More, More, Morels: Mushroom hunters use their wits in the woods

Stan Hudson pulled into the parking lot of the Ameristar Casino gustily, but he wasn’t in a hurry to find a poker table and a cocktail. The business-tripper from Columbia, Mo., wanted morels. Black, gray, yellow – it didn’t matter. He just hoped they’d be abundant.

“Dead elms can have 200 to 300 mushrooms,” Hudson said. “I found one that had 100 and it was a sight. I can only imagine what 300 or 400 mushrooms must look like.” Hudson inadvertently switched numbers midsentence, but his point was perfectly clear: The more morels, the better.

Covered with curvy, deep-yawning contours, cone-shaped morels grow in April and early May in the darndest of places. Hudson even found a sackful along Highway 70 in St. Charles. Such luck makes a lot of people jealous.

All the rage

After the season started, the daily hits on Hudson’s morel blog jumped from aound 25 to 500. “Just stand in a grocery store line, mention that you found some morels the other day and see how many ears perk up. You’d be surprised,” he said.

Woods in this area offer up all sorts of wild mushrooms – chanterelles, oysters, buttons – though it’s morels that tend to trigger the biggest tizzy.

“A lot of morel hunters think that’s all there is and they call that mushroom hunting,” said Maxine Stone of Webster Groves, former president of the Missouri Mycological Society. She and a couple of dozen other members were camping at Pere Marquette State Park near Grafton, Ill., for a little R&R and, weather permitting, a lot of morels.

On the first day, a cold drizzle kept all but one hunter close to the fire inside the lodge.

Morel eyes

“It’s war to me. I was in ROTC and I learned how to read a topo map,” said Willie May of St. Louis, stretching out a worn accordion file full of maps. None of them bore any X’s marking hot spots. May keeps the location of fruitful hunting areas under wraps. Everybody does.

“I would say most people do just about anything. Even friends and family don’t always share secrets,” said Amy Grebel of St. Louis, who’s hunted morels for about a decade. This year, her family is developing a system for marking the terrain … and that’s all she would say.

Wily morel hunters often throw the competition off the scent by parking several miles away from where they’re headed. Since the camo-clad May more or less had Pere Marquette to himself that rainy day, he just jumped out of the car, fixed his gaze on the ground and started hunting.

“Sometimes I talk to them,” he said, caressing an ash. “You’re a pretty tree. You got anything for me?”

It didn’t. May moved on nimbly, arms held out at a slight angle, fingers spread. After hunting for four consecutive days, he’d taken the two most recent days off – but only because his physical therapist insisted he rest his calf injury.

“A lot of people use a walking stick with a morel on the end,” said May. “If they put it in front of them long enough, they get morel eyes.”

The mother lode

Don’t let experienced hunters fool you: Morels are hard to see in a camouflaging blanket of leaves and underbrush. Pine cones, sycamore balls and false morels, which are reddish and inedible, get in the way as well. “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can just walk in circles,” Grebel said. The good news is that when it rains, it pours.

“When someone finds something, usually there’s screaming to come running – very carefully, of course,” said Grebel.

“Seven. Eight. Nine.” Position fixed, May pointed to a scattered cache of morels he was spotting from up to 12 feet away. Most of them were 3 to 4 inches tall. (“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with those,” someone would later comment back at the lodge.)

“Look straight out from the root,” said May, who often trades surplus morels for hot tub repairs, computer work, wine – whatever. Like many other mushrooms, morels have a symbiotic relationship with the root systems of trees. Ashes, maples and the coveted dying elms are common hosts, though they’re not what you’d call sure bets.

“You just never know where they’re going to come up,” Grebel said. Now that she’s scattered morel stems in her yard, she’s hoping they’ll one day show up on her doorstep.

Forest feast

The thrill of the hunt is surpassed only by the pleasure of the meal.

“A lot of people don’t hunt for profit. They hunt ’em and they eat whatever they find,” said Hudson, who tried cultivated morels about five years ago. Once was enough. As far as he and most others are concerned, wild morels are where it’s at.

“They have a very woodsy, earthy flavor. It doesn’t sound good when you say that, but that really is the best way to describe them,” Grebel said.

Stone makes morels last longer by drying them. “To me, it’s almost like a liqueur,” said Stone of dried morels’ aroma. Whether the morels are fresh or not, Stone’s advice is this: Stick to simple cooking preparations.

Of course, you’ll have to find some first.