In Pursuit of Jumpin' Jack Splash
Frogs are mysterious creatures. They inhabit places humming with mosquitoes, yet thousands of Missourians visit such places—in the dark— to pursue them. In spite of their oozy haunts and slimy skin, these amphibians find a place on the menus of five-star restaurants. Can the ounce or two of flesh on their legs really account for frogs’ popularity?
Here is my theory: Frogs are the legendary “Fountain of Youth.” That’s right; Ponce de Leon waded right past the object of his quest without a second look. It took someone more interested in fun than fame to recognize that tramping around in shallow water at night chasing frogs brings out the 6-year-old in us.
Frogging and giggling go together like mud puddles and mud pies. You might even experience the urge to skip instead of walk. If you have never tapped this fountain of youth, read on. Here is everything you need to know to join the Ever-Youthful Fraternity of Froggers.
Prizes, Sizes and Venues
Missouri is home to two delicious members of the hopping tribe that may legally be harvested for the table. By far the most coveted is the bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana). Size is its primary virtue. The bullfrog is North America’s largest native frog. A real monster can measure 8 inches all scrunched up and ready to jump. When it springs into action, you get a fleeting look at the real attraction, 7 to 10 inches of legs.
The other game species is the green frog (Rana clamitans melanota). Its meat tastes the same as the bullfrog’s, but this species tops out at just 4 inches from nose to vent. Although they provide less meat, a possession limit of 32 petite frog legs is enough to justify getting in touch with your inner child.
Almost anyplace with enough water to float a canoe is likely to harbor at least a few frogs. Places that thaw early and freeze late generally have larger frogs, but you can find decent frog populations in farm ponds and huge reservoirs, creeks, drainage ditches and rivers, sloughs, marshes and swamps statewide.
With so many options, how do you choose? Scouting is as simple as visiting potential venues just after dark and listening for the throaty “jug-o-rum, jug-o-rum,” of mature male bullfrogs. The green frog’s call is just as distinctive, consisting of one to four “bonks!” They sound like someone plucking a banjo string that is a little slack. In both species, the deeper the voice, the bigger the frog.
Do you need a boat? That depends. Wading works fine in shallow water, which describes most frogging spots. On the other hand, steep banks or edges overhung with vegetation can be unapproachable without a boat. In general, less boat is better, because stealth is important when trying to get close enough to bag a frog.
Methods and Gear
Frogging is unlike most other legitimate forms of hunting in that using an artificial light is not merely legal, it’s indispensable. Frogs have excellent night vision, and because they are on the menu for lots of predators besides humans, they must be wary and fast on their webbed feet. Consequently, you stand little chance of getting the drop on one unless you shine a light in its eyes.
Brightness and portability are the two most important characteristics for a frogging light. I prefer a hand-held spotlight with a rechargeable battery. Headlamps and ordinary flashlights are better than nothing, but they often are not bright enough to prevent frogs from seeing you. Frogging often requires two hands, so working with a partner is advisable. One of you can handle the light while the other stalks the frog. A third person is handy if you use a boat.
No other game animal permits so wide a range of legal methods of take. You can even take your pick of whether to pursue frogs with a hunting or fishing permit.
A hunting permit allows you to use .22-cal. or smaller rimfire rifle or pistol, pellet gun, bow, crossbow, atlatl, hand net or your bare hands. With a fishing permit, you can take frogs by hand, hand net, atlatl, gig, bow, trotline, throw line, limb line, bank line, jug line, snaring, grabbing (what most people call “snagging”) or pole and line.
Firearms demand least in terms of stealth. Rimfire pistols or rifles can be used safely only if you limit yourself to shooting straight down. Using a pellet gun vastly reduces the risk of errant shots due to ricochet.
I don’t like using firearms, because I always lose some frogs that leap into the water when shot. Using hollow-point bullets helps but does not eliminate this problem altogether.
I have tried most of the legal methods and settled on two as most satisfactory. I like taking frogs by hand because of the skill and patience needed to get within arm’s length of my quarry. Just getting your hands on a frog is no guarantee of success. They are surprisingly adept at squirming free. Encircling their waist tightly with thumb and forefinger provides the surest grip. Jersey gloves make it easier to get a grip on frogs’ slippery bodies.
Grabbing frogs is great fun, but when food on the table is my top priority, I take advantage of frogs’ voracious appetite and their apparent conviction that they can swallow anything less than twice their size. No frog can resist a fishing lure splashed around in front of it. You need a surprisingly stout fishing rod to catch big frogs. An 8-foot catfish rod spooled with 20-pound line is perfect.
In warm weather, I prefer to wear old sneakers or lace-up boots that are on their last legs while frogging. Hip waders keep mud and water out, but you will be soaked with perspiration within minutes anyway.
A bag is a handy way to keep live frogs, but it makes counting them tricky. If you use one of the lethal hunting methods, it makes sense to keep frogs on a fish stringer. Either way, remember that the Wildlife Code requires you to keep your frogs separate from those taken by partners.
Insect repellant is a must for summer frogging. Long sleeves and a head net also help keep mosquitoes at bay.
Other than that, all you need is a sense of adventure and maybe a kid to jumpstart the rejuvenation process.
My Most Memorable Amphibian
Over the years, I have gotten on a first-name basis with a few frogs. One was an enormous bullfrog on the North Fork River. I hunted him throughout one summer and well into autumn.
King Jeremiah, as I called him, held court each night in the middle of a floating castle of coontail 6 feet across. The water around his lair reached my armpits. My arms are considerably less than 3 feet long, so I had to ease into his mossy moat one or two feet to get within grabbing distance. Only once did I manage this feat without disturbing the coontail enough to warn the monarch of my approach.
On that last try in mid-October, I got hold of one of his legs, but he used the other foot to pry himself free and once again slipped beneath the coontail, leaving hardly a ripple.
I plotted my next campaign throughout the winter, but when I returned the following summer, Jeremiah was no longer there. Did he perish during the winter? Did another predator claim him, or did his brush with fate cause him to relocate? That is just one of frogging’s enduring mysteries.
For as long as I have been frogging, I have heard people say I am crazy for venturing into snake-infested waters at night and grabbing frogs with my bare hands without knowing what lurks in the shadows. I figure there are no more snakes at night than during the day, and I am not going to let a few reptiles keep me indoors. In half a century of frogging, I have seen exactly one venomous snake. It was holed up in a root wad, minding its own business. I am inclined to believe this danger exists mostly in other people’s heads.
The Legler Scale
Fisheries biologist Bob Legler, now retired, taught me much about frogging lore, including a unique grading system based on frog size. Bob strove to fill his limit with either “jumbos”—frogs measuring approximately as long as his hand—or “superjumbos”—anything bigger than jumbo. I have developed my own system of size classes based on the names of froggers I have known. I withhold those categories to avoid hard feelings, but I encourage you to devise your own.
Before you can enjoy frog legs, you have to clean them. Start by dispatching live frogs with a sharp blow to the head. Next, use game shears to separate the legs from the torso at the waist. Next, slide a fillet knife between the skin and the flesh of each leg and slice through the skin. Catfish-skinning pliers or a pair of jersey gloves will aid in gripping and removing the slippery skin. Soak the skinned legs in saltwater.
Contrary to what some people say, frog legs don’t taste like chicken. Crappie is closer to the truth. They do move a little when dropped into hot oil, but it takes an overactive imagination to say they kick or hop.
Almost any fish recipe can be used for frog legs. Here are two of my favorites.
Frog legs in garlic sauce
Thoroughly dry six large frog legs. Melt four tablespoons of butter in a skillet on medium heat. Add one rounded teaspoon of chopped garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the frog legs and simmer until lightly browned. Turn and brown the other side. Remove frog legs to a serving plate and place in a warm oven. Add 3/4 cup of chopped green onion to the frying pan and cook until the onions are wilted. Add 1/2 cup of dry white wine and simmer, using a spatula to remove and dissolve the residue from the bottom of the pan. Reduce this stock by half, then pour over the frog legs and serve with thick slices of toasted and buttered sourdough bread.
Remove 1 pound of frog legs from saltwater. Do not dry. Sprinkle liberally with commercial Cajun seasoning. Mix three teaspoons of Cajun seasoning with one cup of flour in a shallow bowl. Dredge frog legs in flour. Heat six tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan. Sauté the frog legs in oil on medium heat for 3 minutes or until golden brown. Turn and brown other side. Add one cup chopped green onions and cook another minute. Add 1 cup canned, diced tomatoes and simmer for two minutes. Add 1/4 cup of dry white wine and cook another two minutes. Add more Cajun seasoning if needed and serve over rice.