One of my favorite delicacies is frog legs. Most folks assume that these tasty morsels are harvested only from swampy place like Louisiana or East Texas, but the best frog legs I have ever had came from the dry Chihuahuan desert.
The Rio Grande has an irrigation system that floods millions of acres of arid land for agricultural purposes. It also provides habitat for fish and other aquatic life. You just have to know how to find and catch them. My step father trained me in the art of “frog grabbing” when I was a teenager. I utilized my skills well into adulthood and also trained some of my friends in the basics of this art. I’ll tell you a little story about what happened one night when a frog hunt ended up being an international adventure.
First of all, please note that the proper way to take frogs does not involve the use of those dangerous tools known as gigs. Gigs tend to wound the frogs and if there aren’t enough caught to make a meal; the injured ones usual die when released. Therefore, I consider the most humane way to harvest bull frogs is to grab them and put them in a burlap bag (tow sack) that is kept wet so the frogs remain healthy. That’s the way I was taught and I never went frog hunting with anyone that had a problem with that technique except one friend named Jimmie Hutchison. Jimmie had a problem with anything that wasn’t his idea, so in dealing with him I learned to the art leading a body to my desired conclusion and making them think it was their own idea. On this particular issue, something I said lead Jimmie to agree not to use gigs in order that the frogs not die, and go bad before we were ready to eat them. What a great idea!
Jimmie Hutchison was, and still is my main hunting and fishing buddy. He is a unique person who has never really given a shit what other people think about him. Due to the fact that few people can stand to listen to Jimmie long enough to appreciate his superior wisdom, not many people like him. No matter how crass and vulgar Jimmie is, he will always be my friend. I think it may have something to do with the fact that he is four years older that I and bought booze for me when I was a minor. I was in kind of a captive apprenticeship with a world class know-it-all. Fortunately, for me, I used this as an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others.
One morning in September of 1971, I got to Jimmie’s house before daylight and we loaded our shotguns and beer into his red 1969 Ford pickup. After a series of instructions, coughing, spitting, and scratching, Jimmie finally got behind the wheel and we headed east of El Paso to San Elizario and then on to the tamarisk bosque by the Rio Grande. Jimmie had taken his usual cologne shower – I guess he wanted to be prepared in case we ran into some women in the bosque – so I rode with the window down and listened to country music on KHEY until we reached a place Jimmie approved of.
We hunted for about an hour in Jimmie’s designated hot spot, but it seemed that there were more birds flying on the Mexican side of the river so we waded across, shot a few dove and then waded back to the U.S. side. While hunting on the south side of the river we heard quite a few bull frogs and also heard some of them when we crossed back over to the U.S. side. I wanted to tell Jimmie that we should come back at night and catch frogs, but that would have been an inappropriate protocol. Instead I said,” There aren’t enough birds flying. Let’s just try to catch some frogs.” JJ was silent, but then it started to get hot and he proceeded to let me know what a dumb ass I was and told me to get in the truck. “You can’t catch frogs in the day time. We’ll have to come back tonight.” So, we drove down the levee road for a while then started back to town.
When we got back to the bosque that night there was a full moon and we were encouraged by all the low pitched, but loud mournful wailing of big frogs. We each grabbed a tow sack and a flashlight. The way we caught the frogs was to wade in the water and shine our lights into the weeds on the bank. Once a frog was spotted all you had to do was keep the light shining in its eyes and keep your hand behind the light so the frog saw nothing but the bright, hypnotizing light. When you got close enough to know you could grab the frog quickly enough that it wouldn’t jump before you got him, that’s exactly what you did. Some of the frogs were so big that the light had to be laid down for a moment so both hands could be used to get the critters into the tow sack.
We weren’t catching as many frogs as we had hoped to so the decision was made to cross the river and try the Mexican ditches where we had hunted dove during the day. It was worth the effort because we had nearly filled our bags when we heard music and talking. I crawled up the side of the ditch and yelled at Jimmie to come on and let’s have a beer.
“Where”? He asked.
“There’s a cantina up here. The sign says Loma Blanca.”
When we got to the door we kicked off our muddy boots and walked in. There were three Mexican guys at the bar who had been working in the fields that were as dirty as we were. They were wearing huarache sandals. I spoke loudly enough to be heard above the ranchera music, “Nos zapatos son sucios pero tenemos sed. Dos Cartas por favor.”
“Si muchachos. Sientan. ¿Que hacen en la noche?
Before the bartender could finish his invitation, Jimmie had already taken a seat and had his bare toes curled around the bottom rail of the bar stool.
“Casamos por ranas. ¿Le gustan ancas de ranas?”
“Seguro que si.”
“Hey Jimmie. Are you hungry?”
“Hell yes, I could eat a folded tarp, but it looks like all they have here is beer and tequila.”
“We got two bags of frogs out there by the door.”
“See if any of these guys know how to cook ‘em.”
“Si tienen cocina, tenemos bastante ranas.”
”Tenemos cocina y tenemos hambre tambien.”
We had two bottles of Carta Blanca and Jimmie had a shoot of tequila. Jimmie finally looked at me and said, “If they’ll cook ‘em we will clean ‘em. Again, JJ had a great idea.
“Yeah, they’ll cook ‘em.”
“Well, let’s get off our asses and start cleaning some frogs.”
“Good idea Jimmie, let’s get after it.”
When we got a handful of frogs ready, I walked behind the bar and followed my nose back to the kitchen where two big cast iron skillets, half full of manteca, sat bubbling hot on a propane stove. The bartender, Carlos, had prepared a bowl full of masa and red chili powder. Another bowl had some eggs in it. We had cut the frogs so the backs remained attached to the legs and when Carlos saw how we had prepared them he voiced his approval, “Muy bien.” He took one at a time, rolled it in the eggs then covered each with the corn meal mixture then dropped them into a skillet. The batter must have had beer or something in it because it puffed up to a light fragile texture with a good chili taste to it.
Jimmie and I were content to drink free beer and tend to the frogs while our new friends ate. When we finished and sat back down at the bar for another cold beer, I heard a loud sizzling noise that meant our supper was hitting the hot lard.
I’ve never tasted a finer meal than those frogs, beans, and fresh jalapenos. I ate a little too much and killed my buzz. I knew, however that it was time to start back but Jimmie looked like he was about to fall asleep. It was time for a little of that reverse psychology. Jimmie was married and I just wanted say something that would help him decide what we needed to do next.
“Why don’t we just spend the night Jimmie? Your truck should be OK.”
“What time is it? Shit! Quit fartin’ around let’s get home.”
I said goodbye to our hosts then jogged to catch up with Jimmie. He was moving quickly toward the Rio Grande.
The moon was almost directly overhead when we got to the south bank of the river and as were taking our boots off, I saw a green pickup on the north levee road. It was obvious that we were being watched by the Border Patrol. I nudged Jimmie and pointed at the truck.
“It’s too late now. They’ve seen us. Let’s go.”
After wading across the river and we stopped to put our boots back on. The Border Patrol vehicle pulled up behind us and two officers got out. When I stood up and turned around, I saw that one of them was a nice looking Mexican lady. Other than the inspection nurse at the Lago Blanco, Jimmie had never seen a woman in a uniform before. Maybe this is why he wore all that cologne.
The lady asked to see our IDs and wanted to know what we were doing. Jimmie told her that we were just swimming, but I laughed and told the whole story including the location of Jimmie’s truck.
“Is it that red Ford parked about a mile west of here by a big gate valve?”
We told her it was and she told us to crawl into the back of her truck and she would take us down there.
We were a little worried about where we were really being taken, but as soon as we got to Jimmies truck and the officers saw that the key worked, the male said, “Be careful going home. By the way, why didn’t you walk down here by the truck before crossing?”
Jimmie smiled and said, “Too deep.”
They looked at each and laughed then took off west bound.
When we got to Jimmie’s house we turned on the faucet and started hosing each other off. In a minute Jimmie’s wife, Vivian, came out to see what was going on.
“Oh, did y’all go fishing or something? It’s so late I was afraid you went to Juarez.”
“Yeah”, Said Jimmie. “We went to Mexico and had frog legs. Ha!”
As Vivian started back inside she said, “Jimmie, you smart ass, if you wake the baby up I’m going to kill you.”
We didn’t say another word.
I would like to suggest that the next time you get hungry for frog legs just wade on over to the Loma Blanca and have Carlos fix you up. But, don’t forget its BYOFrogs. Just to be on the safe side, bring enough frogs for four extra guys