Outdoors

It's time to start planning that mushroom hunt

Outdoors: Here's some tips on what to look for and where

Matt Rissi (left), his son Zach and sister Rocki Rissi Shepard pose with a 55-pound haul, their biggest mushrooming day
Matt Rissi (left), his son Zach and sister Rocki Rissi Shepard pose with a 55-pound haul, their biggest mushrooming day ever. (Rissi Shepard family photo)
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Shrooming is a family tradition that runs deep in our veins.

We grew up in Collinsville, Ill. We mostly hunted mushrooms in the fall, looking for korenes (goatsbeard) or buttons.

The button mushrooms are a bit harder to distinguish between edible and inedible, but over the years you just learn how to tell the goods ones from the bad. Those that don’t, don’t live to tell you about it.

Because of this, most people hunt just the goatsbeard since they are easily distinguishable in their look, size and color. Fall mushrooms are found in hardwood timbers with a great deal of oak trees. There are many fall mushrooms to be found in Cedar Rapids parks, primarily Bever Park.

We have picked mushrooms there almost every year. Fall mushrooms don’t require a great deal of cooperation from Mother Nature. You’ll find them in wet or dry seasons. The season starts in late September and goes until mid to late October. Fall mushrooms also are very reliable. Once you find them on a particular tree or in a specific area, you’ll find them there every year for many, many years until the tree completely dies and disintegrates.

Morel hunting in the spring, however, is a whole different ballgame.

Morels are very finicky. They need just the right amount of heat and rain. Too much or too little can ruin a season.

It’s like football. You dream all winter about what a great season you’ll have only to be extremely disappointed because Mother Nature didn’t cooperate. You immediately start thinking about next season, hoping for a Super Bowl year.

Morel hunters are very secretive. They don’t tell you their spots and they lie about finding them until after the season is well underway because they don’t want others out looking for them. Some hunters won’t share any tips on how to find them because again, they don’t want the competition.

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Our family has hunted morels for generations, but didn’t get serious about it until the mid 1980s. Our dad was a very strict man but he always made mushroom hunting a fun family affair. He would pack coolers of food (for seven kids) and drive out to some random timber and just let us loose to look for mushrooms. He even let us play hooky one day each year to look for mushrooms.

This sacred tradition continues today with our kids and grandkids. It’s a bit of glue that keeps our family together.

The lure of the morel is how elusive they are. They don’t appear on the same trees or in the same areas as fall mushrooms do. You have more elements to contend with. Spring brings ticks and they have gotten vicious over the past few years. Spring also brings a great deal of thorn bushes and wet conditions that can be uncomfortable if you’re out hunting all day.

Morel season starts in mid April in the south, moves into Iowa late April and lasts into mid May. It then moves to Minnesota and lasts until early June. The mayapple is a very good indicator on when the season is getting underway. When they bloom, mushrooms are sure to follow.

The start and end of the season depends greatly on the amount of rain and heat we get during spring. The warmer the temperatures, the sooner the season will start. If it gets too hot too quick, the season is usually pretty poor. Once you get a few consecutive days of temperatures in the high 70s to low 80s, mushrooms seem to stop growing, ending the season quickly. Rain is another factor that weighs greatly on whether you have a good season. Too much rain, nothing. Too little rain, very little.

This spring, so far, looks to be good on rain but our temperatures need to rise very soon or our season will be poor. Hopefully next week will bring warmer temps to Iowa.

The first crop of morel mushrooms are usually “greys.” The are dark in color, don’t usually get too big (but maybe that’s because we are eager to pick them) and they are extremely hard to see. You can be in a big mess of them and not notice a single one. They are very well camouflaged, frustrating many hunters.

The greys are the tastiest of the morels. Rich in flavor and excellent for just sautéing in butter. Greys will emerge on south facing slopes first. Don’t even bother looking at north slopes early in the season, it’s a complete waste of time.

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The next crop will bring the thick walled yellows and larger lighter greys. They are much easier to see and are great to eat, either sautéed or pan fried. This is where the pounds start to accumulate. These mushrooms are meaty and big.

The last part of the season produces the “big yellers.” The are tall and a much brighter yellow color. The walls are thin and they deteriorate quickly. We usually use these for making cream of morel soup. They pan fry decently, too, though they are not good for sautéing.

The season ends on north facing slopes. You might find a season ending batch that will make you smile.

There are three ways to hunt or look for morels. You can search river bottoms, softwood timber or “ditch” hunt.

River bottom hunting is exactly what it sounds like. You walk the river bottoms looking for mushrooms. It’s very unpredictable, but incredibly bountiful if the conditions are right. You need a wet spring, but not too wet or the rivers will flood and the season will be over before it even gets started.

Timber hunting is fun, but requires a great deal of walking, access to timber and knowledge of trees. Our experience has shown morels to be next to or around dying elm tress or live sycamore trees. Other people swear by ash trees, apple orchards and the like, but we have never found those trees to be productive. Timber hunting is fun because it is serene and truly brings you one with nature.

Ditch hunting is an entirely different way to hunt mushrooms. We call this the Busch Light of hunting because you will find hundreds of cans of empty Busch Light while ditch hunting. We were introduced to ditch hunting by a friend in the mid ’90s. It’s a hoot, but requires a lot of driving, jumping out of a vehicle, running to a tree on a fence line, looking around quick and getting back in your car to go onto the next tree.

Morel hunting is a passion and, though it’s a competitive sport, you truly are happy for those who find a big bounty.

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It’s not a solo sport. A walk in the woods, a drive with a buddy or a walk along a river. You always hunt with friends. It is to be enjoyed by those who hunt them and even more enjoyed by those who eat them.

So, COVID-19, here we come. I can’t think of a better place to be than in nature.

Rocki Rissi Shepard is president and CEO and Matt Rissi Chairman of the Board at New Leader Manufacturing.

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