Wading into the dark water was like stepping back in time.
Many would use “stink” to describe the odor wafting from the surface of the shallow swamp. To me, it was perfume, locked firmly to the shallow sinkholes, sloughs and ponds around the small coal-mining town of my youth in southern Illinois.
The smell revived memories of old friends, carbide lights, mosquitoes, water snakes and the myriad sounds of the nighttime water world. Among the pond noises, the ones we most hoped to hear were the deep, resonant tones of bullfrogs.
Described variously as jug-o-rum or br-wum, these boasting voices meant a skillful, quiet stalk would reveal the reflecting and, hopefully, light-blinded eyes of North America's largest frog. The successful impalement of the amphibian with a small, pronged spear would yield one of the best meals nature offers — frog legs.
From the East Coast to the Midwest and the South, frog gigging occupies a special niche in the outdoors. People who have participated almost always remember “frogging” trips as a unique part of their outdoor journey. The sport combines hunting with fishing and generally takes place in the more tolerable part of hot, sticky summer days — nighttime.
Immersion in dark, dank water is not for the squeamish, but familiarity will soon remove the unpleasantness for an adventurous soul.
During my extended absence from the game, frogging sites have been lost to the demolition of modern agriculture and the restrictions of private land. A trip into the night with a grizzled veteran, a friend from my younger days, yielded a paltry three frogs, and those only because of the kindness of a man who grows them for his kids in a backyard pond. It was humiliating.
A tough solution is to spend hours searching and listening for likely frog habitats, trying to locate public areas or getting permission to explore privately owned waters. A simpler, lazier strategy is to find a friendly person who, on interrogation, reports knowing where “a bunch of frogs” are.
After succeeding in the latter method on a recent evening, I was out and ready to make a re-immersion into the wonderful world of the bullfrog hunt.
I have dumped the old friend in favor of a younger, more agile individual in his 20s. More actively involved in the gigging game, he has volunteered to serve as an informal guide to this rusty 59-year-old. We have located a pond full of bullfrogs at the edge of a vineyard, making me wonder: Would a pinot grigio be the right wine for frog legs? Bullfrog bellowing puts the thought out of my mind.
This is a relatively clean pond bank with new cattails along its perimeter. Maybe it is the wind that is blowing or the clouds overhead, reflecting the nighttime lights from nearby small towns, but the frogs are spooky. Careful stalking that would normally result in a good opportunity is sending frogs skittering across the water with their familiar, high-pitched yelp.
I am reminded of a basic principle of frog gigging. The spear's handle should be as long as possible. Even 4.8m to 6m would not be unreasonable in this case, and I am realizing it would be an advantage over our shorter gigs and their 2.4m shafts.
The frogs settle down, somewhat, and we begin making kills. A few involve wading out to the edge of the cattails and waiting for frogs that have fled to re-emerge nearby. My gigging partner moves with smooth, minimal vibration toward the frogs and strikes with the level, short thrust that pins the amphibian to the bottom, where it can be secured and retrieved with the other hand.