Posted by: trevormeers | May 24, 2010

Bully, frog!

To this day, a shockingly high percentage of my life skills comes from library books. Old books, at that. Books of only marginal application to my actual life (unless I suddenly find myself in a Lakota council, where my etiquette would be impeccable).

Take British polar explorers, who heavily influenced me as a kid via books no one else checked out of the library. Despite looking dashing in seal-skin parkas, these men believed that if a chap seemed to be trying too hard at something, it siphoned off some of the achievement’s glory. Thus, we find intrepid Brits tackling 1,000 miles of polar ice with the same forethought you might apply to, say, an afternoon croquet match. It’s why they took ponies to Antarctica, only to learn that animals suited to Cornish mines weren’t such a bully choice for crossing snowpack in sub-zero climates.

Naturally, I found this off-the-cuff approach to the world’s worst climates irresistible as a boy. And although the explorer’s light-hearted dashes now look as dated as the jolly old empire itself, their spirit hasn’t abandoned me.  This explains why a spring night not long ago found our family hunched over a ditch full of muddy water, working by the yellow light of a failing mini Maglite as we swirled the muck with a goldfish net duct-taped to an old broom handle. Frog hunt, you say? What sport! No sense in going to a lot of fuss. Off we go now!

Around us, a hundred more vigorous flashlight beams sliced up the humid night. Tonight was Catchin’ Croakers, a program put on by the Polk County Conservation Board. The board (slogan: “Leading You Outdoors”) offers an excellent slate of outdoor activities for families who generally spend their spare time waiting for the 7:00 showing of Hannah Montana. Snowshoeing, snake petting, seed collecting. It’s all there for the willing. In true British spirit, we showed up at Catchin’ Croakers on a whim, expecting to find a couple of other crunchy families ready to muck about for bullfrog tadpoles and leopard frogs. But by sunset, the Chichaqua Bottoms Longhouse looked like a Saturday morning soccer league. Kids, video cameras and elaborate purpose-built frog-catching devices filled the Quonset hut for the opening lecture. Allison sat with her rain boots on either side of a 5-gallon bucket still splattered with drywall compound, and she cradled the aquarium net we borrowed from the neighbors after supper. I felt like I’d sent her with a knife to a gun fight. Not the Chicago way, but clearly more sporting than those soccer nets on sticks the suburban kids brought.

Allison wasn’t daunted by her jury-rigged gear. She sniffed the tiny net and said, “It smells like frog. Maybe that’ll make the other frogs come to it.”

Out in the dark, we squeezed into a spot along the watery ditch and went to work with the other families. I tried not to bend too far over, since Katie was perched in her usual Yoda Position in a top-heavy backpack I wear anytime we go afield. Enormous green bullfrog tadpoles squirted in all directions in the murky water. Allison stood on the water’s edge in her rubber boots, valiantly swapping at infant frogs. But the 16 square inches of water she strained with each stroke were no match for the 100 inches the other kids were sweeping like salmon fisherman in the Gulf of Alaska. Happy families shrieked around us with each catch. The humid air drew sweat from my forehead as we moved farther down the ditch to shallower, less crowded waters.

“There’s one!” Allison shouted, and I spun the dying Maglite to point at a spotted green head jutting from the water. “Leopard frog!” we all shouted, full of new field-savvy from the opening slide show in the longhouse. Allison slowly slid the aquarium net behind the unsuspecting croaker, then swept him up with a quick snap of the wrist. “The bucket! The bucket!” everyone started yelling. I reached behind me for the bucket as Allison raised the net to meet it. Net and bucket crossed paths over the hot asphalt of the park road, and as Allison rolled the net to dump the frog, he made a desperate leap and landed on the road with a slimy thud. “Get him!” we yelled.

The frog bolted out of the flashlight’s beam into the night. I sprang after him, launching into a bouncing sprint down the road, forgetting the kid on my back. Katie, suddenly launched into a ride something like being strapped atop a stampeding camel in a dark night, broke into horrified crying. Allison madly slapped at the frog with the net, a half second behind each time he leapt ahead like a green rubber band on a jail break. I jostled along with the bucket splashing ditch water onto my leg. Teri was abandoned to her fate with the families working the ditches in the darkness behind us.

The frog ultimately proved too fast and elusive for our hunting party. When we slowly rolled out of the gravel parking lot a half hour later, we all smelled like we’d been wrestling salamanders in a bayou, and the shouts of delighted frog hunters mocked us through our open windows.

Unwilling to admit defeat, we returned the next evening. This time, all the suburban families were gone, and Allison carried a heavy-duty net Teri found in a back corner of Sportsman’s Warehouse. In about 20 minutes, we’d filled our bucket with 10 bullfrog tadpoles and a leopard frog. We hauled them home and christened our own frog refuge in the neighbor’s koi pond.

For several nights, we sat in the kitchen enjoying the trilling of our leopard frog from over the neighbor’s fence. It was a long time before I told Allison that a couple of weeks later, I had an ugly encounter with a spotted frog while mowing over by that fence. It was an unfortunate end to a fine quarry, but no sense dwelling on that, now is there, old chap? It would hardly be sporting.



  1. If I had a quarter for every time I came to! Superb read.

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