Take It to the Ribbit

Old-school frogger Norman Padgett may be the last of a dying breed: He makes a living off our slimy, fly-eating friends

Despite his current civic battles, Padgett prevails when it comes to hunting frogs. His garage serves as his workshop, and it's crammed with tools and airboat engines with which he fiddles on a daily basis. His first airboat carried a 1936 six-cylinder Plymouth motor, and right now he's experimenting with a Cadillac engine. He explains that using automobile motors gives him an edge on the frogs. "A car engine can muffle down quiet. You can drop the throttle, nestle down, and get 'em," he says.

By his own admission, last night's getting was little more than slim pickings. At the bottom of a netted bag, only a dozen or so muddy green frogs pile together. Most are dead, but a few still flop around. Padgett's not discouraged. He views the prior evening's run as a probe --a gauge on current weather conditions and frog activity. And regardless of the size of the catch, it's business as usual for Padgett, and he readies himself for what he refers to as "processing." He dons a blue vinyl apron and sets out a plastic basin filled with an inch or so of water. Then he sharpens a small paring knife and dumps the contents of the net on a steel table. Before he begins, he pauses.

"I don't like to kill anything," he says. "I never kill anything that I'm not going to eat or sell."

A slice of life: Norman Padgett dresses last night's catch
A slice of life: Norman Padgett dresses last night's catch

With that he grabs a frog with his left hand and cuts its head off with a slow and gravelly crrruuuuuunnch. With the tip of his knife, he flicks out frog guts and then tosses the remaining torso and legs into the basin. Padgett repeats the task for each frog, and by the time he's done, a load of heads and innards lies at one end of the table. Some of the eyes still blink. One gives an animated wink, and a few throats convulse as if trying to get out one last croak. To someone who hasn't spent time with Padgett, the scene might appear a bit bloody and brusque. But Padgett's easy manner and his devotion to a generations-old livelihood somehow make the choppin' seem as natural as swamp lilies in springtime.

For the final steps of deboning and skinning, Padgett uses catfish pincers, the same ones with which he's worked all his life. One by one he picks up decapitated frogs and peels the skin off with one steady stroke. His wide fingers are knobby and curled -- perfectly shaped for the task at hand. He manicures whatever bones are left and tosses the now white and gleaming legs into the basin. Eventually Padgett will wrap and box these into two-pound packages that will sell for $20 a pop.

But there's no charge for his old Everglades tales about clean lakes, ibis rookeries, and cypress heads that once covered the wetlands in thick green canopies.

Contact Emma Trelles at her e-mail address: emma.trelles@newtimesbpb.com

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