Green Frogs and Whitebait by Chris Tonkin
The last rays of a sinking sun had vanished silently into the Tasman Sea well over an hour ago, but Robbie and Bert were still on the river. It had been dark that morning too, as they set off from the hut stumbling and cursing at the state of the slippery track. They had walked hard to reach their whitebaiting possie by dawn, and now, almost thirteen hours later, both were ready for a good feed and sufficient sleep to restore their enthusiasm for tomorrow.
Robbie and Bert were two of natures gentlemen. Each spring for more years than either would care to admit they had been coming to the same remote river mouth in South Westland. They told each other that it was the lure of whitebait that drew them back each year, but both knew there were other reasons too. Things like the nights when equinoctial storms assaulted the hut as they sat cocooned in the warmth of the fire.
And the fresh clean mornings that saw them searching the water for the subtle shadows silently announcing the first shoal of the tide. No disruptions but the chuckle of the river and the sounds of the primaeval forest.
That night they had stayed on late to repair Bert’s stand which had been hastily built on the ﬁrst day from Kahikatea saplings. By day three the whole outfit was threatening to break loose with the next tide, and Bert had declared that “he could not stand another day of in-security waiting for the inevitable collapse to occur while he was actually in residence.“
It was properly dark by the time the pair started the half-mile trudge back to the hut, and just as they reached the point where the track cut into the bush they heard an almighty splashing, ﬂapping sound that stopped them both clean in their tracks. “What the hell would that have been,” wondered Bert aloud, slightly shaken by the suddenness of it.
There was a short silence while Robbie mentally ran through the possibilities, and as Bert rummaged through the pack for a torch he ventured that “it was probably a mob of swans landing for a night in the estuary”. They heard it again as Bert was beating the daylights out of his torch. “Bloody things always go when you try them in daylight,” he muttered. Eventually, when the beam struck the black depths of the river neither were prepared for the sight that met their weary eyes. The formerly quiet estuary undulated with small waves caused by huge ﬁsh which were slashing and cavorting in the shallows just below the spot where the small, swamp fed creek joined the main river. Bert was about to suggest they were seals when both men noticed an adipose fin on the nearest monster, closely followed by a huge square tail that fairly slapped the water as the fish lunged at something just out of the light.
Robbie was ﬁrst to speak, “Hells bells Bert, those are bloody trout”. With his mouth wide open Bert could merely nod his agreement.
Although the whitebait ran in earnest the next day, both men had difficulty concentrating on the job in hand. Idle moments between lifts of the net were spent ﬁne-tuning theories on how to catch the huge sea-run browns they had seen the previous night, ﬁsh that they knew would again run into the estuary after dark when the smelt and whitebait rested in the shallows between pushes of the tide. Sure enough, that night the peaceful estuary again resounded to gargantuan splashes and weird sucking sounds, but although the pair systematically hurled everything their combined tackle boxes could produce at the frenzied trout, after an hour neither man had felt as much as a touch.
Finally, having exhausted the possibilities including a garish concoction of bright feathers and chrome that Bert had once been talked into buying for kahawai, he conceded “round one to the fish”.
Sitting behind Rob in the dark he wondered aloud at what the big fish could be feeding on. Robbie, still casting frantically into the invisible distance had also been wondering. He had noticed that the arrival of the fish coincided with a faint evening breeze and was idly speculating whether the trout might be snapping at possums blown from the overhanging Kamahi trees. Eventually, Rob gave himself another ten casts, and on the twenty-ninth, he felt the lure stop with a heart-wrenching jerk
“Got one” he yelled triumphantly, and Bert was instantly at his side with the torch and a net. After a surprisingly short battle, Robbie had the fish close enough for a look, and one glance was enough to see that he hooked a runt. “Eight pounds, maybe nine” announced Bert as he donged it anyway, “for the sake of science”. With a far from steady hand, Robbie opened up the fish knowing that the gut contents would provide the clue both men needed for the trophy of a lifetime.
Two Large Green Frogs
“Something to really tell the grandkids” declared Bert. Sure enough, in the ﬂickering light of the fast failing torch the secret was revealed, for there in the pale white lining of the gut lay two large green frogs.
“Frogs” exclaimed Bert later when both were recovering from three each of Robbie’s whitebait patties, – each one had almost covered one of those big black contraptions that Grandmothers used to use for girdle scones, – “this will be easy”.
“I’ve got some big hooks, and the swamp behind the hut is full of frogs.”
He was dead right too because next morning after half an hour of turning logs they had a sock full of beauties. Later, when they were sorting out hooks the same disturbing thought hit them simultaneously. Although neither man would have admitted to squeamishness the act of harpooning an innocent frog with a dirty great cod hook just didn’t seem right somehow. Rob saved them both from having to admit to any weakness by declaring that “the buggers will have to be presented naturally, nothing would eat a dead frog except maybe a bat or a Frenchman”.
Bert thought of a solution as they dined on the trout stuffed with whitebait, and later, using a length of wire from an old transistor they had found on the beach, he carefully fashioned a structure designed to restrain a frog, yet still allow for maximum movement. The twisted wireframe had four loops “for the paddles to stick through”, a collar fitted neatly over the head, and two “saddle straps” locked the frog in place.
The device was completed with a swivel to attach on the line, and a big single hook was slung below. When Bert held up the finished article between his big “pork sausage” ﬁngers Robbie declared that it was “the most cunning contraption since the push bike”.
Since there was insufficient time before dark to make two, Bert generously offered to take turns, but before they left for the river Robbie checked in the wet stock to make dead sure there were sufficient frogs of exactly the right build to ﬁt the restrainer. Nothing could go wrong.
Once again the ﬁsh started moving just on dark and Robbie (having won the toss) elected to ﬁsh from a point where the current veered out from the bank creating a backwater below where he stood. Bert selected a frog from the sock and together they threaded him into the frame and secured the saddle straps. Robbie found himself shaking slightly, was it anticipation or something else? There was something weird, almost spooky about the all-enveloping blackness of the night, and the faint heartbeat of the frog he held in his hand, beating at a slightly different pace from his own. To save thinking about it further Rob drew back the rod and executed a restrained forehand lob into the inky black.
He was rewarded by a faint plop indicating at least that the cast had gone in the right direction, then settled in anticipation for the inevitable slash from one of the many ﬁsh which were thrashing around near the surface.
He had put a lot of thought into his tactics. He reckoned the idea was to pay outline until the frog had drifted a reasonable distance downstream, then a click of the bail arm would swing the restrainer around into the slack water. The strike would occur just as the frog hit the backwater and “swam like hell for the shore.” The ﬁrst bit had worked fine, but now after almost a minute had passed since he tightened the line onto the reel he still could not ‘feel the weight of the frog pulling for freedom.
Just as he began to say something a despairing “croooooaaaark” broke the silence, upstream from where he stood. “Must be another bugger” whispered Bert.
Then it came again, but this time it was a long, sort of frantic “croooooaaaak”. A faint suspicion prompted Robbie to wind in, and sure enough, when the line tightened the rod tip swung upstream to where their frog, having sneaked past in the dark, was valiantly towing twenty yards of the line back to the swamp.
He came back quite easily once Rob had tightened the drag, and Bert shone the torch while the frog sat in Robbie’s palm, puffing hard and, Rob imagined, wearing a particularly reproachful look on his bright green face.
“Better give the poor little blighter a breather,” suggested Bert. So they switched off the torch and stood listening to the Morepork in the dead Totara behind them, both wrestling with ever-growing twinges of conscience and thinking quiet thoughts about the place of frogs in the overall scheme of things.
When Bert put the torch on again the frog’s breathing was almost back to normal, but Rob fancied that the bulging eyes contained a hint of resignation now. Gone was the alert, almost desperate expression on the face of the frog as they had initially framed and ﬂung him out to fend for himself.
“What do you reckon Bert will I we give him another circuit?” Rob asked, surprised that he had to force his voice to sound casual.
Bert, with the torch under one arm, was rolling a smoke, far too busy to answer. A long awkward silence followed until Robbie said: “you know I reckon that hook is slung far too low”. “Yeah,” said Bert immediately, I doubt whether that wireframe would be strong enough to hold one of those fish anyway.”
With a loud curse, but silently relieved, Robbie untweaked the saddle straps, slipped the head out of the collar and the legs out of the loops, and gently slipped the frog back into the wet sock with the others. Later, when he released them all back into the swamp behind the hut he smiled at the thought of Bert’s face when he realized that it was one of his socks they had used.
They never thought that night, as they suppered on whitebait omelettes that the whole episode would provide them with a constant source of enjoyment in years to come.
Nowadays when visitors call in for a cup of tea with Robbie and Bert it’s not long before someone asks, “what the hell is that wire thing hanging on a nail by the door?” That’s when Robbie puts on the special pitying expression that most people reserve for half-wits and says “it’s a harness for a frog, what else?”