I’m no expert. I know what a morel looks like for sure, but where to find them? Well, let’s just say I’ve come home with way more ticks than morels through the years. But, last year, a banner year for morels on both sides of the state line, even I managed to find a dozen or so on my friend Dale Campbell’s property out in Ray County.
I asked Campbell based on the weather and his decades of morel hunting experience, what he thought “Morelgeddon 2015” held for anxious trampers. Campbell was cautiously optimistic.
“Years ago, we used to see consistent morel seasons from year to year,” he said. “That hasn’t been the case in a while. But with the recent rain, if we get some hot days, we could have another good season. I sure hope so.”
Chad Tillman, another long-time morel advocate who hunts on state land north of Smithville, said he had his best year ever last year, finding pound after pound of the cash crop. It was enough for Tillman to trade Blue Stem and Rye co-owner Colby Garrelts a bunch of morels for a gourmet meal for he and his wife.
Tillman is no novice hunter hoping to stumble upon a morel or two. He’s done his homework, and knows the lay of the land.
“Over the last few years I have devoted most of the month of April to foraging for mushrooms,” he said. “I read lots of articles and asked many questions of people who hunt morels. With all of the information I collected (soil temps, day and night temperatures, humidity, tree identification, precipitation, and more), I set forth to find my own ‘honey hole,’ or morel sweet spot.”
Tillman says he’s walked many miles looking for morels, and almost gave up before he spotted his first one. After that, they seemed more and more readily apparent and abundant. “I began to notice the leaf litter on the ground and the Elm trees that play host to these mushrooms. I was in the mushroom zone,” Tillman said.
There have been good years, and lean years, since, but nothing quite like last year when Tillman says he harvested more than 25 pounds of morels in a little more than a week’s time. He says he loves the hunt, the find and the flavor, but mostly, he likes spending time in the woods with his wife and kids, then sharing the catch at the dinner table.
“We love to host family gatherings, and there’s nothing better than throwing a fish and ‘shroom fry in the spring,” Tillman said.
Tillman says he’s hoping for another good year this year and says it’s shaping up to be another record breaker. I hope he’s right. He’s asked me if I’d like to hunt with him this year. The way I see it is even if I come up short, which I likely will, his expertise might just score a huge morel haul, and me an invitation to one of those “fish and ‘shroom” fries.
Happy hunting everyone.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.