The recent annual Nathan’s Hot-Dog Eating Contest (really, it’s a sport?) reminded me of a few gluttons from my past – of the wildlife variety. The term is used loosely here to include some ambitious and/or instinctive eaters encountered during a lifetime of hiking and a lot of fishing in my younger days. Had cameras been pocket gadgets back then like they are today, some great illustrations would be accompanying this piece. At least a few would be of bullfrogs.
During my youth, our home was bordered on two sides by a river, where rapids flowed into calm waters. Summer nights were filled with the familiar bullfrog sound, “jug-o-rum, jug-o-rum,” and most days, too. We used to “fish” for them by dragging some type of bait across the surface in weedy areas. Bullfrogs can be wary and quick to submerge, but if you can get close enough to try the surface method, be ready for some great entertainment. You don’t have to catch them so there’s no need for a hook.
A bullfrog will try to eat just about anything that moves, so if your bait (almost anything that will float) passes close by a frog, it will probably be attacked. Try it again and the same will likely happen. I was doing this as a kid when the commotion of one attack attracted other bullfrogs, who quickly came hopping over in hopes of a quick meal or to defend the territory. To my surprise – shock is a better word – the moving bullfrog was seized in the mouth of another, as if planning to swallow it. It amazed me further that I made it happen a few times before they seemed to wise up.
Another time, I was reeling in a fifteen-inch shiner (a slim fish that favors rapids), and as it splashed near the shoreline downstream from me, a bullfrog made two quick hops and tried to gobble it down. I don’t believe he could have swallowed it, but I actually had to make the frog open its mouth so I could release the fish. Bullfrog teeth aren’t sharp, but are very short and numerous, giving them a heck of a grip.
Hiking for decades in the Adirondacks led to a rare double. Once while circling the edge of a marshy area, I heard a loud groaning sound that spooked me a little because I had no idea what it was. Creeping closer to the source, I found a fair-sized frog in great distress, its lower half enveloped in the mouth of a large garter snake. The bookend story was once finding a bullfrog in the process of swallowing a garter snake. I wasn’t around for the outcome of either event, but both images remain fresh in my mind.
Near our house, muskellunge (muskies) were common, and I fished for them constantly. They’re referred to as freshwater barracuda for several good reasons: they’re built the same, possess a mouthful of large teeth, and are voracious feeders. And they’re big enough that fourteen-inch-long bait is not uncommon.
It’s often said that it takes 100 hours of fishing to catch a legal-size muskie, so there’s plenty of time for the mind to wander, as mine did one day, watching a duck paddle upstream. The river suddenly exploded as a muskie engulfed the duck. Watching the ripples slowly fade away, I was stunned and even a bit scared (I was only twelve), wondering about stories I’d heard from old-timers about giant muskies. I’d seen one eat a wood rat (a muskie, not an old-timer), but nothing nearly as big as a duck.
My fascination with fish led to a love of aquariums. As an adult, I could choose what I always wanted, an aquarium full of local critters instead of tropicals, like having a piece of the river in the house. In a 30-gallon aquarium, I had crayfish, various water bugs, and very small versions of several fish including rock bass, perch, sunfish, black bass, and northern pike, none of which were more than an inch and a half long.
I asked a game warden one night if it was OK to take fish under the legal size limit for the aquarium. I thought it was just a courtesy, but he said, “Technically, no, so don’t do it when I’m around.” It was an awkward moment, me standing there with pail, net, and flashlight in hand while asking.
The aquarium was finally stocked, complete with a thick mass of weeds where a school of minnows could hide. All in all, it seemed like a pretty good representation of natural habitat and gave me a great chance to learn more about fish behaviors. One that really surprised me was the feeding habits of the rock bass and pike. Even though I fed them, they ate other fish at every opportunity, which at least appeared gluttonous – very often they would swim around with the tail of their latest prey protruding from the mouth, having eaten a meal almost equal to their own size. It was new to me, and I thought it might lead to their own death, but it didn’t. I’ve since learned it’s common behavior, and the meal will eventually digest. It was a relief back then when they all survived.
The new champion of Nathan’s contest (devouring 62 hot dogs and rolls in ten minutes) survived as well. I’m not sure if he left with a hot dog sticking out of his mouth, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Photo: Largemouth bass eating shiner (Canadian Museum of Nature)