PINEVILLE, Mo. -- Melissa Nichols of Jane, Mo., may be the best mentor in the art of mushroom hunting. Nichols will find a morel mushroom anywhere in her peripheral vision, almost guaranteed. She's developed an eagle eye for spotting the springtime edible delicacy over a lifetime of mushroom hunting.
When Nichols was a baby, her dad would take her with him, wandering the quiet hollows of McDonald County on safari for mushrooms.
"It's a skill," Nichols said while hunting mushrooms last week. "It's something that takes practice. But not everybody is as crazy about this as I am."
The mushroom sleuth routinely bags up 20 to 30 pounds of morel mushrooms in a typical spring, sharing them with family and friends. She's also eager to share her hunting knowledge with new hunters so they, too, can feel her morel-fueled joy.
Shoot, she might even take you along.
Nichols steered her pickup into a gravel driveway, hopped out and greeted her neighbor, Lois Payne, on the clear, spring afternoon. "Miss Lois," Nichols calls her, had never hunted morel mushrooms before and wanted to learn. Nichols and Payne disappeared about 10 minutes later into a woodsy hollow at Payne's place east of Pineville, Mo.
The steep valley was crazy with sycamore trees, a clue for Nichols that this ravine could be a morel gold mine.
"Where you find sycamores, you can usually find morels," Nichols coached. "And there are some huge sycamores here. What you want to do is look along the ground under all these sycamores."
Nichols also searches beneath ash and elm trees, but the turf around sycamores yields most of her bounty. Sycamore trees are easy to identify. They show a lot of white on their trunk and branches.
Mushroom lore preaches that places where May apples grow are good for a look.
"May apples mean that it's a good time to start looking, but hunting around May apples isn't the best place," Nichols said.
"Another thing, you want to carry your mushrooms in a mesh bag. That way the morel's spores fall through the bag to the ground to grow more mushrooms," she added. She carries a mesh shoulder bag into the woods to hold her treasure trove.
And always, she emphasized, get permission before hunting on private land. There's no license required for this kind of hunt, and no bag limit either.
Mushroom season is slow getting started this spring, Nichols told Payne. Cool weather means morels are popping up late. The good news is morel season may last longer, into the first days of May.
Payne's enchanted forest didn't yield a single mushroom. It will later in April, Nichols reassured. After her lesson with Nichols, Payne will know how to hunt once morels pop on her property.
Not one to go home empty-handed, Nichols trucked down the road a ways to a pet mushroom patch on her own place. She spotted her first morel, picked it at the base with her thumb and forefinger and dropped the mushroom into her bag only a minute after stepping into the woods.
Morel mushrooms are easy to identify, with a thick, creamy-colored stem and pointed, wrinkled head that looks like a jolly gnome. The first morels might appear in late March. April is prime time, and the season winds down by May.
Nichols was on her game, spotting another morel mushroom 25 feet away in some leaf litter. Seeing the thumb-sized prize that far away is testimony to her experience.
Not everyone has that kind of talent, said Ryan Neal with the Benton County Extension office. He's also a big fan of morel mushrooms.
"People find one close, then it's like, 'oh there's another, and another one over there,'" Neal said. "My phone rings a lot from people asking questions about morels," he added, "and I look for them all the time."
Think of mushroom hunting and the cinema of the mind conjures images of a deep woods prowl, far from civilization. Yet morel mushrooms may spring up anywhere. A buddy of Neal's who lives in downtown Rogers once found 86 morel mushrooms in his back yard.
"One time, I was riding my bike and ran right over one," Neal recalled.
Neal also recommends searching the ground beneath sycamore trees. Soil tends to be moist around sycamores, he added.
Areas in which prescribed burns have taken place are hot spots to sack up a mess of morels, Neal said. Some hunters testify that it's good to look around any fallen decaying timber.
The key is to find that first one, he said. Practice makes perfect in any pastime, especially on a quest for morel mushrooms.
Fry up a mess
Melissa Nichols fries her mushrooms in hot oil or sautes them in butter. Slice each mushroom in half lengthwise and soak in cold saltwater for a few minutes. Drain, pat dry and roll them in bread crumbs. Be sure mushrooms are cooked thoroughly.
Source: Staff report