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Anxiously Awaiting The First Morels Of The Season

Tersh Kepler of Omaha, NE is pumped. Really pumped!

You see, Tersh is one of the Midwest’s foremost experts on morel mushroom hunting and he says the conditions are aligning for what could be a spectacular morel mushroom hunting year.

Even though Nebraska’s landscape has been dry and is still technically in a drought, he highlights three reasons for predicting what might be a banner year for morels. “First, we’re two years after a major flood on river bottoms when morels historically take off. That’s because there is a large abundance of dead trees which the morels feed off of. Second, we’ve received near record amounts of precipitation from the winter season; morels need lots of moisture. And third, ground temperatures are warming rather quickly while the days are getting longer with light. Warm sub-soil temps are critical for morels to emerge.”

Kepler continues: “This year is looking a lot like 1975 when it was crazy year for weather and hunting morels in the spring, ” he said. “I just hope we don’t have the tornadic weather like we had  back then.”

He knows that timely spring rains and warm sunshine will definitely be needed for spring morels to rise this year like any other year.

Kepler will be closely monitoring not only the weather but his yard for the appearance of dandelions. Why? Because, that will be his sign, his trigger that morel mushrooms have most likely popped up in his river bottom woods.

Many folks in Nebraska will soon be antsy to head to their morel mushroom picking spots along river and creek woodlands. But, when will the morels emerge?

With the morel mushroom, folklore seems to collide and almost mix with science.

Kepler says the sprouting of dandelions in his Omaha yard will be one of the primary indicators, however,  he knows there is more to it.

Whether vigilant for dandelion flowers, tree buds, blooming lilacs or flowering woodland phlox, morel mushrooms are truly at the whims of nature. Their arrival is determined by weather, soil temperature, moisture, the amount of organic matter in a given wooded location and a few secrets the natural world keeps to itself.

Woodland phlox in early May in wooded Missouri River bluffs in rural Douglas County, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

“We have received adequate moisture so far, we just need ground temperatures to warm up for early morels,” stresses Kepler, who has been hunting morel mushrooms, wild asparagus and other wild edibles for decades, more than 50 years actually. He is on the public speaking circuit and even has his own website dedicated to morel mushroom hunting and foraging supplies: www.morelmushroomsupply.com

Kepler adds that ground temperatures, at least in eastern Nebraska, need to be from 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit (F) about 5-8 inches below the surface for morels to spring, and Kepler closely monitors the temps on Internet sites and with subsoil thermometers in different locations. He also watches what is happening with the harvest of morels in the states to the south of Nebraska.”I especially watch what takes place with the emergence of morels in Missouri,” he adds. “That will indicate me that our morel picking season in southeast Nebraska is right around the corner.”

Morels grown under controlled/managed conditions for commercial purposes fruit when the soil reaches a consistent temperature of approximately 53 degrees F. Regarding air temperatures for the morels to push through the soil, ideally they should be in the 60s and 70s in the daytime and no lower than 45 to 50 degrees F at night.

A morel mushroom in mature, old growth Elkhorn River bottom woodlands in rural Sarpy County, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Kepler is cautious about predicting the arrival of morel mushrooms in river woods. That stated, he thinks morels could show up even before April Fool’s Day. I, personally, have found small morel mushrooms during the opening week of Nebraska’s spring archery wild turkey hunting season in my woodland habitat in southeast Nebraska.

Your blogger with a morel picked in early April during Nebraska’s spring archery wild turkey hunting season. Photo by T. Andre Shousha of Waterloo, NE.

Kepler says the first morels of the season are typically the “early grays” and some “little yellows” that pop up in river bottom woodlands. “Those grays blend in well and can have very tiny caps about the size of the tip of your little finger.” The best advice he offers to early season morel mushroom hunters after the small grays and the little yellows is to slow way down on your foraging expedition. “Treat it like a still-hunt,” he further notes.

Small early season morel mushrooms, some grays, some yellows, collected along Missouri River bottom woods in rural Douglas County, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Kepler also advises to specifically search for morels using a star-like pattern to thoroughly comb an area for the prized culinary delicacies which have a rich, succulent, nutty, meaty, earthy flavor to them. A zigzag, crisscross pattern works to not miss any of the scrumptious fungi as well.

When it comes to exactly where to find morels in mature, old growth woodland habitat, the renowned foraging expert says to look for freshly dead hardwood trees – those hardwoods that have been dead for one, two or maybe three years.  He prefers to hunt for morels around dead and decaying cottonwood, elm, ash and apple trees with the some bark still on them,  starting to peel or all just off.

Look for morel mushrooms in spring around the base of a cottonwood tree like this one where the bark has fallen off (center of the photo) in the mature Elkhorn River bottom woodlands of rural Sarpy County, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

“Read the trees,” recommends Kepler, who is also known as the tree whisperer. “Follow the limb systems from the trunk to their ends. Look up, look down. Really examine the leaf litter on the forest floor, especially where a more open forest canopy allows rays of sunlight to enter and warm the moist, loose soil. If you find one morel mushroom, there are going to be more, so keep looking. I have picked over 300 of them in one location.”

Renowned morel mushroom hunter and forager, Tersh Kepler of Omaha, NE, displays a mesh bag full or harvested Nebraska morel mushrooms from a secret, wooded river bottom spot located somewhere east of North Platte, NE and south of South Sioux City, NE (HA!). Photo by Mary Frances Kepler of Omaha, NE.

In addition, Kepler elects to look for morels in areas that have been recently burned or where the soil has been disturbed.

Initially, morels come out in woods along rivers like the Platte, Elkhorn and Missouri. As the morels 4 to 6 week season progresses, mushroom hunters need to eventually work their way up to moister, hilly forested areas above those rivers. The morel growing season usually runs from mid April into late May but rarely much longer. Foragers this year might see a longer season with timely rains and adequate warmth but hopefully no flooding.

If wetter than normal springs and rising temperatures are a long-term trend, climate change could lead to an increased harvest of the morel mushroom as the fungi thrives in moist, warm soil.

Individually, once forth, a morel mushroom will continue to grow for up to 7 days. After that period, the morels get mushy and then dry out. The good thing though is that not all of the morels in an area come up at the same time.

A morel mushroom discovered along Platte River bottom woodlands in rural Sarpy County, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Anyone planning to morel mushroom hunt is reminded that he or she must get permission before venturing onto private property, whether it is posted or not. Trespassing runs the risk of having mushrooms confiscated and receiving an expensive trespass citation. Theft charges may also be filed. Hobby picking (non-commercial picking) for morel mushrooms is allowed on Nebraska Game and Parks Commission owned and controlled lands, unless signed or indicated otherwise. A current, valid state park permit is required on motor vehicles entering state park lands.

Among the necessary pieces of equipment for hunting and harvesting morel mushrooms are a good footwear (pair of hiking boots or shoes with adequate ankle support and comfort), mesh bag or well-vented collection basket or bucket (these allow morels to breath, keeping them fresh and letting some of the sand and bugs fall out while perhaps spreading spores), plus pocket knife (for gently cutting stems), walking stick (to carefully move leaves and debris out of the way to reveal morels), bottle of water (for personal hydration), insect repellent (for ticks, mosquitoes and gnats),  and an iPhone or Android (for photos and to also mark spots).

Mushroom hunters should be careful to not intentionally disrupt wildlife or cause damage to their homes (nests, dens, etc.), and make certain to pack out all trash and recyclables.

With reference to safety when foraging for morels, folks ought to always go with a partner, wear clothing colors that are conspicuous, apply insect/tick repellent, steer clear of spring wild turkey hunters and their camouflaged blinds, avoid stinging nettles, poison ivy, etc., and positively identify the quarry (according to Kepler, don’t pick and eat any mushrooms red in color. “If they are red, you are dead,” underlines Kepler.)

When it comes to accurate mushroom identification, Kepler likes the old saying: “There are old mushroom hunters, and bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.”

As a reminder, morels have a round to cone-shaped cap that is honeycombed with pits and ridges that resemble a sponge. Morels have a short stalk and are hollow through the cap and stem and host a warm brown to tan or yellowish color. When gathering, it is important to try to pinch the morel at the base and gently twist to break the stem or carry a small knife to cut the stem.

Morel mushroom hunter, T. Andre Shousha of Waterloo, NE shows off a couple springtime morels he picked from Elkhorn River bottom woodlands near freshly dead cottonwood trees in rural Sarpy County, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Did you know that other tasty wild edibles grow in spots near or amid the woods where morel mushrooms are found? Wild asparagus and Dryad’s saddle are among those and should not be overlooked, points out Kepler.

The edible Dryad’s saddle discovered in Platte River woodlands in rural Sarpy County, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Wild asparagus growing along the edge of a Missouri River tributary in rural Douglas County, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Morel mushroom hunting is a wonderful way to begin the foraging lifestyle and enjoy wild surroundings in the springtime. Kepler quips: “It’s a fun treasure or Easter egg-type hunt with exceptionally delicious rewards.” Kepler emphasizes that kids should be included on any morel hunt for the challenge and to learn about nature. “Also, being closer to the ground, once kids get a feel for finding morels, they are likely to detect more than the taller adults,” he emphasizes. He and his wife, Mary Frances, take their grandchildren out “morelling.”

A youngster, Noah Wagner of Omaha, NE, is pictured picking a morel mushroom he found along the west bank of the Elkhorn River in rural Sarpy County, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

I know that you don’t need to have an excuse to be outdoors in Nebraska during the springtime, but it’s sure easier to justify when a skillet full of golden fried mushrooms are on the stove destined for your dinner plate!

Happy hunting (and eating)!

At the Wagner abode, morel mushrooms (cleaned with cold water, cut in half and briefly soaked in salt water) are being fried with a little Canola oil and butter for about five minutes per side in a skillet on the stove. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Public Information Officer and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media channels, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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