PARKSTON, S.D. — After parking along a gravel road, go through the barbed-wire fence and head down into a ravine. Weave through the cedar trees and tip-toe along the water’s edge at the river bottom.
Then, look carefully up the hill. That’s where the morels are waiting.
On a recent May afternoon in Hutchinson County, Jeremy Merxbauer — dressed in all camo — was the guide and expert on one of his favorite spring activities: morel mushroom hunting.
“It’s just going out and searching and searching and searching,” he said before picking 10 morels on some Hutchinson County public land. “It’s a lot of work, and that’s probably the biggest reason it’s so hard to find anybody who will give you any information about any places.”
In eastern South Dakota, it’s not easy to find morels — those wild, edible mushrooms that grow in the spring. And it’s even harder to find people on this side of the state who dedicate the hours, like Merxbauer does, to hunting them.
Merxbauer’s main occupation is running J & T’s Garage in Parkston. But morels bring in a nice string of revenue as well, selling for $30 to $45 per pound, with the fluctuation based on the time of the order. About seven morels equal a pound.
But sweeter than the income is the enjoyment 37-year-old Merxbauer reaps from hunting morels. For him, it’s spending time outdoors. It’s taking in the spring scenery. It’s the exercise. It’s finding a mushroom that cannot be farmed or simply grown in a greenhouse. It’s a passion, he explains.
“I just love getting out in the woods anytime,” he said.
It’s a special breed of people who hunt morels. Merxbauer said ticks, mosquitoes and difficulty finding morels are what scare most people from getting into the hobby.
Due to the warmer temperatures, the southern United States see significantly more morels, and the people who hunt them. According to websites that track morel locations and where they’re growing, some of the first mushrooms of the year were spotted in January in southern California. April and May is the ripe time of year for Midwestern states as morels need the ground temperature to be about 52 to 53 degrees to grow.
“Once they start coming up, you’ve got about two, maybe three weeks,” Merxbauer said. “If it gets too hot, they dry out. If it’s too wet, they get soggy and water-logged, so the season is pretty short.”
It’s hard for Merxbauer to estimate hours and miles traveled each year hunting mushrooms. He started taking the hobby a little more serious about five years ago. At first, when he moved to Parkston from Fergus Falls, Minn., the morels he found were shared with family and friends. Then, he sold a few. And more. And more.
He has about 150 pounds of orders to fill this year, and he’ll travel to the Black Hills in South Dakota, and perhaps Nebraska, to gather his crop. With the significant flooding in Nebraska, though, he suspects it may be a tough season there.
Merxbauer said 2018 was one of his biggest hauls. One day he gathered 80 pounds of morels near the Pactola Reservoir in the Black Hills. His customers are from all over, but mainly Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana, and some local restaurants also buy them. He sells them fresh or dehydrated.
“The best way to eat them is to cut them in half, clean them and saute them in a pan with butter,” he said.
As for advice for those people who are interested in diving into morel hunting?
“The best hill is one that faces south so it warms faster,” Merxbauer said. He explained knowing areas that have elm and oak trees is important and to do some research before picking. Because, of course, there are several poisonous mushrooms.
He said there are areas along the James and Missouri rivers with morels, but getting out and walking is the only way to find them.
“You start finding them and you start thinking, ‘Now I know what I’m looking for,’” he said. “Then you find more and you find more. It’s just like any kind of hunting — it’s a big-time addiction.”