COLUMBIA — On a chilly Sunday morning, a thin fog hovers above the Missouri River bottoms near Boonville. The sun is barely up, and heavy dew coats the grass.
Stan Hudson suddenly stops his SUV in the middle of a dusty road. “I want to check a tree here,” he says. “It looks promising.”
Species: Black (morchella angusticeps/elata), half-free (morchella semilibera), common (morchella esculenta) and late (morchella deliciosa) morels.
Season: Four to six weeks during April and early May
Conditions: Cool, moist weather
Commonly found: Hardwood forests, under tulip trees, hickory and ash.
Source: Missouri Department of Conservation
He gets out and peers into the forest — no luck. He hops back into his car and drives on.
The exact location of his destination cannot be disclosed. Morel mushroom hunters like Hudson are fiercely secretive about their hunting areas. After all, these delectable fungi only appear from early April to early May.
Unlike many other mushrooms, they don’t appear in the same spots every year. Factor in the sheer number of hunters, and the competition becomes intense.
The otherwise harmless morels are capable of ruining friendships and straining family relationships. Hudson tells a story about a guy who brought his friend along for a hunt. Some time later, the friend returned to the same spot and harvested all the mushrooms.
“No more friends,” Hudson says.
He has collected 500 morels so far. He said he plans to give most of them to two of his buddies who can no longer hunt because of physical ailments. He and his family will eat the rest.
His favorite recipe is a simple one: Coat them with seasoned flour, and fry them in butter. He always cuts them in half to check for slugs inside the hollow bodies. He also dries a batch to use for soup during winter.
Hudson had his first taste of morels in his early teens. Hiking with his father one spring day, they learned about the fungi from some passing hunters. Later the same day, they found their first batch.
He started hunting seriously in college, and now he has become a local expert in mushrooms. He keeps a blog, Mid Missouri Morels and Mushrooms, detailing his experiences and giving suggestions to other hunters.
Today is a pretty good day, Hudson says. He only wishes the rain last Friday had been heavier.
He is relaxed yet engaging, and his eyes light up with passion whenever he talks about morels. Although he feels the biggest rush when he finds the first morels of the season, he still has trouble sleeping before a hunt. “It’s like a kid going to Disneyland,” he says, chuckling.
Dressed in outdoors gear with his sunglasses resting atop his cap, he takes out a wooden walking stick, which has a top carved into the shape of a morel. He then puts plastic bags around on his shoes to keep dry, checks his compass and sets out into the forest.
Fallen leaves and branches crunch under his feet as he makes his way deeper into the woods. Instead of looking at the ground for mushrooms, he keeps his head up, looking for dead trees. Their bases are hotbeds for morel growth.
About 15 minutes have passed before Hudson points to a spot five feet away under a tree. Barely visible in the midst of dried leaves is the first find of the day.
The mushroom has a white stem and tan-colored head that looks like a cross between a sponge and a pine cone. Hudson circles the tree and finds another near the base. He picks them and puts them in a paper bag.
He doesn't seem impressed with the size of the mushrooms. “These would’ve been a lot bigger if we’d gotten more rain,” he says.
For the next hour, Hudson treads at a slow pace. He finds small morels here and there, but he seems to be looking for something else. He turns and enters a different section of the woods. Trees are larger and sparser here.
He pauses as he passes by a familiar trunk. “I picked 50 around here last year,” he says. “Sometimes I get nostalgic.”
A gnarly mess of three or four fallen trees blocks the path ahead, and Hudson’s face lights up as he closes in.
“Holy cow, this is a monster tree!” he exclaims. “This is the biggest cluster I’ve found all year!”
A cluster of 10 morels, each about 2 or 3 inches long, is tucked under a twisted trunk. “Look at these suckers,” Hudson marvels. He pulls out a digital camera and takes a picture for his blog before cutting them with his pocketknife.
A few morel stumps litter the other side of the log. Someone was here before, but they weren’t very thorough; Hudson knows where to look for the hidden ones.
After finding a few little ones, he systematically investigates the territory around the trees.
It’s not easy. He climbs. He crawls. He squeezes between two tangled branches.
Along the way, he finds at least 10 more. The diameter of his circle increases to 20 feet, and he finds the last one. “People don’t realize how extensive these tree roots grow,” he says. The whole process takes about 30 minutes.
“I’m pretty satisfied,” Hudson says, but he doesn’t stop or consider turning back. He seems to know that he will find an even bigger catch soon.
Something red catches his eye. He climbs an old, dead log and plucks the brain-like fungi off a branch. It’s a false morel, and it’s poisonous. They are usually found in shades of red to brown.
It contains a toxin which has no immediate effects, but builds up in the body.
“Twenty years later, it might shut down your kidney,” Hudson says. “Doctors won’t be able to attribute it to mushroom poisoning.”
Forty futile minutes pass. “You go on a lot of wild goose chases like these, but it’s all worth it when you find that one tree…”
Hudson doesn’t have time to finish his sentence before he jumps and immediately calls a friend.
“I’ve found the mother lode!” he shouts into the phone. “They’re the size of beer cans. Oh my God!”
Under a trunk is a cluster of giant morels – each three to six inches long.
He peers over the log, and morels of comparable size are all over the place. Five, 10, 15, 20. Hudson has struck morel gold.
Elated, he reaches into his backpack and brings out his “lucky bag.” Whenever he doesn’t have the bag with him, he has a bad hunting day.
He starts stalking his prize, taking pictures and cutting, finally filling the bag with 32 morels. His face is glowing, and he looks content.
His day, however, is far from over. He heads back to meet a friend who has come from Kansas City to embark on his first hunt.
Depending on the weather, the season could last a few more weeks. There’s still time for Hudson to get another person hooked.