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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bad news bullfrogs

A bullfrog suspends in the lily pads after dark to hunt a meal of bugs or anything else it can fit in its mouth at a Pend Oreille County lake. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife lists bullfrogs as a nonnative aquatic nuisance species. 
 (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
Story and photos by Rich Landers Outdoors editor

In the realm of delicious activities conducted after dark with a fishing rod, one obscure sport is leaps and bounds above the rest.

“The only thing that’s really comparable is spotlighting and spearing carp,” said Dan Gillette, a Pend Oreille County good ol’ boy who obviously prefers the path less traveled.

He was standing at the public access to one his favorite nighttime hot spots, listening for the call to action as two anglers were trailering the last boat off the lake and up the boat ramp in the twilight.

Gillette’s canoe was at water’s edge, equipped with sacks, snacks, flashlights, headlamps, extra batteries and a nine-foot fly rod rigged with, of all things, a small RoosterTail spinner.

“It could be a fly, I suppose, or a piece of flannel on a hook, for all that matters,” he said.

The first call rumbled like a sub-woofer distinctly through a soprano chorus of tree frogs, crickets and other nighttime crooners.

It was a deep “Brr-wummm” that was clearly music to Gillette’s ears.

“Bullfrogs are out,” he said, paddling silently into the darkness.

Angling toward the sound and scanning ahead, the beam of his headlamp caught the shine of a whitish throat and a pair of eyes bulging up from the lily pads. He eased the canoe through finger openings in the thick vegetation. Slowly and quietly he set the paddle down and brought up the fishing rod.

The frog sat motionless, stunned like a deer caught in the headlights of a train. Gillette pulled two feet of line off the end of the rod, reached out into the glow of the headlamp and dangled the lure a few inches in front of the bullfrog’s nose.

The strike was both predictable and surprising as the smallish head that had been above water erupted with a splash into a good 12 inches of determined predator capable of leaping nine times its length. Gillette set the hook and swung the spread-eagled amphibian into the canoe.

“That’s a good set of legs,” Gillette said, admiring the largest frog species in North America. “Most people say they taste like chicken, but if that’s what you want you should go to Kentucky Fried Chicken, not out here.”

Trouble from the East

As late as the 1990s, bullfrogs in Washington were considered a game species with limits and seasons. In the past few years, however, the state has gradually begun encouraging people fond of frog legs to harvest all the bullfrogs they can eat even though it’s illegal to kill other frog species.

The state has dropped all seasons and limits on this impressive but unwelcome amphibian.

In 2002, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife went a step further and listed bullfrogs as a nonnative aquatic nuisance species.

The only thing that separates bullfrogging from other dream sports of 10-year-old boys — and anyone who shares that same sense of adventure for blood, muck, slime and things that croak in the night — is that it has the blessing of biologists

“Bullfrogs are bad news here in the West,” said Mark Hayes, a state biologist in Olympia.

“The biggest problem is that bullfrogs eat native frogs,” said University of Victoria graduate student Purnima Govindarajulu, who is studying the bullfrog for her doctorate degree. “Actually, they’ll eat just about anything; whatever they can fit in their mouths.”

The bullfrog, a native to the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, came west on the coattails of the California gold rush and the resulting rich who longed for a taste of sophistication in the cuisine they had left in the East.

“Frog legs were involved in a third to half the entrees of the typical San Francisco restaurant menu in the late 1800s,” Hayes said.

The original demand was fulfilled by harvesting the native red-legged frogs, until they were virtually depleted by 1895. To keep up with orders, bullfrogs were imported from states such as Maryland and Missouri.

Frog farming became a growth industry preyed upon by another sort of entrepreneur, not so much to feed the masses but as a get-rich opportunity.

“People began marketing frog farming clear up through Oregon to Washington with cheap ads, touting how people could get rich raising frogs, make more money than in the gold mines, stuff like that,” Hayes said. “Of course it was a complete sham. Farming frogs takes huge effort.”

Virtually all of the frog farmers eventually went belly up, releasing what stock they had into western waters, where the bullfrog became the diner instead of the entree.

Born to eat

In prime conditions, bullfrogs can grow to a sitting body length of about 8 inches and weigh about two pounds. They’ll eat virtually anything smaller than themselves, ranging from bugs to bats that come down to drink — and young turtles, shell and all.

“I saw one take three cedar waxwings in sequence,” Hayes said.

“They won’t hesitate to take a duckling, and it’s not unusual for them to sit under a red-winged blackbird nest with nothing but their eyes above water waiting for something to come out of the nest.”

They sit motionless, their eyes peeled for prey above water and their toes dangling to sense any movement, such as a crawdad or school of minnows.

“In one survey, researchers found a bullfrog with three Oregon spotted frogs and two young garter snakes in its belly,” Hayes said.

Because they are such voracious eaters, bullfrogs can upset the natural ecology of a site when introduced among creatures that have not evolved with them.

Washington biologists are mainly concerned about the spread of bullfrogs and their contribution to impacts on several struggling native species, including the northern leopard frog in the Moses Lake region and the Oregon spotted frog, which has been reduced to half a dozen populations in the entire state and listed as a state endangered species.

Western pond turtles also are threatened. Seattle and Portland zoos are involved in a project to raise the young turtles until they are big enough to avoid being a bullfrog meal before they are released into the wild.

“To make things worse, bullfrogs are extremely prolific,” Hayes said, noting that they breed more than once a season and the average small female will lay 20,000 eggs.

“A big one can lay 100,000 eggs, compared with native northern red-legged frogs that mate only once a season and put out maybe 4,000 eggs tops.”

“Bullfrog tadpoles are distasteful to fish, which gives them another edge,” said Lisa Hallock, a herpetologist with the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

“It seems like they can make a living in any permanent body of water. Out here, bullfrogs are hated because they’re expanding, while in some parts of the East, where they are native, the bullfrogs are declining.”

Some Washington nurseries used to sell bullfrog tadpoles, but that’s illegal now, she said, noting that bullfrogs are capable of escaping and traveling long overland distances to new habitats.

Catching bullfrogs is fine, but leave the native frogs alone, Hallock said.

“People who hunt bullfrogs need to learn to identify them,” she said. “Only the bullfrogs have the fold behind the eye and around the tympanum (external ear) down to the forelegs,” she said.

Not for the squeamish

Bullfrogs are fairly accommodating to hunters.

While native Northwest frog species breed in late winter and early spring, bullfrogs don’t start until the weather gets nice in early June in Western Washington and maybe not until early July in portions of the East Side, where they’ll continue for most of the summer through a couple of breeding cycles.

During this long mating season, the tyrant males are vocal in their eagerness to attract females, as well as being aggressive toward any males sneaking into their territory.

The pitch of the calls varies with size. The deeper the “jug-o-rum” call, the bigger the frog.

Several frogs might be found in the area where a single male is calling. The sexes can be distinguished by the tympanum on the side of the head. The female’s eardrum is roughly the size of the eye, while the male’s is larger than the eye.

Efficient bullfroggers go in pairs, sharing the tasks of paddling, spotlighting, and angling or “gigging” them with a spear.

But sport frogging has generally fallen out of favor, Hayes said. Society has apparently become more squeamish about eating frog legs, not to mention the task of dispatching a critter with a nervous propensity for twitching long after the lights have gone out.

A knife or a club will instantly kill the frog, and pliers are handy for the finishing touches. Frog skin isn’t attached directly to the underlying layer of the detatched legs except for a few places, so it tends to peel off like pants.

Fresh frog legs, however, are known to dance around in the frying pan.

Soaking overnight in a brine can help, but there still could be a little “action” when the heat is applied.

Thus the sport has been relegated to 10-year-old boys and others who have a lifelong attachment to the age and the adventure.