Frog legs rank alongside caviar, escargot and oysters Rockefeller as delicacies for cultured palates. Missourians who treasure the taste of fresh frog legs fried, fricasseed or sauteed don't have much longer to wait. The season opens June 30. From sunset the last day of this month through Oct. 31, frog aficionados can take bullfrogs or green frogs with either a fishing or a hunting permit.
The bullfrog and the green frog are exceptional amphibians. Among Missouri's slimy tribe, they alone are considered fit for human consumption. During the summer they serenade us and protect us from plagues of insects. Then they mysteriously disappear for half a year. They possess the almost magical ability to transform themselves from pollywogs to megafrogs. And as if that wasn't enough of a trick, they can also walk on water when necessary to elude predators. Clearly, there is more to these creatures than their legs.
Their legs are what draw the most attention, however. Each summer thousands of hungry Missourians head out to darkening lakes and streams to bag a "mess" of frog legs for a midnight snack. Frog legs are variously reported to taste like chicken or fish. Perhaps a fitting nickname would be "chicken of the pond."
Regulations concerning the taking of green and bullfrogs are almost as versatile as the victuals themselves. If you have a hunting permit, you can take frogs with a .22-caliber rim-fire rifle or pistol, pellet gun, longbow, crossbow, handnet or with your bare hands. With a fishing permit, you may use your hands or a handnet, a gig, a longbow or hook and line. Frogs are among a small number of game animals for which the use of artificial lights is not only legal but nearly indispensable.
The daily limit is eight green and bullfrogs in the aggregate. The possession limit is 16. If you choose the right frogs, 16 legs is a lot of food.
The bullfrog is North America's biggest frog, measuring up to eight inches all scrunched up and ready to jump. A good-sized bullfrog can weigh well over a pound, and much of that is legs. Green frogs are more modest-sized, topping out at about four inches long when sitting. Though not as large, their legs taste just like those of bullfrogs.
If your taste runs more toward nature study than cooking, you might be interested to know how to tell bullfrogs and green frogs apart. Size won't always work since even bullfrogs must start out small. However, green frogs have folds of skin that run from the back of each eye down the sides of their backs. Bullfrogs lack this feature.
To tell male and female green and bullfrogs apart, look at the circular tympanic membrane behind the eye. It is located about where you would expect the ear to be. In fact, it is the frog's ear. If the tympanic membrane is much larger than the eye, the frog is a male. If it is about the same size or smaller than the eye, it's a female.
Female green and bullfrogs are prodigious reproducers, laying more than 20,000 tiny eggs at a time and sometimes producing two clutches in a summer. These eggs form a single-layered mat on the water and hatch four or five days after laying.
The larval stage, known as tadpoles or pollywogs, eat algae and other nearly microscopic food at first, graduating to larger fare as they grow. They mature rapidly, and trade their tails for legs 12 to 14 months after hatching. After that, it takes them another two years or so to reach adult size and breeding age.
The male frogs' part of the mating ritual includes defending territories so they will have the sole right to mate with females there. Between the middle of May and early July, males declare their turf from established calling stations and defend those spots aggressively. Intruding males risk being pushed, kicked, bitten or even humiliated by being mounted.
Even people who have never ventured to streams or ponds to see green and bullfrogs know them by their voices. You can make a rough estimate of a bullfrog's size by how loud and deep their booming "jug-o-rum, jug-o-rum" chant is.
A green frog's song is completely different. Most often, it is a single note that sounds like a loose banjo string being plucked. Sometimes it consists of a series of chuckles, and occasionally it takes the form of an intense bark. Sometimes these barks are so explosive that it seems like it would hurt the frog to make them.
There's not much of a threat, but green and bullfrogs face real danger from poachers. Some Missourians insist on getting a mess of frog legs before the season opens . . . and before others have a chance at them. If you witness frog poaching, call the toll-free Operation Game Thief hot line, 800/392-1111.
Frogs continue to grow throughout their lives. Their size depends on age and food abundance. Dietary staples include (in decreasing order of preference): insects, crayfish, amphibians (including their own young), small mammals, fish and even birds. Bullfrogs also have been known to eat snakes, small turtles and baby muskrats and minks.
Bullfrogs and green frogs use their sticky tongues to subdue prey, but that's not their only method of securing food. Large frogs are more likely to lunge at their targets. Once they get a grip with their wide, sturdy jaws, they use their front feet to shove the items down their gullets.