A frosty morning in autumn is ideal for hunting the elusive white-tail deer. It’s bad news in April for hunters who go on springtime safari for morel mushrooms.
Nichols combs a hollow on Wednesday April 15 2020 near Pineville, Mo. during a hunt for morel mushrooms. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
One spell of cold weather after another has created challenging conditions this month for mushroom sleuths like Melissa Nichols of Jane, Mo. She’s bagged up plenty of morels on her woodland treks that take place almost daily not far from her cabin on Little Sugar Creek. Still, she’s used to picking more.
Nichols normally measures here take of mushrooms by the pound, not by counting individual morels. She typically exits the forest with dozens of morel mushrooms of all sizes in her mesh shoulder bag.
The hunter’s expertise at finding them has been honed over a lifetime of looking for morel mushrooms. She’s got an eagle’s eye for seeing morels. The delicacies blend in so well with the forest floor they can be hard to spot. Even mushrooms hidden deep in leaf litter can’t hide from her searching eyes.
“My dad started taking me into the woods with him when I was a baby,” she said.
Nowadays Nichols takes friends, family and their children into the woods to share the joy.
“It’s one of my favorite things to do in the whole wide world. I’m out in the springtime woods, out in nature. I’m out here doing mushroom aerobics. I go home tired,” she said during a mushroom hunt on Wednesday.
Find sycamore trees and you may find morel mushrooms. Nichols hunts Wednesday April 15 2020 around a massive sycamore tree near Little Sugar Creek in McDonald County, Mo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Nichols is a fourth generation McDonald County gal and knows everybody up and down Little Sugar Creek. Friends and neighbors let her hunt mushrooms on their property. She’s got her pet patches that are dependable spring after spring — most years.
A couple of her hot mushroom spots haven’t yielded a single morel this spring. Nichols’ favorite areas to search are hillsides and hollows where sycamore trees grow. Spots where elm trees grow often produce the highest number of morel mushrooms, she said, especially where dead elms are lying on the ground.
“This has been a weird mushroom year. I think the problem we’ve had is we’ve been getting cold moisture, but we need warm moisture,” Nichols said.
April is prime mushroom hunting time in the Ozarks. A morel mushroom is seen in sunshine on Wednesday April 15 2020 before it went into Nichols’ collecting bag. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Warm rain followed by sunshine gets morel mushrooms popping, she coached. With warmer weather, morel mushrooms should pop to earth across the region. This home stretch of April could bring the best morel hunting. Sleuths might sack them up by the pound, as Nichols routinely does.
When she finds a morel, Nichols pinches it off at the ground, gives it a shake and pops it in her mesh shoulder bag. Shaking the morel releases tiny spores, like seeds, that help grow more mushrooms, she said.
Her mesh bag lets spores fall to the ground as she steps slowly, carefully through the forest looking for her prize.
To the untrained eyeballs watching Nichols hunt on Wednesday, her search yielded a nice mess of morels. But the search wasn’t up to Nichols’ standards. Traveling to another patch, she crossed paths with Steve Campbell, who also hunts morels near Jane.
Campbell’s best spot has been a piece of his property that he burned last fall. The morels are popping there like crazy, he said. Otherwise, he added, morel mushrooms don’t seem as thick this spring.
A lifetime of searching has honed Melissa Nichols’ mushroom hunting skills to an expert level. Here she plucks a morel mushroom on Wednesday April 15 2020 from a wooded hollow near Pineville, Mo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Mornings and afternoons are equally good for mushroom hunting, he said.
“I just go when I can, and that’s usually in the afternoon.”
A feast of fried mushrooms is a tasty treat after a successful foray into the Ozark woods. A computer search and cookbooks offer up tested recipes and advice for cooking morels.
Most start with mixing an egg or two in a bowl with a little milk. Dip mushrooms in the egg bath, then roll then in cornmeal, flour, crushed crackers, bread crumbs, whatever a cook prefers. Fry them in oil or butter for 6 to 8 minutes.
Most recipes stress cooking morel mushrooms thoroughly. They have a toxin that disappears when morels are cooked through. Undercooked morels can cause an upset stomach. Never eat raw morel mushrooms.
These are just a handful of the many morel mushrooms Melissa Nichols found Wednesday April 15 2020 in the springtime woods. Nichols looks mainly in hollows and hillsides where sycamore and elm trees grow. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Mushroom hunting “is like a big Easter egg hunt,” Campbell said, “but you’ve got to watch out for snakes more than the kids do.”
Good hunting, safe eating
Morel mushrooms are a springtime treat. Follow these safety tips to enjoy them safely.
• Be sure the mushrooms you are picking are morels. Their distinctive appearance makes them easy to identify. If in doubt, show your mushrooms to an experienced hunter to be sure.
• Cook morel mushrooms thoroughly, at least 6 to 8 minutes. Morels have a toxin that cooks out of the mushroom when cooked long enough.
• Spray insect repellent on pants legs to fend off ticks or practice other tick prevention measures.