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Pickin’ and grinnin’ — learn the secrets of local morel mushroom hunters

“It’s the one time of year that we look forward to,” said mushroom hunter Nathan Steele.

MERCER COUNTY, Illinois — It's a magical, fleeting moment every spring -- when mushroom hunters set out into forests and creek beds in search of the mysterious morel mushroom.

"It's the one time of year that we look forward to," said mushroom hunter Nathan Steele.

Steele and his friends invited News Eight to an undisclosed location in rural Mercer County to join their annual hunt for morels. The exact locations of the best morel patches are tightly guarded secrets, not only because morels are said to be delicious, but valuable, too.

"I've heard 72 dollars, I've heard up to 100 dollars a pound in some places," said Steele.

But Steele and his friends say they don't do it for the money, but for the thrill of finding the elusive mushrooms.

"A big smile on your face, your eyes are like OH!" said Matt Hess, an autobody technician by trade and avid mushroom hunter in his leisure time. "You get all excited, and you're like, oh there's one!" he said.

Hess and Steele have been mushroom hunting together for the last several years. They said when you start getting good at it, you don't just stare at the forest floor, you start looking up into the treetops for dead trees. Morels are known to grow around dead elm trees in particular, along creek beds and valleys.

But sometimes, there doesn't appear to be any rhyme or reason to where they pop up from year to year.

"I mean that's what makes it fun," said Steele. "You never know where you're going to find your next one," he said.

Steele and two of his friends picked between 45 and 50 morels in just under an hour one afternoon in mid-May, weighing in at three pounds. The warming weather means this year's hunt is nearly over, so it could be one of the season's last.

"Picking and grinning," said Hess. "That's what we call it," he said with a smile.

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