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Procuring Haute Cuisine by Airboat on Lake Okeechobee
Those delicately-flavored sautéed frog legs you pay $25 and up for in South Florida restaurants do not come from amphibian farms somewhere in the Far East. Unlike some fish sold in U.S. markets and eateries which is farmed overseas, this freshwater delicacy likely is harvested by moonlighting cowboys, construction workers and fishing guides riding around on airboats at night on Lake Okeechobee or the Everglades.
While most do it for the money–(they get between $7 and $8 per pound of dressed frog legs)–some do it for fun, dinner, and charters.
Captain Bobby Stafford of Okeechobee earns his living by guiding locals and out-of-towners on bass fishing, gator or duck hunting, and frog gigging expeditions on the Big O. Between bookings, he sometimes goes out to harvest enough frogs for dinner.
“It’s a fun thing to do, plus you get to bring home good table fare,” he said. “There’s a challenge to it.”
On a recent weekday night, Stafford and I embarked on his newly-refurbished,14-foot airboat at Okee-Tantie on the big lake’s north end, which is slated to become a Guy Harvey Outpost RV Resort and Marina in 2017. An early-evening downpour had ended just before dark and we could hear the croaks, chirps, and burps of our quarry as soon as we hit the lake.
However, Stafford was a little uncertain about our dinner prospects because of a steep rise in water levels in the previous two weeks.
“Their whole habitat is getting readjusted to the high water,” he said. “But I like frogging after the rain. I think the frogs climb up higher.”
Wearing a bright headlamp, Stafford cruised the cattail marsh on the edge of the lake with his left hand on the tiller and his right holding a ten-foot-long, four-pronged gig like a pool cue. It’s nearly impossible to spot a frog in tall cattails, so Stafford stuck to shallow sloughs coated with lily pads where the animals often sit out in the open. All that vegetation distracts the eye, but the guide knew what to look for.
“You have to look right in the light. Sometimes you see their yellow eyeball from a ways off. Sometimes you see the white of their throat,” he explained.
Sweeping the swamp with his light, Stafford pulled back on the tiller to slow down and gigged a shiny, greenish-brown frog perched on a pad. He put his quarry in a fiberglass chute attached to a mesh catch bag and kept motoring.
“You’re trying to hit them and time it just right,” he said. “I aim for the head.”
He stuck about a dozen more and missed a couple that dived under the lily pads at the airboat’s approach. Every now and then his headlamp beam would catch a pair of ruby orbs– a gator patrolling the marsh.
“When we find the frogs thick, there will be a lot of baby gators in there eating them,” Stafford said.
But the frogs and gators seemed to be spaced pretty far apart; no mother lode as in previous weeks when water levels were lower. And Stafford passed up a few frogs that were too small to be worth cleaning.
On a normal four-hour recreational gigging trip, he said, he and guests could expect to harvest about 15 to 20 pounds of frog legs. Commercial froggers keeping at it all night might score as much as 100 pounds. Nearing midnight, after about 2 1/2 hours of hunting, Stafford had taken about 30 frogs, or three to five pounds of legs. The catch was still plenty for me, him, his wife and two sons served battered and deep-fried or sautéed in garlic and butter.
Purveyors of fine foods may dream up all sorts of frog leg dishes and wine pairings targeted to the palate of the sophisticated gourmand. But diners should remember that some guy in an airboat first had to find and stick that delectable entree and then dress it to make it presentable.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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