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Keith Sutton: Frog Men

6/21/2010
Keith "Catfish" Sutton

So you have a hankering for a mess of fresh fried frog legs, huh? And considering the high price of frog legs in the grocery, you figure you'll go out at night, prowl the swamps and bayous, and capture some bullfrogs yourself.

Well, if you don't mind the feel of frog slime and swamp ooze between your digits, if the drone of a million skeeters fighting over the tender cuts of your body doesn't drive you bonkers, if you don't mind wandering around when the only other creatures operating are bats and cottonmouths, then maybe, just maybe, a witching hour safari for bullfrogs could be your ticket to happiness. Then again, you ought to read this before you decide.

Setting the Scene

From a bayou's bank, a male bullfrog's basso-profundo call echoes out. Brrr-rum. Brrr-rum. Brr-rum. The amphibian's throat swells like a yellow balloon.

Near the far shore, a man squats in the bow of a johnboat. Pinpointing the sound, he shines a spotlight along the stream. When the light reflects two glowing, eyes, he motions to his partner who begins quietly rowing. The frog sits motionless, mesmerized by the light. When boat draws near, the front man lunges forward and seizes the bullfrog with his bare hands before it can leap away. The long-legged amphibian is admired in the light and added to a growing assemblage of his kinfolks in a wet tow-sack.

This scenario plays out thousands of times each summer. Frog hunting isn't hugely popular, but it has special appeal to a hard-boiled corps of frog men (and some women) who sneer at darkness and discomfort for a chance at one of nature's greatest delicacies—;fresh frog legs.

This ain't no sport for sissies. Venomous cottonmouths and man-eating alligators lurk in the darkness, it's hotter than Hades outside, and when the night is over, there won't be an inch of your skeeter-drilled hide that's not drenched in mud, blood and sweat. Like a friend of mine says: "Only idiots go frog hunting. Real dumb idiots."

Fine Eating, Great Fun
The creature the frogging fraternity finds so appealing is the bullfrog. This largest of North American frogs reaches a foot in length and may weigh more than a pound. Its mild-flavored hind legs are gourmet eating, and when you lay into a mess of delicious frog legs, the heat, mosquitoes, mud and snakes really don't seem like much to endure.

On one of our many frogging excursions, my friend Lewis Peeler ran the outboard while I spotlighted the shore. Soon we saw the first frog's glowing eyes. Lew swung us shoreward, idled the motor and positioned me in front of the bullfrog. I thought I heard the big croaker chuckle as the boat ground to a halt 10 feet away.

"We should've brought a gig," I said. "My arms aren't long enough to reach him." Score: frogs 1, frog men 0.

Froggers use several methods to harvest bullfrogs. Some wade; others use a boat. Many froggers use long-handled, multi-pronged gigs to spear their catch. A few are skilled enough to hook frogs with a fishing fly or snippet of colored cloth dangled in front of the amphibian on a line. Some use bowfishing rigs to arrow the prey. Purists insist the only way to take bullfrogs is with bare hands; it's more fun that way.

Lew and I are purists, and we've learned the approach is critical when hand-catching frogs. If the boat scrapes brush or a paddle groans against the gunwale, it alerts the frog, which will escape regardless of the light in its eyes. A sudden, head-on strike is recommended.

The amphibian's body provides the best grip, but often as not, the frog jumps at the last second, and the frogger seizes the hopper by one slippery leg. A moment's hesitation gives the frog the split second needed to escape. The frogger who falters, fails.

We found our second frog at eye level on an embankment. "This one's mine," I said, prematurely.

I held the light on the frog, and Lew moved us within grabbing distance. When the hopper and I were eyeball to eyeball, I made the snatch … and missed. The frog jumped over the boat and hit the water with a splash.

Lew stifled a laugh. "I guess I'll have to show you how to catch 'em," he said. We have an unwritten rule that when one frog man misses, the other gets to grab.

We traded places and headed downstream where two booming males called from opposite banks. The boat scraped bottom 30 feet from one huge frog sitting on an open flat. "You hold the light on him and keep the motor idling," Lewis said. "I'll slip behind and catch him."

"That frog'll be long gone before you ever get close," I said.

Lew likes a challenge, however, and quickly approached the frog's blind side. Moving stealthily, he hovered over the frog with hands outstretched. Suddenly, he pounced.

The frog never had a chance. Lew came up grinning with the frog dangling from his hand. "Driver, find me another one," he said.

The next bullfrog made some unexpected moves. There was barely room to squeeze through the trees to his stream-bank seat. Before Lewis could grab him, a branch scraped the aluminum boat, and the frog jumped—not into the water, but up the bank. Lew caught the frog with a flying tackle.

"That one almost got the best of you," I said.

"Yeah, but it was fun;" he laughed. "And you've got to admit, that was a great catch. Let's go find another one."

We took 16 more bullfrogs that night. It was 1:00 a.m. when we finished dressing our catch. Lew put 36 jumbo frog legs in the refrigerator to soak overnight.

The next morning the aroma of breakfast cooking filled the air. Lew's wife Sherry had prepared a meal fit for a king—succulent frog legs fried golden-brown, cat's-head biscuits with milk gravy and scrambled eggs.

A meal like that makes every frogging trip worthwhile.