A late-night adventure in Louisiana gives the phrase a whole new meaning
photo: Cedric Angeles
Since Jody Meche’s wife is working late and since Jody and I will be out frogging until midnight or so, we need to get enough calories into Bryce, the couple’s fourteen-year-old, to hold him until his mama gets home. Thus it is that my introduction to the art of frogging takes place in the drive-through line of the McDonald’s in Henderson, Louisiana, about twenty-five miles east of Lafayette.
Like many froggers in the Atchafalaya Basin, Jody is not a fan of gigs and mechanical grabbers. He prefers to catch his frogs bare- handed. For one thing, gigs and mechanical grabbers aren’t the most reliable things. They also kill the frog, and while a dead frog must be iced immediately, a grabbed frog can be kept alive for several days. As we inch forward toward a Number Four Value Meal, Jody explains that you locate frogs by shining them, since their eyes reflect light. We’ll each wear a hard hat rigged up with a powerful sealed-beam lamp. Once Jody spots a frog, he’ll point it out to me and drive the boat over, putting the frog on my strong side (right), if possible. At which point I, kneeling in the front, will reach down and grab the frog. Jody’s not sure whether the frog is stunned by the bright light or simply has too much faith in its natural camouflage. Either way, he says, you can generally get pretty close to a frog before it dives for cover.
Of course, there’s more to it. You need a frogging attitude, a mind-set, if you expect to come home with enough frogs to feed your friends, which is our goal this night.
“Now, Bill,” Jody tells me, “you got to remember something when you go to grab that frog tonight.” He greets the lady inside the squawk box and places Bryce’s order. “You’re not petting that frog,” he says. “You’re not slapping that frog. You got to…” He presses his lips together, searching for something that will illustrate his point. His eye comes to rest on an empty coffee cup in the truck’s holder. “You got to grab that frog.” As he speaks, a large right fist shoots out, seizing and crushing the Styrofoam cup so quickly and completely that it basically explodes inside the cab. The noise alone is extraordinary. Even Jody seems somewhat abashed at the violence he has wrought.
“Well, okay then,” I say as evenly as possible, picking shards of the cup from my lap.
Frog season in Louisiana runs year-round, with the exception of April and May, when it closes to allow the amphibians to breed undisturbed. While it’s possible to catch frogs all year, Jody says late winter and early fall are best. Late winter is good because the lilies haven’t greened up yet and it’s easy to spot the frogs. Late summer and early fall are good because the water in the Atchafalaya Basin falls, concentrating the frogs. Ideally, you want days that are warm but not too warm, followed by nights that are cool but not too cool. “Frogs feed on the crawfish under the lilies right after dusk,” Jody explains. “When they’re full, they float to the surface and kind of lie there.” Today we had a daytime high in the mid-eighties, which should drop to the mid-sixties after dark. Jody reckons we should have excellent frogging. A friend of his caught more than two hundred the other night and sold them for two dollars apiece.
We get Bryce’s order and head home to drop him off. I ask if there are alligators where we’ll be frogging. “Oh, yeah,” Jody says. “Lotta gators. Most of ’em are small, six feet or less, but there are a few big ones around. They’ll be out, hunting frogs same as us. Frog eyes are kind of white or sometimes have a little green tinge to ’em. Gators have red eyes. You don’t want to grab anything that has red eyes.” Right, I think. No grabbing red eyes.
When I asked Jody how much of his family’s meat is wild game, he initially said “about half.” Upon reflection, he bumped the number to 70 percent. Jody has two small freezers. In them we found the following: fourteen frogs, four squirrels, more than a dozen ducks, some rabbits, some leftover wild turkey, as well as five pounds or more each of smoked deer sausage, regular deer sausage, and ground deer meat. There was also some shrimp that he’d caught. His wife, Tracy, likes to have shrimp year-round. Jody sounded almost apologetic at having so little on hand, explaining that the family prefers to “eat fresh.” During crawfish season, for example, they eat the crustaceans about twice a week, but he almost never freezes any. They tend to eat frogs fresh as well. The fourteen he has frozen are on hand as gifts. “Everybody loves frogs,” Jody says.
At a boat ramp fifteen miles east of Henderson along I-10, Jody backs his nineteen-foot aluminum skiff off the trailer, jumps in, runs the boat up on the bank, walks the four-inch gunwale forward, and parks the pickup. Trucks rumble and hum along the interstate thirty feet above our heads. Although the temperature is pleasant, the twenty-five-minute run to Upper Billy Little Lake will be cold, so I put on a slicker. Jody hooks up his sealed beam to a twelve-volt car battery at his feet, and suddenly the night is banished. The headlamp sends out a beam of light you could hang clothes on. “Jesus, Jody!” I blurt. “You look like the Statue of Liberty. What exactly is that thing?”
“Just a regular sealed beam,” he says. “Comes with a GE 4405.”
“What’s a 4405?” I ask.
“A kind of bulb. It’s pretty good. But I put in a TC 7512.”
“The navigation light they use on airplanes.” Of course.
He guns the engine and we’re off, flying along down a canal as straight as a rifle barrel with the divided lanes of I-10 above. Jody’s light darts everywhere as he tries to pick out the eyes of deer in the woods and turtles, frogs, and gators along the shore.
A few minutes later, we turn off into a smaller canal, then into an even smaller waterway, called a “road” but really more like a tunnel through the overgrown swamp that Jody and a few others keep open with chainsaws. Jody slaloms between broad-trunked cypress trees with Spanish moss hanging as if placed by set designers. Night herons crouch on logs and helicopter skyward just as we get close enough to touch them. I’m having a hard time processing this. A moment ago, the swamp was pure chaos. Suddenly it’s vivid and picturesque, a Discovery Channel highlight reel.
Jody suddenly shifts into neutral and the boat settles into the water. I put on my helmet, clip the ends of the wire to the battery at my feet, and soon my forehead projects its own godlike light. Meanwhile, Jody is already calling out frogs. “Little one over there, two more over there. Little gator by that log.” I register one of the frogs but have trouble seeing the others. And then, I make out the glowing red embers of the gator. “They’re not afraid of the light, are they?” I say. “Not most of ’em,” he says. “Nice frog by that brush there.” Clearly, Jody is not bothered by gators.
“Ooh, good frog! See him?” He shines a bush sticking up among lilies. I catch a momentary flicker, then it’s gone. “Gonna put him on your right side, Bill. Get ready now.” I still can’t see the frog. “He’s right in the middle of my light,” Jody says. Maybe so, but it’s a huge light. “He’s right there!” Jody says. “Right next to the boat!” At last I see the frog, motionless in the pads, all of eighteen inches away. The damn frog is the size of a rotisserie chicken. I don’t even know that my hand will fit around him. I stab down at him and the frog executes a single, almost sluggish kick. I catch a glimpse of its legs fully extended as it dives. They are ridiculously long.
“Aw, Bill, you got to be more aggressive,” Jody says sadly. “You’re not trying to be his buddy. That’s your frog, know what I’m saying? He can’t hurt you. And they’re tough, you don’t have to worry about squeezing him too hard.” Okay, I tell him. I know I blew that one. I’m nodding my head now, psyching myself up. You can’t half-ass this frog grabbing. You have to commit. The truth is that I’m more afraid of disappointing Jody than anything else.
“Here comes another one,” Jody says. “Good frog. See him? I’m gonna put this one on your left side, Bill.”
“I don’t see him,” I say.
“Right there. Right in the middle of my light. Look in the middle of my light!” A note of frustration has entered Jody’s voice.
“I’m looking, I just don’t…”
“Right in the middle of my light!” Jody says. And then I do see it. This frog’s not quite as gargantuan as the last one, and I resolve to nail this beast or die trying. I lean until I’m halfway out of the boat to get a good angle, arm raised and ready as I gauge our speed. When we’re a foot away, I pounce. I grab the frog across its back and pluck it from the water. It’s so big that my grasping hand has slid down, kind of across the frog’s waist. It’s a handful. I’ve got part of the body and one leg, and the rubbery creature is kicking hard in an effort to escape. I clutch the frog to my belly with both hands.
“There you go, partner!” Jody calls. “Now you froggin’!” I stagger aft and transfer the frog to Jody. He slips it into a crawfish trap, a rectangular envelope of rubber-coated wire mesh, and folds the top over to prevent the frog’s escape. I look down at the frog, sitting motionless save for the faint thrumming of its throat. A pang—guilt, remorse, or both—suddenly courses through me. I don’t really want to kill this thing. “He looks so…cute,” I blurt out. “I feel bad about killing him.”
“He’ll look even cuter fried up on my plate, partner!” Jody shoots back.
My grabbing average picks up and I start to get some confidence. A couple of our targets dive before we get close. Jody calls such frogs “wild.” Then I grab one that feels dead or at least deathly ill. It’s limp when I grab it and remains limp in my hand. “This guy’s hurting,” I start to say. But at this moment the frog, evidently sensing the lessening of hand pressure, makes a break for it, jumping out of my hand and onto the deck, where it immediately starts jumping hard. I practically fall on the thing, pinning it with both hands. I hear Jody’s deep laugh as I struggle. “That’s one of Mr. Frog’s best tricks!” he says. “He’ll play dead until whatever’s got him drops its guard.”
We cruise on, the slough opening into a lake. By now, I’ve got the proper predatory mind-set and am catching nearly every frog I try for. “You’re doing real good, Bill,” Jody tells me. “You’ve got an interesting motion. I sort of smash-grab, you know. I’ll push that frog down another six inches when I grab him, but you sorta pluck him out like an eagle.” It’s shameful how gratified I am at these words of praise. I am a grown, widely traveled man. I have caught a 150-pound tarpon, killed a bull elk with a bow and arrow, and survived an audit by the IRS. But at this particular moment, I would rather be counted a good frog grabber than anything I can think of.
Fry ’em Up
The next morning I drive back to Jody’s house to butcher the frogs for a gathering scheduled that night at another crawfisherman’s house. Jody has kept a wet tarp over the cage, where the frogs are now sitting atop each other. As he picks up the trap to carry it to a cutting board placed on his boat trailer, some of the frogs let out a sound like a cat mewing, only louder and more plaintive. It spooks the heck out of me. Jody is set up for work. He’s wearing the bibs of his rain suit and has a knife, a sharpening steel, and a pair of pliers designed to remove the skin from catfish at the ready, as well as a hose, a bucket for frog guts, and another
filled with water for the finished frogs.
For my benefit, he narrates as he works. “You gotta get rough with him first,” he says, plucking a frog from the trap. “You grab his front legs, pull back, and kind of push his head flat.” Then there is a brief, last muffled grunt or exhalation by the frog and a crunching sound as Jody saws the head off with a single forward-and-back stroke. The head rolls a couple of inches and settles such that it is now looking back at its own body. “Then you cut the legs at that last joint,” Jody says, “just up from the foot.” He starts with the right front foot and turns the frog counterclockwise as he cuts the others. “You spin that frog,” he says, hands deft and precise. With the legs removed, he inserts two fingers between the loose skin and the frog’s back and uses the catfish pliers to strip the skin off with a single, practiced motion. He does the same thing on the front side, then pulls out the diaphragm and innards with his hand. “Your last move is to split the pelvic bone, same as you would
a deer. It takes a little strength,” he says, pressing until the faint crack can be heard. “And there’s your frog.”
I watch for a while and finally say that I’ve got to do some. I steel myself, resolving not to think a conscious thought until I’ve decapitated my first frog. Once I’m past that, I find—I almost don’t want to admit to this—that killing frogs I’m going to eat becomes increasingly easy. After I’ve done my third, it hardly bothers me. For one thing, the process of butchering requires a lot of focus. It takes me four or five times as long to do one as Jody, and now I see just how skilled he is. It’s hard for Jody to watch, and even as I work I can sense him struggling to let me continue. He doesn’t relax until I turn the knife over to him again. Then he’s content, cutting and spinning each frog on its way to dinner. “You got to be efficient,” Jody explains. “You want your tools right at hand. You don’t rush, but every motion has to count, you know what I’m saying?”
We have the meal at the house of Mike Bienvenu, another crawfisherman. Mike has cooked up some of the frogs in a rich sauce piquant that we eat over rice, savoring the light, sweet meat and the sauce and picking out tiny bones. There are also fried frog legs, which have the same flavor but also a kind of riverine bass note, wild and clean. I am weighing the merits of each when I hear laughter out back. Jody is telling the group how tentative I was at first but that I got into it as the night went on. “He was leaning so far out the boat I thought he was going in. But he wanted that frog. He was grabbing ’em pretty good. And after about an hour and a half, I asked if he was ready to go, and he says, ‘Yeah, my ass is wet.’” Jody laughs his big laugh and everybody else laughs, too. I suppose people who make their living in the swamp take having a wet ass for granted. I’m fully aware that I’m an outsider at this party and always will be. At the moment, however, hav- ing acquitted myself well as a novice frogger, enjoying a dry butt and soaking up the last bits of frog and sauce piquant in the rice on my plate, I’m feeling pretty comfortable.
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