Monday, July 14, 2014

Coal Mine Frogs (revised)

Coal Mine Frogs

   There are a lot of old coal mines down home. There were at least ten that were within walking distance of the house and Stanley and I have been in all of them (nobody ever accused us of being real smart). One of the bigger was the Starr. I remember my dad and Lloyd Stidman hauling props to that mine when I was a kid (props were the timbers they used to “prop” up the mine. I even remember when they shut it down because my uncles had the job of tearing all the building down, but the main thing I remember about it was the frogs.

   There was a huge concrete pit down there. I have no idea what they used it for. It must have been twenty to thirty feet long, twenty feet wide and ten feet deep. There was a road along one side of it and on the opposite side of that road was a concrete tunnel that sloped down to the bottom of it. I might have been something they use to load coal out of; all I knew was that there was water in the bottom of it. Having water in the bottom of a big pit wasn’t anything out of the ordinary down home but the one thing that was is the number of bullfrogs that lived in this one.

   There were a lot of weeds growing in the water at the bottom plus lots of junk laying on the bottom for them to sit on. It must have had some really good frog food down there because I could stand at the top and see a couple of dozen frogs down there including three really big ones. One thing we really liked eating back then was frog legs and as soon as I saw those big ones it became my goal in life to take them home to dinner!

   The first time I saw them was when I was out helping Jimmy Lee set mouse traps (live traps that is. We would catch mice on one side of the valley, Jimmy Lee would tag them and we’d take them to the other side of the valley and turn them loose. He was checking to see if they could find their way home.) Anyway, that first time we didn’t have any way of catching those frogs. We tried going down the ramp and trying to sneak up on them but we couldn’t get close enough grab them before they jumped in the water and took off. The water was too deep with too much junk in it to be able to wade out in and try to catch them that way so we had to write them off that day but I just couldn’t get them out of my mind.

   I headed back up there a couple of days later figuring for sure I’d be able to catch them. I had found an old frog gig in my uncles tool shed and I knew where a grove of sassafras trees were where I would be able to cut a nice straight pole for it. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of gigging frogs, a gig looks like a little pitch fork with either three of four tines on it. The tines are really sharp and each has a bard on it so when you stab a frog with it they can’t get away. I cut a nice straight sassafras tree about eight foot long and shoved the gig on the end of it then hiked up to the pit.

   All three of the biggest ones were sitting at the end of the ramp when I got there so I tried sneaking down close enough to stab one of them but again they all jumped in the water before I could get close enough. I went back out of the ramp and over to the edge so I could see where they were. Since the water was nice and clear and there was a lot of mud on the bottom you could see where the frogs had gone from the top. Most of the time when you scare a frog into the water they will dive to the bottom and try to hide in the weeds so all you have to do is look for where the mud is stirred up. Two of them were out in the middle with no way for me to get to them but the other was hanging on a piece of junk right up against the wall.

   I stepped away for the wall so he couldn’t see me and ran around to the end where he was. I got down on my hands and knees, snuck up to the edge and peeked over. He was still there, directly below me. I eased my gig over the wall and lowered it down to see if I could hit him. He was in a good spot just hanging onto that junk with my gig hanging right above him. The problem was that my pole wasn’t long enough to reach him. I could drop the gig and stand a good chance of stabbing him but then I would be able to get out without wading out in the water. Jimmy Lee had told me not to be wading around in that water because of all the junk in it and if I got cut there might be chemicals in there that could make you sick so I was a little hesitant about getting in it (I should have asked him that if it can make you sick how come the frogs can live it with no trouble).

   I pulled my gig back up, trying hard not to scare the frog away and went running all over the place trying to find some rope or something I could use to tie to the gig so I could pull it back out of the pit. Most of the time you could always find something you could use around an old mine site, either a piece of old rope of some bailing wire or something but this time I didn’t find a single thing. I kept checking back every time I came close to that pit and the frog was still in the same spot. I even think he was smiling because he knew there was no way I was going to be able to get him.

   I finally gave up on finding anything I could use on the gig but I wasn’t about to give up on that frog! I thought long and hard (about five seconds) and came up with a plan. If I could hang my gig down over the top of him like I did the first time, I figured I should be able to hang onto the wall with one hand and one leg. I could reach a lot farther down that way and still be able to hang onto the gig. Then all I had to do was stab straight down, get the frog and still have a hold of the gig. Sounded like a great plan to me.

   I crawled back up to the spot and eased my head over the edge. Yep, he was still in the same spot. I eased the gig over the edge and let it slide down through my hand until it was right over the top of him. I only had a hold of the very end of the pole and I was still about three feet above him. I eased myself up on the edge and slowly leaned down as far as I could. Still a couple of feet to go. I hooked one leg over the edge and slide the other one down the wall. Just one more foot. I got a good grip on the edge of the wall with my one hand and slide my body over the edge. Finally I was close enough to stab straight down and I knew there was no way that frog was going to get away now! I raised my arm up just a little and stabbed straight down at his back! I got him! I just had one minor problem.

   Remember the pole I had made for my gig was from a nice, straight sassafras tree? They make really good poles, but since I had peeled the bark off this one they are a little slick. I was only holding the very end of this pole when I stabbed down at the frog and with it being a little slick and me a little excited I dropped it. Of course it started to fall over and being the quick thinker I was, I tried to grab it. As my hand slipped off the top of the wall I had time to realize my mistake before I hit the water.  The water was a good three foot deep so I didn't go all the way to the bottom and crack my head open on the concrete floor. If that water was full of chemicals I was just going to have to find out how bad they were, as long as they didn't cook me I figured I'd worry about them later. Also even though there was a lot of junk in that pit, there wasn’t any where I hit.

   I managed to grab my gig and stumble over to the bottom of the ramp and get my breath back. I did have the frog and he was a nice big one. After I calmed down a bit I figure since I was already soaked and there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the water I might as well try to wade around in it and see if I could catch a couple more. No luck on that part. There was so much mud on the bottom that after I waded around for a couple of minutes you couldn't see a thing. I hung around waiting to see if they at least came back to the top but if they did I never saw them. I had to give it up and head home with just the one. At least the weather was nice and hot and I didn’t have to explain coming home soaked.

   The next time I hiked up there I was a little better prepared. I had a fishing pole with some good heavy line and some treble hooks. My plain for that time involved a little more work but it was going to keep me dry, I hoped! I rigged up the pole with one of the treble hooks and left it at the top of the pit. Next I had to go down the ramp to make sure the frogs were still there and if they were I needed to scare them into the water. Sure enough the two big ones were both sitting on the bank along with a couple of smaller ones. I didn't need to sneak that time just walk down to the water and they all immediately jumped in the water (had I of thought of it, I could have just thrown a rock from the top of the ramp and saved myself the walk).

   Back to the top of the pit I went, grabbed my pole and peeked over the edge. I could see both big ones floating on top of the water and a couple of muddy areas where the smaller ones had dove to the bottom. This was turning out to be my lucky day since both the big ones were on the same side of the pit that I was and both were up close to the wall. I eased my pole out over the wall and starting letting out the line. I wanted just enough line so when I tipped the pole I would be able to reach the frog with the hook. It surprised me at how well the whole thing worked! I lowered the hook down until I had it in the water right next to the frog, gave it a quick hard yank to the side and had the frog hooked! I worried a little about him getting off the hook as I reeled him to the top of the pit but once I had him out of the pit and in ,my hands and realized just how tough a frogs skin is when I tried to get the hook out I quit worrying about that.

   I had caused quite a commotion hooking that first one and I had to wait for the other one to come back to the top of the water. When I didn't see him in the water after a hour I had to make another trip to the ramp to scare him off the bank again. On the second one I might have got a little cocky (it doesn't take much for me to impress myself) I let the line out just like the first time only faster and instead of easing it in the water right next to him I almost wacked him right between the eyes with it. I could see him watching the hook as I was trying to move it around to his side, When he moved around in the water to keep an eye on the hook I got worried that as soon as I lowered it down he was going to dive under the water and I was going to miss him. I stopped moving the hook thinking that maybe if I stopped he would calm down enough for me to be able to hook him.

   I was trying my best to keep everything still but even so the hook was swaying a little at the end of the line. I was sure he was going to get scared of the hook and dive under the way he was staring at it when the next thing I knew his tongue shot out and he ate my hook! It surprised me so much that I just stood there staring at him and didn't even think about setting the hook like fishing. Of course I'd never fished for frog before. I had no idea that a frog would bite a hook! My Uncle Short was the one who'd come up with the idea of trying the fishing pole and treble hooks to start with or I would have never even thought of that. The feel of him yanking on the line finally snapped me out of it enough to start reeling. Thank God he pretty well hooked himself or I would have lost him for sure. I learned later that you can put a little dry fly on your line and dangle it in front of a frog and they'll grab it almost every time!   

   We had some good frog legs that evening for supper! Grandma used to roll them in seasoned floor, then egg, then more floor, then more egg and fry them and I loved them!