Earl Fletcher walked through the timber at N.P. Dodge Park with a big smile on his face. The sun was shining and the morels were popping — what's not to like?
The annual morel mushroom harvest, delayed more than two weeks due to below-average temperatures this spring, is reaching its peak in the Omaha area. Fletcher and thousands of other morel hunters hit the wild areas near Omaha to forage for the wild mushroom, considered a delicacy.
The harvest “is above average for me,” Fletcher, 82, said at the end of a three-hour hike through the woods.
Fletcher has been hunting morels for more than 40 years.
The road near the marina at the park has been lined with cars since Tuesday, when the morels began emerging en masse, according to a park maintenance employee.
Chuck Beebe of Mineola, Iowa, left N.P. Dodge Park with 159 medium-size morels Thursday.
“It's the most I've ever found,” he said.
Beebe plans to share what he doesn't eat with friends and preserve some for special meals later in the year. Morels can be preserved by drying, or they can be frozen after cooking.
Morel hunters at Two Rivers State Recreation Area also found a large crop of morels along the Platte River. Harvests of small- to medium-size morels were reported by Bill Hartwig of Fremont. Hunters at DeSoto national Wildlife Refuge also reported good harvest conditions.
Only a few small harvests of morels were reported in the Loess Hills. Morels generally pop in river valleys before they start coming up in the hills.
“I bet they'll be popping in the hills by next Tuesday or Wednesday,” said Greg Wagner, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission public information officer.
The morel harvest on the banks of the Missouri, Platte and Elkhorn rivers typically peaks in late April or early May. Last year, temperatures soared into the 90s in late March, popping the morels earlier than normal. The 2011 season was marked by floods along the Missouri River, wiping out much of the habitat.
N.P. Dodge Park was closed for the 2012 season due to the flood. Water lines on the trees are still visible as high as seven feet.
Morel mushrooms can be identified by their brain- or sponge-like appearance, a cap that is attached to a white stem, and they are hollow from cap to the base of the stem. Eating the wrong wild mushroom can be deadly, so proper identification of wild mushrooms is essential.
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