Spring is here! So are snakes, turtles, fish

Published 10:32 am Monday, April 13, 2015

FRED BONNER | CONTRIBUTED RIBBIT, RIBBIT: Frogs, such as this healthy bullfrog, were prime targets for youngsters with gigs and bright flashlights during springtime in eastern North Carolina. Those nighttime forays into the ponds and roadside ditches often involved encounters with other types of wildlife as well.

RIBBIT, RIBBIT: Frogs, such as this healthy bullfrog, were prime targets for youngsters with gigs and bright flashlights during springtime in eastern North Carolina. Those nighttime forays into the ponds and roadside ditches often involved encounters with other types of wildlife as well.

Having grown up in eastern Beaufort County, I always looked forward to spring because the fish, snakes, turtles and an assortment of other animals were beginning to emerge from the winter’s doldrums and make their presence known. School was nearing the end of the academic year and it was time for us youngsters to begin to enjoy the natural wonders of coastal North Carolina.

Most of our outdoor adventures centered around the brackish waterways and marshes that are typical of our coastal homes, and these environs were literally brimming over with all sorts of fish and wildlife. Every small waterway held new treasures of small fish, reptiles of nearly every kind and birds that were starting to build nests. It was like another world compared to the ice and dampness of the winter we’d just been through.

Nighttime was a particularly fascinating time to explore the natural flora and fauna of eastern North Carolina. Animals that we would often overlook seemed to lose all their fear of man and could be easily spotted, captured or dispatched with comparative ease with the aid of a bright flashlight, dip net or spear (gig). Many a fine meal of freshly harvested bullfrog legs was enjoyed by our family after some of these midnight expeditions into the area.

The roadside ditches usually held a large variety of fish and wildlife and some of these animals were best viewed at night. The bullfrogs we were particularly fond of could be seen easily during daylight hours, but approaching them close enough to catch or spear them was another matter. During the night we’d listen for the mating songs the male frogs sang during the breeding season and when an area produced enough bullfrog sound to appeal to us, we’d break out the five-cell flashlights and gigs and begin to hunt.

Shining the bright light into the eyes of a bullfrog as it sat on the bank mesmerized the frog long enough for us to quietly slip into spearing range and pin the frog long enough for us to grab or dip it up, kill it and put it into a five gallon bucket until we could take the night’s catch home to be dressed for the dining table.

If the bullfrogs were positioned in areas that clearly were out of range for spears or dip nets, we’d resort to using a .22 rifle with hollow point bullets to subdue the frogs. If you were a good shot, you’d place the bullet in the frog’s head where it (hopefully) subdued the frog long enough for us to reach it with our hands or a dip net. If the bullet wasn’t correctly placed, the wounded frog would be able to jump into the water where it would be unable to be caught.

We youngsters were not the only predators that patrolled the waterways in the spring looking for food. The waterways also held a healthy population of snakes of about every kind and description. Most were harmless water snakes, but the occasional cottonmouth moccasin was sometimes out and about.

I think that the maddest I ever saw my father at me was one night after one of our nighttime forays out “bull frogging.” My folks were sitting in the living room when I walked in carrying a five-gallon bucket in each hand. “Watcha got?” Dad asked. Proud as I could be, I ran my hand deep into one of the buckets and scooped up literally an armload of dead bullfrogs. “That’s great! Is the other bucket full of frogs too?” Dad asked.

I placed the bucket filled with dead frogs on the floor and from the second bucket I again ran my hand to the bottom and scooped up an armload of headless cottonmouth moccasins we’d harvested for their skins.

Dad wasn’t usually accustomed to using strong language, but he nearly turned the living room air blue with some very strong words that night. Mom screamed and I rather hastily retreated from the living room with a five-gallon bucket in each hand. And yes, we dutifully dressed out every set of bullfrog legs for meals and skinned out every snake for some trophy snakeskins. Even with reptiles the rule was, “If you killed it you use it somehow.”

Years later when our daughter Jenny was 14 years of age, we lived on our small farm just outside Raleigh and I was writing the outdoor column for the News and Observer. I needed column material and photos for an article on the outdoor sport of “bull frogging.” Aquaculture was getting to be a big farm practice in the east and these aquaculture ponds produced a lot of prime bullfrogs, as well as fish.

Two off-duty Beaufort County police officers volunteered to take Jenny and myself out to some of these aquaculture ponds to harvest bullfrogs one night and it resulted in not only a good column for the upstate area, but a great experience for Jenny as well.

One police officer slowly drove the pick-up truck around the ponds, while the other officer shined a spotlight on the bullfrogs that were all over the banks. Jenny had a .22 rifle on the back of the truck and shot the frogs as they sat mesmerized on the bank. The light wielding officer dipped up the dead frogs and I shot photos. By the end of the evening hunt, Jenny and the officers had put a bushel and a half of frogs in the truck and I had my newspaper story.

We returned to Raleigh with dozens of pairs of frog legs that Jenny helped to cook and serve to a lot of her “big city” classmates at her high school. The big city teenaged girls at first couldn’t believe that Jenny actually shot these frogs and dressed them out. They couldn’t believe they were about to have their first taste of fried frog legs. After a brave few got over the shock of seeing the now dead reptile’s legs squirming around in the pan and actually had a taste of good old southern fried frog legs, they couldn’t get enough of them.

Many of Jenny’s high school chums are now grown up doctors, lawyers and such, but I hear that they’re still talking about Jenny and her bullfrog hunt and the dinner that “tasted just like chicken.”

Other kinds of reptiles also played a part in the adventures of some coastal youngsters. Smith Creek is a Pamlico County waterway that feeds into Campbell Creek between Aurora and Hobucken. Back in the early 1950s, Campbell Creek was noted for harboring a fair number of alligators and some of the Campbell Creek youngsters knew where the big momma gators had their nest. They’d slip into the nest area while the mother was out looking for something to eat and capture baby alligators. If we kids from the big town of Aurora knew some of the Campbell Creek crowd well enough, they’d let us have a few of the baby gators that were about 8 to 10-inches long.

I kept several of these young alligators in a small fishpond out behind the house until they escaped into the South Creek area.

Alligators were not protected in those days and they nearly disappeared until laws were passed that gave alligators protection. They’ve now begun to reappear in the coastal streams. Gators are known to reach a very old age and I wonder if some of these alligators we’re seeing these days could be some of those baby ones that crawled from our small fishponds back in the early 1950s.