Bullfrogs in the Morning: Memories of Appalachia

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Photo: North American Bullfrog, courtesy of Carl D. Howe.
Photo: North American Bullfrog, courtesy of Carl D. Howe.

Written by Judy K. Ball, PhD, MPA.  “I was born and raised in West Virginia and, like so many others, I left after college.  I returned in 2018, after 38 years away.  But my childhood lore went with me everywhere — upstate New York, metropolitan D.C./Maryland, Oregon.”

At some point during a decade living in Oregon, I learned that bullfrogs are an invasive species. Yet, in Oregon, while walking my little dog Berkeley and hearing my first bullfrog of the season, I would be transported back home. You see, during my West Virginia childhood, the bullfrog was a delicacy of spring.

When I was growing up, I looked forward to bullfrog season with eager anticipation. In early spring we would begin to hear the distinctive bullfrog voices starting at dusk, continuing into the night. My parents and I would sit out on the front porch just to listen to their harmonies and solos. Then, sometime in June, the legally sanctioned season for hunting bullfrogs would begin. Regardless of the duration specified by law, the season had a practical duration of one night. And that’s assuming poachers hadn’t cleaned out all the frogs before the season officially began.

At sundown on the appointed night, my mother, father, and I would embark in our old, leaky, wooden john boat. (Google it, if you don’t know what a john boat is.) Daddy, in the bow, would handle the flashlight and the gig (a small, three-pronged trident/spear on a long wooden handle); Mother, in the middle, would manage the burlap bag; and I, in the stern, would paddle the boat very slowly and close to the shore. The frogs would sit, usually silent, just at the edge of the water, often partially submerged with only their big eyes visible to reflect the beam of light. Paddling technique—my job—was critically important: Not so close as to scare the frog, not so distant that Daddy’s gig couldn’t reach its mark, not so fast as to skim past the prey before Daddy could aim and act. After Daddy speared a frog (poor thing), he would swing the business end of the gig around and deposit the frog in the burlap bag—Mother’s responsibility. Mother had to capture the new frog in the bag and strip it off the gig, while not losing any of the frogs already in the bag. Sometimes that was quite a dance. Yes, they would try to escape. Wouldn’t you?

This is all a vivid and positive familial memory for me, but I should mention that (1) I was really afraid of frogs, for no particular reason except their movements tend to be fast and erratic, and (2) I was also afraid of bats, which would dive bomb us as we floated silently along the river’s edge at night. It was all worth it though, because I loved frog. Mother would make me fresh frog (legs and body because poor folks minimize waste) for breakfast the next morning. Then, as a family, we would have one big frog dinner as the reward for our efforts. And that would be it for the season. Unfortunately, that night would also mark the end of the frog chorus for the year.

These and numerous other memories still accompany me from my rural, subsistence childhood along the Little Kanawha River in Wirt County, West Virginia, where our protein more often than not came from the river or the woods. A lifetime later in Oregon, Berkeley and I heard the bullfrogs on spring mornings while walking near the Willamette River. Oregon bullfrogs don’t seem to understand they’re supposed to wait until evening to make their racket, which I believe to be mating calls. Perhaps their daytime bravado in Oregon has to do with a lack of predators. A lack of predators… that critical ingredient for becoming an invasive species, a luxury never enjoyed in West Virginia or by West Virginians.

As I understand it, bullfrogs were imported to Oregon as a business venture in the 1920s. When the businesses failed, the bullfrogs did not. Since the natural elements necessary to keep them in check are lacking there, bullfrogs have earned their invasive reputation. They have become amphibian kudzu.

Bullfrogs call to me and remind me when it is spring, almost June. Despite their awful reputation in Oregon, I felt deeply nostalgic every time I heard a bullfrog’s deep, bass notes. That’s only one reason this Mountaineer could never become a true Oregonian.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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