I was reminded of one of the finest wild food delicacies the other day while trying to find some keeper bluegills at Hickory Grove Lake. No, it wasn’t bluegill fillets, even though they are pretty darn good, too. It was the distant croaking of a single bullfrog that triggered some fond memories.
I served an internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge during the summer of 1971. I was based out of the refuge office at Savanna, Ill. My boss, Jay, was a young refuge manager only a few years older than myself and we soon became pretty good friends. One afternoon after I’d been there only a couple of weeks, he asked me if I’d like to go fishing in his personal boat. I had hoped to get the chance to fish the Mighty Mississippi. Although we didn’t catch many fish that early summer evening, it was still most memorable. He taught me how to steer around tow boats and avoid the dangerous "rollers." large waves that can extend hundreds of feet behind those powerful craft. Refuge managers were also law enforcement officers, and Jay hated when people threw trash in the river and on the many sandy islands in our district. We chased down some slob fishermen that night by following their floating beer cans like a trail of bread crumbs.
As I said, we didn’t catch many fish, but we kept at it until well after dark. It was nearly midnight when we slowly motored back into the marina north of Savanna. We heard them as soon as Jay shut down the motor – many bullfrogs croaking away down the big slough south of the marina. Bullfrogs weren’t common in central Iowa, so this was a new sound for me. Jay grabbed a little hatchet he kept in the boat and disappeared into the dark on shore for a moment. He returned with a nearly eight foot willow pole. Upon getting back into the boa,t he rummaged around under the front deck and came up with a five pronged fork-like spear head with barbs on each tine. This was rapidly affixed to one end of the willow pole. Jay handed me a paddle, the only one in that fair-sized speed boat, and advised me to quietly head for the nearest croaking frog. I sat on the bow and slowly pulled the boat through the dark toward the sound. He continued to rummage through some assorted stuff under the bow deck and came up with a head-mounted spot light.
Jay took his position right behind me and whispered to stop paddling when we could hear the bullfrog some feet ahead of the boat. The boat continued to silently drift toward the frog. Jay croaked. So did the frog. Then Jay hit him with the spot light; freezing the frog long enough to demonstrate proper frog gigging technique. That huge old bull went right into the cooler with ice and a couple of Pepsis we had left from earlier in the evening. We took turns, then, sneaking up on frogs and had six or seven big ones in the cooler by 1:30 a.m. As any good outdoorsmen would do, we cleaned our game as soon as we got back to Jay’s place. Jay explained that normally only the back legs are kept, but these frogs were so big we cleaned them like squirrels or rabbits. Done with that chore by 2:30, I thought I’d better call it a day and get some rest.
Jay had other plans, though. Out came the frying pan, a coating product called Fry Magic and plenty of butter. Right then and there, I was introduced to one of the best wild game feasts I ever had. We rinsed off those last two Pepsis to go with our butter-fried frogs. I finally went to bed for a few hours sleep before meeting Jay at the usual time in the morning for another day of working the river.
I never got a frog gig, but found they weren’t hard to catch with a long fishing pole with a bright fly on the end of the line. Bullfrogs will attack and eat almost anything that will fit in their mouths. Maybe there are a few more than the single frog I heard. I’ll have to stay out on the water a little later into the evening one of these days and give a listen. There’s nothing quite like a mess of fresh frog legs, even at 3 in the morning!
(Steve Lekwa is retired director of Story County Conservation. He lives in Nevada.)