JVD and a whole lot of bull

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Steve Bowman

GROSSE SAVANNE, La. – Jonathon VanDam grasped the rod firmly, flipping a small lure through a maze of cattails and lily pads. Four men stood behind him watching the reaction of his intended target, noticing the body language as the lure got close, wondering if it would bite or not.

All five men held their breath nervously waiting. An instant later, VanDam’s prey bit and the fight was on, scattering lily pads and reeds through the air in a monumental tussle with four men cheering in the darkness like JVD had just won the Bassmaster Classic.

Editor's note: See frog hunting photos.

Bassmaster Elite professionals have proven they are good at just about everything that involves being on the water with a rod and reel in their hand.

VanDam proved just how far he would go to ensure the validity of that statement, even if it meant using a rod and reel 180 degrees from its intended purpose.

The VanDam clan is known for their prowess at catching green and brown fish. JVD can now add bullfrogs that have green and brown splotches, a shade of yellow mixed in with an oversized mouth and a face only a mother could love to his expert resume. 

Last week, VanDam took part in the Shimano “Cast Smarter” Media Conference at Grosse Savanne Lodge in Southwest Louisiana. In not-so formal terms it was a fishing junket, where Shimano gives its professional anglers and the media a first look at the products they will introduce to the world in July during the annual ICAST Show. It was a truly impressive line up of rods and reels.

The biggest impression, though, came from the chorus of bullfrogs that serenaded the anglers and media every day as they put the new rods and reels through their paces.

Under a constant 20 mile-per-hour wind, the roar of the frogs was deafening at times. To VanDam and a few others, who had spent their youth chasing these leggy, boisterous creatures, it was an invitation of another kind: Boasting about their frog hunting skill.

No matter where you are when more than two anglers gather, challenges will be made.  Someone actually said: “I’m the KVD of bullfrog hunting.”

Soon the level of bull ratcheted up high enough proof had to be laid out.

No one is sure where the history of this event will lead, but to those who took part this was the first ever “Bullfrog-Masters Elite Series Event presented by Charmin Toilet Tissue.”  In the end, it’s a good bet Shimano may take a look at how they build a different kind of “Frog” rod.

It went something like this: Five men, JVD, John Mazurkiewicz and Trey Epich (both from Shimano), a writer/photographer and Monty Pearce, who is best described by former Elite professional Dennis Tietje as the perfect cross between a coon ass and a marsh rat. By the end of the night, Pearce would prove to be the KVD of bullfrog hunting. 

“I didn’t know what to expect,’’ Mazurkiewicz said. “I was worried about gators and snakes while we were walking out in the dark, to a flat bottom boat that I was sure was going to tip over with all of us in it. But nobody else seemed to be concerned about those things.” 

Welcome to frog hunting 101. For Mazurkiewicz, a South Bend, Indiana, resident, this was the equivalent of culture shock. These may be typical exercises for those in the South, but it doesn’t extend to South Bend. 

He was actually the reason the boat was slipping through the cattail and lily pad-choked marsh. The stories of the glory years from the others didn’t quite mean anything to his frog-hunting virgin ears. He wanted to see it first hand, even if it meant pushing gators out of the way to witness it.

Typically frog-hunting takes place in the spring and at night. The group had that part down. In many places, hunters hand grab or use a gig to pick frogs off the bank or floating in the water around vegetation. But this was a Shimano deal, and enough stories had been passed around on frogs hitting fishing lures that the gig was replaced by rod and reel.  

Outfitted with headlights and the KVDesque frog-seeing eyes of Pearce, we slipped through the marsh looking for the telltale white eyes of a bullfrog. The red eyes belonged to the gators. They outnumbered the frogs by 3 to 1.

Once the white eyes or the yellow throat of a bullfrog was spotted, Pearce would slip the boat close enough for JVD and Epich to make a short pitch with a small soft plastic lure (actually just a piece of a plastic worm because of the smaller profile needed to mimic an insect) and wait for the frog to bite. What followed is best described as a mixture of bed fishing, flipping in heavy cover and twitching a lure like a drop shot for bass all in the middle of a comedy show. 

There were moments of angst when a frog would bite but not get hooked. There were those that were hooked and jumped off. There were missed casts and perfect pitches. Big ones were landed, big ones were lost and there was a lot of time wasted on smaller ones. There was even a debate on which lure was better and who could make what cast better than the other. And of course the age-old “mine is bigger than yours” dispute.

Somehow a frog hunt had turned into the quintessential fishing derby.

“Before that night I had only caught them around a pond, flipping a little craw worm,’’ Epich said. “Fishing for them at night like that was new to me. I didn’t get the full Monty experience before.”

Epich’s pun directed at Pearce is well taken. Pearce seemed to be the frog whisperer, seeing the saucers of their eyes from distances that seemed befitting of the title “The KVD of bullfrog hunting (fishing).“

As to the other newbie on the trip: “Mazurkiewicz’s technique was outstanding for a city guy from Indiana,’’ Epich said. “He managed to balance a cigar in one hand while hooking a frog. That was impressive. I think he was a natural.” 

All in all, there were 18 big bullfrogs caught, about double that in frogs that jumped off and like any good derby, impromptu or not, they were all released alive.

Trip Weldon would be proud of the 100 percent live release figure.

For the record, JVD won the first “Bullfrog-Masters Elite Series Event.” But Epich placed a close second and if not for a last-minute Jim Bitteresque jump from a brute of a frog from Epich’s hand and into the water, it might have been too close to call, or as the saying goes, a margin as fine as frog hair.