Hunting the Giant Bullfrog

I am wading through chin-deep grass toward the pond. At the far reaches of my lamp, two pair of low, narrow-set eyes watch me for a moment, then slink into the woods. Gray foxes? I have seen them in that corner of the farm before, and these eyes did not move like the litany of others I might encounter—possums, raccoons, armadillos, coyotes. From a few feet in the trees, they turn once more in my direction then disappear.

As I near the edge of the pond, the once distant chorus drawing me is now beginning to surround me. It is almost June and the late winter songs of peepers, chorus frogs and American toads have been supplanted by the clacks cricket frogs, short, the rich trills of gray tree frogs, green frogs sounding like guitars swallowing their fattest strings, and the deep, squelching bassoons we call bullfrogs. It is the latter I hunt, not with gig or net, but with audio recorder and lens.

The sweet spot for bullfrogs is a quarter of the way around the pond to my right, but I will take the long way, giving eyes, step, and stealth time to adjust to the night. A shiny forehead greats me at the marge, and I am hopeful. Many of these walks net not a single sighting. A bullfroglet, still sporting the scars of tail and gills, sits motionless in an inch of water. Any more than that would cover him completely. I pull out the camera and manage two clicks before he flees the intrusion.

Froglet.jpg

A giant bullfrog bellows behind me as I begin a slow circumnavigation. I will be patient.

Occasional splashes precede me as I am discovered more easily than I would like. By the lengths of jumps and volume of splashes, I guess these to be small to medium bullfrogs, or green frogs. I slow my pace.

Halfway around the shore, I see my prey. He is not the giant, but is larger than my fist, and I freeze. These big ones are big because they are alert and wary. In slow motion, I remove my lens cap, tilt back my hat, and lift the camera to my eye. I forgot to change the batteries in my flashlight before leaving the house, and It is too dim for auto focus, so I reach forward and set the lens to manual. It is awkward holding camera and flashlight on target, while also focusing, but I manage. The shiny green frog emerges in the viewfinder, I press the shutter halfway, and he leaps forward. I watch him under water for a few feet until he fades into the depths.

Several times I stop along the route for loud green frogs or cricket frogs, but come up empty. At times, I can hear as many as a dozen voices within three feet of me in the grass or the rushes, but never see a single frog until I almost step on a green frog who gives me a start as he explodes from underfoot.

I am nearing the sweet spot. The booming voice of what must be the biggest bullfrog in the pond is just beyond a small wooden pier. I approach as slowly as I am able, but as soon as I came into the open at the foot of the pier, he stops. I sit on the pier for ten minutes recording, and never hear him again. This is what I have come to expect.

When I get back to the house, I find that I didn’t close the door behind me, and I left a light on in the living room, so the house is filled with insects. A large green lacewing greets me just inside the door. I consider capturing his portrait, I think about moving him outside, but I am eager to write, so I leave him alone. Perhaps if he is still there when I am ready for bed, I will usher him to the garden. He would be a good counter to the aphids on my tomatoes. If not, I’m sure plenty of prey made it in the house with him. I will allow him to do his work here.

As I sit down to write, cricket frogs are clacking away through the open window. Cutting through them like a semi truck on a go-cart track, the giant bullfrog by the pier declares his presence once more. He knows I am gone. He knows he is safe. And I suspect he knows I will be back looking for him soon.

Queen Walter of the Little Pond

There is one largemouth bass in my pond. By bass standards she is not particularly large, but by small pond standards, I would call her a lunker. I say she is the only one because in three years of observing and fishing my little pond, she is the only one I have seen. The pond is populated mostly by red-eared sunfish and frogs. These more abundant residents, no doubt, fall prey to the patrolling behemoth who I suspect eats just about anything she wants.

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Spring Peeper at Pond Edge

I had just moved to the little farm on the mountain when I first encountered her. While casting a small spinner to see who lived in the neighborhood, I saw her lying along the south bank in the shade, ignoring the sparkly lure that easily fooled one shell cracker after another. I switched to some larger baits, tried topwater and jigs. When I tossed a rubber worm in front of her, she ran so fast you’d think I had thrown a stick of dynamite in the water. That was when I named her after the giant trout of legend in the movie On Golden Pond. “Henceforth you will known as Queen Walter of the Pond,” I told her. “The one who will not be caught.”

Over the seasons, I have pulled countless sunfish and a handful of crappie from the pond, but mostly I stalk the edges for frogs. Beginning in February, there is a succession of them—chorus frogs, peepers, cricket frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs… Year round, bullfrog tadpoles dart from my shadow as I make my way along the bank. I always feel little guilty for flushing them from the safety of the shallows to the deeper water where Walter lurks.

Young Bullfrog
Young Bullfrog

When the water is low I find crawfish holes, each surrounded by telltale mounds of excavated mud, and imagine Walter eating them, too. Occasionally, I hear a kingfisher chattering in the direction of the pond, but he never sticks around. Slightly more frequently, a great blue heron can be found wading in the shallow end and, somewhat regularly, a pair of Canada geese spend their morning foraging the shallows.

But it is Walter who, for me, defines the pond. An apex predator with no full-time rival, her movements and feeding schedule surely dictating the habits of all other inhabitants of the little pond.

In some ways, she is like the giant buck who lives in the woods where I hunt. Last year, on the final day of the season, he and I entered into a standoff lasting nearly twenty minutes. From twenty-five yards, we stared each other down, each waiting for the other to make a move. In the end, he made a swift turn and disappeared back down the path, his ten point rack fading into the forest. Since that encounter, I cannot visit those woods without thinking about the big buck, and although I was hunting deer when I met him, I am glad he escaped my rifle. Knowing he is still out there makes sitting in those woods more exciting. Had I killed him, that ultimate potential of the woods would be lost. Without him, I might still hope to see a big buck, but there would be no reason to expect one. Similarly, Walter provides that highest possibility when I fish the pond. Every time I cast a lure into the deep end, I know there is a chance of hooking Walter. But there is a fundamental difference between the buck in the woods and the fish in the pond.

This season, as winter rains refilled the pond, I took my spinning rod out to see what sunfish survived the drought. Usually, a sixteenth ounce spinner practically guarantees red-ears. I slipped through the broom sedge on the east side of the pond, found a break in the blackberry, and flipped a cast to the middle of the deep end. On my third cast, the spinner had no sooner hit the water than it was hammered. I set the hook and my ultralight rod doubled. Walter dove deep, then shot to the surface. In the air, she twisted and contorted, giving her all to shedding the offense embedded in her jaw. She ran, she jumped, she dove, but ultimately, she tired and I lifted her from her watery home.

In the sunlight, Walter is a beautiful fish covered in rich green spots with a shiny, silvery-white, fat belly. Concentrated food in a drought-shrunken pond had clearly treated Walter well over the past several months! I removed the tiny hook, and admired her for a moment, then gently slipped her back home where she quickly turned and disappeared.

The ability to handle and release is the difference between bass and buck. There is no returning a buck once he is caught. Had I shot the buck, his woods would be forever changed (until another matures to take his place). His presence would no longer determine the status of every other buck in his woods, his DNA would no more influence the traits of so many fawns who begin life in the woods each spring. Of course, being the only bass in the small pond, Walter will have no opportunity to pass on her genes, but her presence will will continue to be felt by all who swim her waters.

One evening last week I spent an hour casting for red-ears while waiting for the frogs to begin their seasonal daily ritual. Over that hour I caught no fish, leaving me concerned that Walter might have taken a large toll on the sunfish during the drought. How else can I account for catching not a single shell cracker on a warm evening with a shiny spinner?

Following my hour of fishing, I went about the more important work of stalking and photographing spring peepers. I photographed a half dozen males, their vocal sacs full of air, calling for mates. At times, I was surrounded by so many peeping peepers and chorusing choruses that traffic on the nearby road was drowned out. I have read that largemouth bass can decimate frog populations in a pond, but clearly Walter has not had that effect. I wonder, though, if last summer was the year for her to thin out the red-ears, might next year be the time she thins out the frogs? Another difference between bass and buck is that I don’t have to worry about a buck eating my amphibians.

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Peeping for a Mate

Since long before this tract of land was domesticated, the ephemeral creek that forms its east border, and the marsh it flows into, have supported frogs and plenty who might prey on them—crows, raccoons, perhaps herons in the open areas… Now they are also preyed upon by Walter—an extension of man’s hand on the landscape.

People who preceded me on this mountain based their decisions on who gets to stay not on what is best for ecosystems, but on what made them comfortable. There are too many deer in the woods because they were uncomfortable with wolves and lions. At the same time, they dammed the waters and added predators they were comfortable with—namely largemouth bass. Now I am left to decide how to manage the aftermath. I am confident the big buck’s presence or absence has little effect on overall deer population, but I am not yet certain of the effect of a big bass on the frog population.

Bass, buck, and frog—one in hand, one in my memory, one preserved digitally, all left to fill their niches, at least for now. Next year I will have my camera in the woods with me in case the buck wanders my way again. I like the idea of capturing him the same way I do the frogs, and will decide then whether he ends up in the freezer. I will continue to stalk, camera in hand, the many amphibians who make the pond their breeding grounds throughout the spring. But as for Walter, I don’t know if she will be granted a second pardon should the opportunity arise. That is something that will require more thought. One thing I am certain of, is that knowing there is a bass in the pond holds little appeal for me if I cannot hear frogs on a warm, late-winter Georgia night.

March night peepers 1

A Big Mistake and A Satisfied Smile

Beginning in the first days of this past winter, and on through to early spring, I was fortunate to have regular visits on the farm from American woodcock. They dominated my early mornings and late evenings, led me to crawling through tall grass, sitting in rain, listening in the dark, and showed up in my writing time and again. One of the woodcocks’ final appearances led to this little piece, published in the Spring 2016 issue of TasteBuds Magazine. It has not been archived on the website yet, but copies are available around the greater Chattanooga area. Pick up a copy, or visit the website to read other writers’ thoughts about food issues.

A Big Mistake and A Satisfied Smile

Twenty years ago I stood on a back porch in northern Illinois watching the summer sun set over a sea of mature corn stretching to the horizon.

“This is what I love about farm country,” remarked my host–a middle-aged woman with deep corn farming roots. She took a deep breath, drank in the scene, and settled into a very satisfied smile.

The prudent response would have been to share her smile, perhaps nod in acknowledgment of her heartfelt comment. I was not prudent.

“I find it troubling…”

I was interrupted before I could finish what I was sure would be a brilliant and inspiring explanation of why a single-species, chemically-dependent landscape, devoid of biodiversity and functional ecosystem, could never bring a smile to my face.

Over the next few minutes I was lambasted with all the reasons why farming is important, how I wouldn’t have food on my table were it not for farms, how liberal hippies like me think we can have perfect peace and love, and have utopian dreams delivered on silver platters as the deer and antelope roam a golden plain at the end of a triple rainbow.

It was not one of my finer moments, and I deserved the scolding. The truth of the matter is that my friend and I were both right… and both wrong. We do need farms, and we can feed ourselves without denuding the landscape of biodiversity. We do need to control some pests, and we can do that with balance.

I blew an opportunity that evening to have a healthy conversation about what is good and right about her heritage, and how the future could be even better for all of us.

It is easy to see in retrospect that even if I had begun differently, my effort to convert a corporate GMO farmer to an organic grower of kale, kohlrabi, and heirloom tomatoes was a pipe dream, but we could have walked away from each other with new perspectives to think about. Instead, I walked away labeled (perhaps correctly) a delusional hippie, and have not seen that friend since.

That conversation is on my mind this evening as I leave the house, and walk out past the gardens to a maple tree on the edge of the north pasture. This landscape, as varied topographically as it is rich in biodiversity, couldn’t be more different from a corn field in Illinois. Straight ahead of me the land crowns to form the western quarter of the pasture. To my right, it rolls down into a drainage, pitches up slightly, then slopes steeply off to the eastern border. An ephemeral seep is enough to keep the drainage soggy for most of winter and spring. I don’t mow this part of the pasture as frequently as the rest, allowing rushes to mingle with wildflowers and grasses.

I scan the landscape briefly, but my focus tonight is on the crown just ahead of me, and I raise my camera to take a few test photos.

The wind has been gusting much of the day, and dark clouds are fast approaching from the south. I cozy up to the north side of the tree, hoping to find a lee from whatever rain may come. A small pine embraces the trunk of the maple, extending its arms around me as well, providing minimal camouflage and the temporary illusion of safety from the storm.

No sooner do I snap my test photos, than a few small raindrops tick on the brim of my nylon hat. I wrap the camera in a towel, put the rear lens caps on the binoculars, and settle in for a show I will attend regularly over the next several weeks.

Moments like these perfectly illustrate why I love living in farm country, and I suspect that what I am feeling is not dissimilar to what my Illinois friend feels in her special moments on the land. I know she loves the solitude and self-sufficiency, the feelings of independence and of doing something good for the world. She also probably finds comfort in the sound of a giant combine on the horizon bringing in the harvest.

Of course, my friend is a farmer, while living on the farm no more makes me a farmer than having a piano in the house makes me a musician, but I am fortunate to reside on this small hobby farm, and being here brings me a peace, a solitude, and a connection to the natural world that inspires my writing.

As I scan the landscape, wind gusts are growing in their intensity and I suspect tonight’s performance might be canceled, but it is pleasantly warm and I am dressed to handle a bit of precipitation. When the performance is not canceled due to weather, the near high ground is the most used theater, and I am committed to sitting it out until dark.

Just as I check the towel to make sure my camera is safe, the first actor takes the stage. The show is on.

Meep… Meep…

The call comes unexpectedly from my right, beyond the seep. I listen, waiting for the opening song to transition into the first dance.

Meep… Meep… Meep… Meep… silence…

During the pause, two more actors enter the theater, and more calls begin over my right shoulder near the gardens. In this theater I have never seen or heard more than one actor at a time and my spirit rises.

Meep, Meep, Meep, Meep…

I turn my head in the direction of the new voices, and two American woodcock take flight. On quick whistling wingbeats, the pair of stubby birds sprint south, one chasing the other over the house. Soon, they are out of sight and sound, and I look back to my first bird, who is still calling.

I check my watch and jot down the time in my journal. As I cap my pen, the hoarse, nasal voice surrenders to a soft, ghostly fluttering. The dance has begun. Recognizing my chance, I stand up and run to the apple tree by the gardens, where I pause to listen.

Overhead, a soft whistling swirls in broad circles. Wshha, wshha, wshha…

I step back from beneath the canopy of the apple tree and look to the darkening sky, but see nothing. The sounds fade until all I can hear is chorus frogs in the seep. I stay put, scanning the sky. The brief rain stops.

Far overhead, a gentle whisper returns. Rapidly it corkscrews towards me, gaining in speed and volume until the crescendoing whisper is a flutey warbling voice in front of me just beyond the rushes.

Through the apple boughs I watch intently, catching a blur of a bird descending quickly to the ground on the near side of the drainage 75 feet away.

The calling begins immediately.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

I stretch out prone on the damp grass and belly-crawl under the apple tree, then between two pines on the edge of the open space.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

He turns, sending out his beckon in all directions.

Meep, meep, meep, meep…

Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha…

As he spirals back into the sky, I crouch and hurry out into the rushes. The ground is unexpectedly dry, and I take a prone position, hidden from sight.

My spot proves perfect! He lands just outside the tall grasses on the other side of the drainage, and once again I am belly-crawling, feeling like a lion on the savanna creeping up on unsuspecting prey.

When I reach the edge of my cover, he is no more than fifteen feet away. His raspy calls are sharp now, biting through the heavy wind. Without a tripod, it is too dark for a photograph, but even in the retreating light, I can see him clearly through the binoculars – a short, plump bird with no visible neck, his head sitting on stout shoulders. A large black eye set in a buffy ring dominates his head. His breast is the color of my weathered Carhartt field coat, his back speckled with dark browns and light khakis. His most striking feature is a long, slender beak, easily twice as long as his head. With every raspy call, his rapier beak opens and closes like the jaws of needle-nose pliers.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

For a moment, I think back to northern Illinois where I first encountered woodcock performing their ritual in a forest preserve. I wonder if they once performed in what is now the sea of corn behind my friend’s house, and if she would find the same joy in this moment as I do.

I am lucky to have woodcock performances beginning as early as December and continuing through spring in Northwest Georgia. In Northern Illinois, the show is only booked in theaters for a couple of spring months, and I don’t imagine there are theaters in vast corn fields.

If I found myself back on that porch today, had the opportunity to begin that conversation anew, my response would be very different than when I was a starry-eyed young hippie. Today, I would begin by sharing with her how, long before there was corn there, on certain spring evenings, we might have stood right there and heard an odd raspy voice calling from out on the savanna… Meep. Meep. Meep.

From there, I might talk about the biodiversity and wildness that can coexist with corn farming, how the same land that produces vegetables and cattle, eggs and pork, can also attract woodpeckers, possums, and salamanders. I might talk about how sparrows and shrikes like fencerows, and how hawks and butterflies love open meadows. I might tell her about the small property I inhabit, where deer and gray fox appear nightly, and at least five species of frogs fill spring nights with a brilliant chorus.

Of course it wouldn’t be fair to compare the biodiversity of even the most intact Midwest savanna with the richness of the Cumberland Plateau, and certainly there is a place for corn farming, but must we sacrifice all biodiversity to have it? Can a corn farm not also have hedgerows and woodlots, prairie islands, free-flowing streams… in short, habitat and diversity?

Perhaps one day my Illinois friend and I will reunite and I can invite her to Georgia where, together, we can crawl through the tall grass to see woodcock dance in the fading light before retiring to the porch to listen to chorus frogs and spring peepers. If that does happen, I will turn to her and say, “This is what I love about farm country,” and she will see me take a deep breath, drink in the scene, and settle into a very satisfied smile.