Morel hunting: Finding gold in a flood zone

Two handfuls of morel mushrooms found during a hunt along the Missouri River in Burt County near Decatur, Neb., on April 9, 2012.

 

The Missouri River flood of 2011 has washed away many favorite morel mushroom hunting honey holes. As a result, hunters have been forced to quickly find alternate land to hunt early this season.

I, too, was scrambling. I usually take two weeks of vacation in late April and early May to hunt the delicacies. First I had to persuade my boss to let me change my vacation dates. Then I had to figure out where to go. Ninety percent of the morels I’ve found in the past 10 years has been at wildlife management areas from Missouri to South Dakota along the Missouri River.

 

Morgan Sailors of Bellevue hunts for morels in the Loess Hills in Mills County, Iowa, on April 1, 2012.

 

On my first trip, I headed to the river in Harrison County in western Iowa with Morgan Sailors as my guide. Sailors has decades of experience. We found that the landscape had changed dramatically. The banks were scrubbed clear of trees and the surrounding woods were shades of gray and brown. Not a morel was found.

 

A western ornate box turtle discovered on a morel hunt in the Loess Hills in Mills County, Iowa, on April 1, 2012.

 

We gave up on Missouri River hunts and headed to western Douglas County to hunt along the Platte River. In five hours of walking I found four morels. Sailors, of Bellevue, must have conjured the spirits of the generations of morel hunters in his family history and came out of the woods with a nice collection. As long as I’ve known Sailors, he has always been able to find morels where others have failed. He dives into brush that few will hunt. He walks for miles to get to areas of public land that only the most obsessed hunters will go.

But I wasn’t satisfied with four morels. I wanted to find the mother lode. We decided to abandon the river valleys and hunt the hills.

 

A single morel found in the Loess Hills in Mills County, Iowa, on April 1, 2012.

 

Sailors and I again teamed up to tackle an area of the Loess Hills in Mills County. Neither one of us is built for climbing the steep hills, but shortly after beginning our hunt we started finding morels. The well-camouflaged fungi were popping around ash trees in small patches. I finally found enough morels to make a decent meal of egg-and-milk-dipped, saltine-breaded morels fried in butter. Heaven.

 

Morgan Sailors looks out over the Missouri River and the flood-ravaged landscape at a wildlife management area in western Harrison County, Iowa, on March 25, 2012.

 

After trying a few more places over the next few days, with little luck, I started to think it was time to investigate one of my favorite spots on the Missouri River in Burt County, Neb. I talked one of the Midwest’s best morel hunters, Bill “Root Ball Willy” Hartwig of Fremont, to take me to the area for a hike. We expected nothing more than a view of the destructive force of the flood.

As we drove north on Interstate 29 toward Burt County, the high-water mark was apparent on trees and buildings. We figured we were wasting a tank of gas. The further north we drove, the worse it looked.

When we arrived, we were in shock. The devastation was everywhere. Thousands of trees down. Debris everywhere. Depression.

 

Bill Hartwig of Fremont searches for morels in an area of fallen cottonwoods during a hunt along the Missouri River in Burt County near Decatur, Neb., on April 9, 2012.

 

Hartwig pulled the truck next to a giant cottonwood. I climbed up for a birds-eye view and saw six morels in an area we would have to work to get to. Hartwig instantly dived into the tangle of giant limbs. I worried. Not only was there the danger of falling, but there was no way of knowing how much pressure it would take to bring the tons of wood down on us. Each breeze brought a chorus of chirps from the limbs rubbing against each other.

On further inspection we realized we were in a patch. We slowly and carefully climbed over and under fallen trees, reaching into holes and inspecting the large mounds of earth around the exposed root structures. These mounds are known as root balls, and I was with the perfect person for the task ahead. We labored to collect 10 pounds of earth-tone morels over the next five hours. We were tired but happy and laughed all the way back to Omaha.

 

Bill Hartwig displays some of the morels he found during a hunt along the Missouri River on April 9, 2012.


The good news: Morels are popping and rain is in the forecast.

The bad news: I’m not going to tell you where we found our morels. Discovering your own honey hole is half the fun, and I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone willing to brave the ticks and widow makers of their fun.

 

Two morels found on a hunt in Mills County, Iowa, on April 4, 2012.

 

Finally, do not eat any mushrooms that you can’t positively identify. If you don’t know how to find morels, ask an experienced friend to help. Do not eat uncooked wild mushrooms. A great source for information about wild mushroom hunting is available at mushroomexpert.com. The site is hosted by Dr. Michael Kuo, the author of “Morels” and “100 Edible Mushrooms.”

Mark Davis

About Mark Davis

I have been with the Omaha World-Herald since 1999, spending the past few years behind still and video cameras.
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Comments

  1. kari says:

    My question is, is how do you know whether or not you are on someone’s property? We want to go, have no idea where to go ( not from here) and don’t want to get into any trouble!

    1. Mark Davis Mark Davis says:

      There are many wildlife management areas in Iowa and Nebraska. Look up WMAs on the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Iowa DNR sites for locations. I’d be at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge tomorrow morning if you want to be there for opening day!

  2. Christy Glissman says:

    Nice story and pictures Mark, hoping Bill finds some today and shares with me. Missed seeing you this season.

    1. Mark Davis Mark Davis says:

      Miss you too Christy — It is nuts out there with the wind and mud, but we found about 10 gallons today.

  3. Vvian and Ken Hartwig says:

    Wonderful, funny story! Thanks so much, Bill stopped this evening with some mushrooms for Christy, us and two of my cousins. Boy, do they think he is the Greatest!! Your picture on the back page of the World Herald was good, too. Thanks again Vivian

    1. Kathy Hartwig-Snyder says:

      Nice story and enjoyed the pictures. My brother “root ball Willy” won’t even share is “honey spot” with me. Hopefully he will share some of this mushrooms.

  4. Jolene McHugh Jolene McHugh says:

    Great blog!

    1. Mark Davis Mark Davis says:

      Thank you Jo!

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