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May 5, 2022 Comments Off on From the ground up: Sharp-eyed hunters on safari for morel mushrooms Featured, Hiking, Latest, Nature

From the ground up: Sharp-eyed hunters on safari for morel mushrooms

Flip Putthoff
NWA Democrat-Gazette

Melissa Nichols and Sondra Cocheo don’t walk into the springtime woods unarmed when they’re hunting mushrooms.

Melissa Nichols picks a morel mushroom in April 2021 while hunting in a McDonald County, Mo. hollow. She has a sharp eye for spotting the elusive mushrooms and spotted this one at a distance of 25 feet. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

Both pack a can of insect repellent. Sturdy shoes are a must. Nichols straps on her trusty knee-high snake chaps, camouflage in color, in the event of a rare reptile encounter. A mesh bag for carrying home a mess of morel mushrooms rounds out their kit.

Both women walk the woods from March through May with sharp eyes out for mushrooms that seem to pop like nature’s magic from the forest floor. Nichols, of Pineville, Mo., is a morel specialist. Nary a mushroom escapes her gaze when she’s on maneuvers for the gnome-shaped feasts of the forest.

Cocheo of Bentonville learned the fine art of morel hunting from Nichols. Cocheo sacks up a bounty of morels each spring and also gathers other edible mushrooms.

Both shared their mushroom hunting expertise with an attentive crowd during their evening presentation April 21 at Ozark Beer Co. in downtown Rogers.

They didn’t just talk the talk, they walked the walk. Nichols brought about 4 pounds of morel mushrooms to the program that she’d picked over a two-day span. Cocheo had morels, too, along with other edible kinds of mushrooms. Some are known for their flavor. Others have medicinal value, she said.

Morel mushrooms start appearing from mid to late March, depending on the weather. Warmth and moisture are key, Nichols explained. Morel magic lasts through mid-May, so there’s still time to get out and gather a mess.

There are other edible mushrooms in addition to morels. Sondra Cocheo shows other varieties of edibles she has picked. Some have medicinal value. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

Nichols combs the hollows of McDonald County, Mo. She doesn’t measure her take in numbers of mushrooms. It’s more like pounds, she finds so many.

The dirt and decaying leaves around sycamore trees are Nichols’ go-to spots, but she also finds morel mushrooms under ash, elm, cedar trees and pines. Fallen rotting logs are good places to look. Ideal mushroom hunting time is a warm sunny day immediately after a rain.

“It’s tricky sometimes. Mother Nature is ruling it all. You’ve got to plan around rain,” she said.

Nichols is a native McDonald County, Mo. gal. She’s been on safari for mushrooms since she was a tot tagging along in the woods with her dad. She knows a good number of the families around Pineville, Mo. and Jane, Mo. where she has permission to pick. Gathering a mess of morels is allowed on some public land and prohibited on others. Best to check regulations before plucking any morels.

Melissa Nichols and Sondra Cocheo (right) share mushroom hunting tips during their presentation on April 21 2022 at Ozark Beer Co. in downtown Rogers. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

“Ask people you know if you can hunt on their place,” she said. “I look for places during the winter and start knocking on doors asking if I can hunt there in the spring.”

One tip when hunting hillsides is to walk slowly uphill. “It’s easier to see the mushrooms. If you find them, stay on that elevation,” Nichols coached.

Cocheo was an eager student learning the mushroom hunting art from Nichols. Morel season is short, primarily only the month of April, Cocheo found out. Learning to identify other types of edible mushrooms that pop at other times of the year lengthened her mushroom hunting season. She loves hiking, so combining that with mushroom hunting is ideal for her.

Morels may be the most easily identified mushroom, so Cocheo is quick to emphasize caution when hunting other types. Some are poisonous.

“All mushrooms you can eat at least once,” she said, half joking and half serious. Reading books, researching online and joining mushroom groups is a way to learn edible varieties. “They have such medicinal value and nutrition. It’s really amazing food.”

Melissa Nichols of Pineville, Mo., sets out a display of morel mushrooms she picked. Nichols and Sondra Cocheo of Bentonville shared their mushroom hunting expertise on April 22 2022 during a presentation at Ozark Beer Co. in downtown Rogers. Michael Rideau (right) admires the bounty. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

Her mantra is, “When in doubt, throw it out” if there’s any chance a mushroom could be poisonous. If a hunter is confident it’s an edible variety, always sample a tiny morsel first, she added. 

More outdoor talks

The mushroom presentation was hosted by the area Mappy Hour group. Mappy Hour is a national community of outdoor enthusiasts that sponsors hikes, trips and programs.

The next local Mappy Hour talk will be about river camping at 6 p.m. on May 24 on the second floor at Ozark Beer Co. in downtown Rogers.

Source: Staff report