Thrill of the mushroom hunt

Morel hunters share stories, tips (but not their hunting spots)

Though this year’s morel mushroom hunting season is waning, the popularity of the delectable fungi transcends time, according to local mushroom hunters and experts.

“Morels have always been popular as long as I can remember. They sell themselves. After you’ve had them once, you want them again,” said Jim Low, Missouri Department of Conservation spokesman.

According to Low, morels can grow “just about anywhere.” They may be difficult to spot, but their taste lures many hunters despite the challenge.

“Every year, people pick them by the grocery sack full. If you’re able to go out every day and check your morel patches, you’ll cash in,” he said.

Though morels may sprout in unpredictable patterns, Low has observed some consistency in their growth, he said.

“The only thing you can say with some certainty … is morels grow where they used to grow. It’s smart to go back to a place where you’ve found them before. They will grow in the same types of places,” he said.

Morels tend to grow around tree roots or the trunks of trees that have died sometime in the past couple of years, Low said.

Low also recommends searching meticulously and methodically in order to spot patches of mushrooms.

“They can be very hard to see. Once you see a morel, stop in your tracks. Look all around it, and look for others. It’s unusual to find one morel,” he said.

Many Missourians sell their morel mushroom crops, often in online venues, Low said.

“People out there are finding enough to sell them. The going rate is 25 dollars per pound. If you’ve tasted morels, you know they’re worth it,” he said.

The Missouri Department of Conservation does allow individuals to pick morels in conservation areas, but Missouri law prohibits the sale of morel mushrooms found in conservation areas, Low said.

At least five varieties of morel mushrooms grow in Missouri including the white morel and common or yellow morel, Low said.

Low emphasized the enjoyment of hunting morel mushrooms.

“Once you begin to doubt the existence of the Easter bunny, a lot of fun goes out of Easter egg hunting. But morels never get old, and knowing you’re going to have something good to eat at the end makes it doubly exciting. My heart still jumps every time I see one,” he said.

With mushroom hunting as one of his favorite hobbies, Sam Schnieders scours the Missouri River bottoms several times each year in search of mushrooms — and he is often successful.

“There’s 30 different places I hunt. It takes miles and miles of walking. If you want to be successful, you have to do lots of walking,” he said.

Schnieders usually amasses 250 to 600 mushrooms annually, which is equivalent to six to 15 pounds of mushrooms, he said. Depending on the size, anywhere from 12 to 40 mushrooms will equal one pound, he said.

Though currently a Jefferson City resident, Schnieders grew up in Taos, where a neighbor introduced him to the activity, he said.

“It’s a small town. It (mushroom hunting) is one of those things you occupy your time with,” he said.

Though mushroom hunting may seem easy or uncomplicated, Schnieders believes otherwise.

“Mushroom hunting is like a lot of other things. It seems like a simple process, but it’s extraordinarily complex trying to figure out what factors make mushrooms go where. It’s a lot like trying to figure out a puzzle,” he said.

Over the years, Schnieders has honed his skills through both experience and internet research, he said.

In order to gauge the possible locations of mushroom growth, Schnieders envisions each mycelium, the underground plant structure which sprouts mushrooms, he said.

“I remember to visualize all the plants that could or could not sprout mushrooms … how it grows underneath and remembering where they were before,” he said, echoing Low’s recommendation.

Schnieders researches online to find daily soil temperatures, a key factor in the growth of mushrooms, he said.

“The main aspect that drives me is the temperature. I also look when I see the first dandelion (of the year),” he said.

According to Schnieders, the first mushrooms of the year appear when the soil temperature 6 inches beneath the surface reaches 50 degrees.

Though finding mushrooms may prove troublesome, “It’s getting less and less frustrating,” Schnieders said.

“Early on, it was highly frustrating. I can feel with confidence whether I’m going to find them in a spot. It feels like an adrenaline rush,” he said.

For Joshua Hartley, morel mushroom hunting is a family affair.

As a child in California, Mo., Hartley “grew up in a family of mushroom hunters,” he said.

“My parents would take us when we were not much bigger than toddlers.”

Along with his two younger sisters, Hartley would venture into the woods behind his home and collect “bags and bags full,” he said.

While Hartley and his family could locate an abundance of mushrooms without difficulty on their property, “those spots are hard to find,” he said.

Hartley appreciates the mild springtime temperatures, he said.

“I like being outside. The spring weather is perfect,” he said.

Hartley has continued the tradition with his daughter Laynee, 4.

“She does a good job. She really enjoys it. She gets bored pretty quick, but enjoys it at the beginning,” he said.

Similarly to his mother’s methods, Hartley prepares the mushrooms he finds by rolling them in eggs, milk and a batter of crushed saltine crackers before frying them, he said.

Hartley enjoys the process of mushroom hunting and cooking from start to finish, he said.

“It’s fun to find them but it’s also fun to cook what you find and eat what you find and see the whole gamut of it,” he said.

Finding the mushrooms, as well as preparing them for consumption allows Hartley to teach meaningful lessons to his young daughter, he said.

“Especially if you have a child, you get to teach them how to go out and provide for themselves by finding that which God has given us. It’s a way to instill in them that God has given us a way for providing for us,” he said.

As an avid mushroom hunter, Northway shares his success with others.

Combing the edges of the Missouri and Osage rivers in his boat along with friend Ron Schnieders, Northway often gathers 35 to 50 pounds annually of mushrooms, most of which he gives away, he said.

Because his parents owned a weekend cabin along the Osage River, Northway spent time as a child mushroom hunting along the river banks, he said.

Northway’s family eagerly joined in the pursuit, he said.

“We just like hunting for things, I guess,” Northway said.

Throughout the years, Northway has continued hunting mushrooms locally and also northward toward Mark Twain Lake, where the season lasts later into the summer because of the slightly cooler temperatures, he said.

“I enjoy the challenge of the hunt. They have a pattern that they follow. I enjoy the challenge of finding the pattern and figuring out where they’re at,” he said.

Though Northway also enjoys combining the mushrooms with wild asparagus and crappie each spring for what he considers his “ultimate meal,” “It’s fun to give them away,” he said.

“Not everybody can find them. It’s something I’m blessed to be able to do. I feel it’s my responsibility (to give them away),” he said.

Northway and Ron Schnieders hunt for mushrooms each year together and have encountered much success in the last few years.

In a past experience, Northway and Ron Schnieders happened upon an enormous patch of mushrooms in an area where they expected fewer, he said.

“We looked at each other and just kind of grinned and got busy picking,” Northway said.

Following 45 minutes of picking, Northway and Ron Schnieders had gleaned nearly 20 pound of mushrooms, Northway said.

“That was quite the memory,” he said.

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