Each year as winter turns to spring in Eastern Nebraska, many people trek out into the woodlands and river bottoms to hunt for a delicious, and sometimes elusive, prize.
“If someone asked me what about outdoor Nebraska makes me happy most — that immediately puts a smile on my face — the answer would be morel mushroom hunting,” Jenny Nguyen, editor of NEBRASKAland Magazine, said. “There’s just something about finally emerging into the woods after a long, dreary winter that makes me feel like a kid again — ready to explore, witness the animals and trees wake, and deeply breathe in the smell of moist earth and fresh spring rain.”
Morel mushrooms are pale tan fungi with a distinctive honeycomb cap that bring hunters to wooded areas throughout the area to forage in early spring each year.
Part of the allure of hunting the wild mushrooms is the fact that they only “pop” during a short period each year, usually from April to May in Eastern Nebraska.
According to Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Greg Wagner, he has personally harvested morels as early as March 20 in southeastern Nebraska along the Platte River, but the fungi’s initial arrival often coincides with the opening of Nebraska’s spring archery wild turkey hunting season on March 25.
“Many plants actually follow a similar pattern so one of the more reliable indicators of when to look for morels is to be mindful of when more easily observed plants begin to grow, when buds are opening or when they flower,” he said. “As an example in the wild, along the Missouri River, avid morel mushroom hunters key into jack-in-the-pulpits, May-apples, ferns and phlox. Morel mushrooms are often found amid these plants in the same combination of soil, moisture, slope and sunlight preferred by the mushrooms.”
According to information released by the NGPC, the best time to find morels is when daytime temperatures fall between 60 and 70 degrees while nighttime temperatures hover around 40 degrees. Soil temperature also affects morel mushroom growth, with soil temperatures between 45 and 50 degrees being ideal.
Along with a typically short growing season, another factor that can make morels a difficult find is the specific environments they grow in.
“To scout for early season morels, a seeker of the treasured, scrumptious fungi needs to look over any south-facing slopes of woodlands with loose soils and high humidity where sunlight can penetrate to the ground near decaying organic matter,” Wagner said.
Prime morel habits include dead or fallen trees, including cottonwoods, hackberries, box elders, elms or ashes that are found along river bottoms.
“I find that morels often grow around those dead and dying trees or their stumps where rays of sunlight can penetrate and some green vegetation can be seen,” Wagner said.
Another indicator of possible morel growth, according to Wagner, is finding hardwood trees such as cottonwoods that have reached the stage of decay where the bark is falling off of the trunk.
Although the fact that morels only grow during a short period of time in a relatively small amount of places, the act of collecting the mushrooms themselves is fairly simple.
“You don’t need much to begin mushroom hunting,” Nguyen said.
According to Nguyen, only a few simple items are essential when hunting for morels – a mesh bag and a pocket knife. She also recommends a walking stick, bug spray, sunglasses, sunscreen and a smartphone or GPS unit.
“Water, snacks, and if I’m going to make a long day of it, I pack a light lunch to enjoy in the quiet woods or by a river or stream,” she said.
The mesh bag is important because it allows the mushrooms to “breathe” or stay fresh, as well as will allow collected mushrooms to drop their spores onto the forest floor ensuring propagation of future morels. The pocketknife is important in the actual harvesting process to avoid taking out the entire root system of the morel.
Along with the thrill of the hunt, another reason why morel hunters love the activity is being able to cook and eat the freshly picked fungi.
Morels should always be cooked before eating and the most popular way to prepare them are to soak in water to clean off soil and debris and then to, either batter fry the morels, or to simply sauté with butter and herbs.
Wagner also reminded that anyone going morel hunting on private land must get permission, whether it is posted or not, before doing so. Also hobby picking for morel mushrooms is allowed on NGPC-owned and controlled properties, unless signed otherwise.
For more information on morels, and morel hunting in NebraskarRefer to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Morel Mushroom Report: Outdoornebraska.org/morel.