HARVEY COUNTY — Up, down and around rolling sandhills, Jed Claassen drove a utility vehicle through a recent night’s darkness. For 20 minutes we rolled toward what he and Russ Vanover had repeatedly promised would provide one of the most memorable outdoors adventures of my 50-plus year outdoors career.
Vanover had used phrases like “best in the world,” and “most you’ve ever seen,” and the kiss of death “get our limits with no problem,” which usually sinks most trips.
But within seconds of when Classeen finally stopped the open-air vehicle, I knew, if anything, my hosts had understated what we’d find.
Illuminated in the headlights was a pond of maybe a half-acre, of which half was covered with lily pads the size of dinner plates. On many of those pads, and in about every spot of open water, plus scattered along the shoreline, the white chins or diamond-like eyes of bullfrogs reflected in the light.
And these weren’t the thumb-sized dinks you often see by the dozens in shallow ponds. These were the bullest of bullfrogs. They seemed to be in the hundreds.
“The old-timers, guys that aren’t even alive anymore, talked about this place,” said Claassen, a farmer from Newton. “At least 50 and 100 years ago they said they’d come back here and always find hundreds of giant bullfrogs. They’d take them out by the gunny sack-full, then come back and do it again.”
When we stepped to the water’s edge, it was obvious we’d take out our wire fish baskets, with the allowed limit, in only a few minutes.
“Ok,” I said to Claassen as we waded in. “This is the best I’ve ever seen. Better than I even dreamed of as a kid. Froggin’ nirvana. The Lost Dutchmen Mine of bullfrogs. Fort Knox with bullfrogs rather than gold.”
There probably aren’t many in Kansas who get visibly excited about a pond where giant bullfrogs look as common as yellow dandelions in my unsprayed backyard after an April rain.
But “frogging” was a big deal in my family. Gathering at the family lake an hour after dark, after some sweltering July or August day that had been filled with chopping weeds, mowing lawns, bucking small hay bales or picking sweet corn, was about the only recreation we had some weeks.
We used a special, shallow-floating johnboat reserved for the sport. From grandpa to a young cousin or nephew, every person had their assigned task of rowing, holding the brightest light, grabbing or cleaning the catch.
We’d grab limits of eight each before midnight, clean them, then go out on the new day and get more.
But even in our best year, we have nothing like “the frog pond.”
Within seconds Vanover had his light fixed on a big frog and grabbed it, while 15-year-old Henry Claassen speared another with a gig made by his uncle, Jeb Claassen.
From then on there was never a time when one of us wasn’t working toward a frog. I flushed three unseen giants while wading toward my first at the pond. I’ve honestly had it take longer to pick a dozen ripe tomatoes from my garden than it took us to get the first dozen frogs.
At one time there were three dandies within inches of each other on shore. The one I gigged was as wide as a brick
“That’s the thing, not only are there so many, but they’re all so big,” Vanover said as he added a frog with thick, 10-inch legs to a wire basket. “Check out how big all of these frogs are, and they’re about all that way. They were all that way when we came here (the other) night.”
Even taking breaks for photography, we each had our eight big frogs caught, cleaned by Vanover and Jeb Claassen, and on ice by 10:30 p.m. That left an hour-and-a-half until midnight, when we could collect another day’s batch of bullfrogs.
Driving pasture two-tracks, we checked a few other small ponds and wet spots. Some had thumb-sized “calf-frogs” by the score. One had frogs of all sizes, including probably more big frogs than I’d seen up until that day.
Still, it wasn’t as many as we’d left behind at “the frog pond.”
At midnight we waded back in, and worked the same sections of lily pads we’d worked a few hours before and where my three hosts had taken limits of eight each on Monday. Frogs still scattered like quail as we waded along.
Even stopping for a few more photos, we finished our combined limits of 32 in 19 minutes, and we hadn’t covered one-fourth of the small pond.
“I know I can’t explain it, why this is always so good at this one pond, night after night, year after year,” said Vanover, who likes to marinade his frog legs in teriyaki a few hours, sprinkle them with seasoning and pan-fry. “I know you go most places and if you get a dozen really nice frogs from a pond, you’re thrilled. I’ve never even heard of anything like this place.”
As we loaded our gear to leave, the deep calls of oversized bullfrogs came from the pads where we’d just taken so many. A fast sweep with a light showed many eyes sparkling like Christmas lights amid the green lily pads.
Like Vanover, I can’t explain why one pond smaller than many yards annually holds so many bullfrogs. But I’m glad it does.