Take It to the Ribbit

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

Good thing Norman Padgett has propped a sign at the foot of his unpaved driveway: Frog Legs, Alligator, Turtle Meat. Otherwise it might be easy to miss his Boynton Beach homestead; it rests on a large wedge of land hidden from street view by slash pines, live oaks, and enormous mango trees now budding with summer fruit. Assorted airboats await tinkering and rest about the front and side yards, but closest to the house sits Padgett's main ride: a glorious, mud-smeared contraption born of fiberglass, metal flaps, and an airplane propeller. The boat swells with the trappings of his trade: nets, buckets, four-pronged giggers. A black vinyl car seat above the bow serves as his watchtower.

Padgett's a frogger, perhaps the last of a breed of hunters who once earned their keep by harvesting Florida's natural fauna. In Padgett's case the catch has been frogs for more than 40 years, but he and his people have fished and hunted this state's wetlands for much longer than that.

"My granddaddy came into Lake Okeechobee in the late 1800s. They were commercial hunters. I've been doing [frogging] all my life," says the 77-year-old Padgett, who lived his childhood by the lake before moving to Palm Beach County after World War II. It's from here that he sells alligator, soft-shelled turtle, and fresh frogs' legs to customers from all over the world via his Web page, Frog Legs Unlimited ( www.froglegs.qpg.com), but he has plenty of walk-in customers too. Padgett also processes alligator hides and crafts earrings and knife handles from the leftover bones of his catches. "I use drying racks to rot them out. Then I bleach them and set 'em to dry. They're more like ivory than bone," he says, admiring the smooth whiteness of his handiwork.

But Padgett devotes most of his time to hunting frogs, a meat most people liken to chicken. It tastes better than that and brags a gamy tang all its own -- a combination of salt, smoke, and Florida marsh water. Connoisseurs deep-fry or roast the meat or dice it up and toss it into gumbo.

A warm and humid climate makes for good frogging weather. "Rainy is no good. Bugs won't be flying. It's a frog's nature to catch flies and insects," says Padgett, who notes that the fist-size amphibians also eat crawdads and minnows. Between evening and dawn, the septuagenarian shines his searchlight into the nearby marshes' dark waters and spots the frogs' whereabouts when the light catches their eyes. Once Padgett is upon his prey, he spears it with his gigger, a thin pole crowned with barbed metal prongs.

During the day he sleeps, and walk-in customers might find him a bit blurry when he answers their afternoon knocks. Regardless of whether he's just risen or not, he's always in uniform: a plaid shirt rolled up to his elbows, suspenders hitching up his high-waisted dungarees, and white knee-high galoshes splattered with mud, grass, and other unnamable swamp stains.

Padgett rarely misses a nightly hunt, because he says doing so can eventually make his job that much harder. "Got to go out and work the trails to keep them from growing up on me," he says, referring to the waterways that ribbon the conservation area where he's allowed to hunt. Padgett says that his and other hunters' airboats help preserve refuges, because the trails they make rub down the exotic flora that chokes wetlands and can eradicate much of the area's natural vegetation.

"The way we conditioned the marshes with airboats, we worked around the [cypress] heads," he says. "They looked like big beautiful golf courses."

Airboat and hunting restrictions are a touchy subject with Padgett, a wildlife steward who sees his kind of harvesting as a fruitful form of land management. Until 50 years ago, he and others like him were able to hunt and run their boats freely over three conservation areas, more than half a million acres of wetlands that stretch from western Palm Beach County to Miami-Dade.

The unrestricted access ended in 1951, when the first of the conservation areas was licensed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Service was charged with managing the area as a national wildlife refuge; airboats and frog and gator hunting eventually became prohibited. According to Padgett the Service isn't doing much of a job protecting the refuge, allowing Water Conservation Area (WCA) 1 to grow thick with melaleucas and Japanese climbing fern, two species with a penchant for wiping out bay tree islands and other native species.

"Now it's a septic tank, a rotten mess." He shakes his head in disbelief. "They've destroyed an area they should have conserved. It's a shame," says Padgett.

David Vaiker, a deputy manager with the Service, has a different take. Vaiker says that public uses like airboats and hunting can't detract from the Service's main goal: preserving wildlife. "We feel that there's airboating opportunities in WCAs 2 and 3. We have canoeing, hiking, water fowl hunting, fishing. We don't want to keep the folks out, [but] let a wildlife refuge be a place for wildlife," says Vaiker.

The area was originally leased to the Service by the South Florida Water Management District, which does concede that WCA 1 has a serious exotics problem but lays blame on the lack of federal funding. "They didn't receive any money to properly manage their exotics. They can only do what Congress gives them the money to do," says Fred Davis, director of land stewardship for the District. "The federal government needs to wake up and put some bucks into [the] budget."

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."

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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