OCHOPEE, Fla. — Dave Shealy is best known as the keeper of the legend of the Everglades’ mysterious skunk ape. The 49-year-old South Florida native has built a pretty good business around his Skunk Ape Research Headquarters located about 60 miles west of Miami. Shealy has appeared on several television programs dedicated to tracking down the stinky, gorilla-sized creature and its more famous cousin, Big Foot. He displays a plaster cast of the ape’s purported footprint at his souvenir shop/mini-zoo/campground and sells T-shirts and instruction books on hunting and baiting the animal to vanloads of tourists who stop by daily.
“I’m not only the skunk ape expert; I’m the leading expert on Big Foot,” Shealy said without cracking a smile.
But what monster aficionados may not know about the affable cheerleader is his superior skill at frogging.
On a recent evening, Shealy gigged 21 pig frogs in a canal in the Big Cypress National Preserve after about an hour of paddling a canoe – most of them large and fat.
“Huge, dude!” his friend, Naples chef John Orschell, said when Shealy brought them back to his rambling metal house to be sautéed.
As a lifelong “Gladesman,” Shealy loves to eat frog legs. He has been catching the native amphibians in the Big Cypress since he was a child.
“I started out using a cane pole, a hair hook and a little red cloth,” Shealy said. “You wiggle the red cloth in front of them and they’d grab it and you’d catch them.”
But as a teen, the frogger went “high-tech,” using a battery-powered headlamp to locate his quarry and a four-pronged gig to impale them as he paddled rivers, creeks, sloughs and canals.
“It’s a great way to meet girls, a great first date,” he said, chuckling.
Shealy said he has never sold frogs commercially, even though they can bring up to $9 per pound. He eats what he wants and gives the rest away.
“I’d rather just give some to my family or give them to someone elderly who can’t get out,” he said. Commercial frogging is illegal in the Big Cypress; it is permitted in other nearby swamps. Big Cypress froggers may take one five-gallon bucket of frogs per vessel per day, with a possession limit of 18 pounds of dressed legs.
March and April are prime times for catching multiple dinners, Shealy said, because water levels are dropping in the Glades and Big Cypress, sending the animals into canals and drainage ditches where the water is deeper.
“That makes for some easy pickins’ if you play your cards right,” he said.
On a recent cool, clear night with a dark moon, Shealy and a companion launched his aluminum canoe in a brushy canal. His companion sat in the stern and paddled while he sat in the bow holding his gig and scanning the banks with his headlamp.
They paddled quietly over to a patch of hydrilla where the frog sat motionless, the white of its throat shining like a dim electric candle in the glare. Shealy quickly thrust his gig and impaled it immediately.
He stuffed it into a mesh bag, and almost immediately spotted another one on the opposite bank — with a third partially concealed in the cattails behind it. Without fanfare, he speared one, and then the other.
The two frog hunters didn’t have to paddle more than a quarter-mile from their put-in for Shealy to gig 21 mostly large frogs. He missed a couple that ducked when lit up, but had already scored enough in about an hour to make multiple dinners. The two headed back to the truck as a ghostly mist wafted from the canal and night birds called in the distance.
The eerie scene fairly begged for the skunk ape to make an appearance. But the only animal the froggers saw on the ride back to the research headquarters was an opossum.
After chowing down on several chicken-breast-sized frogs, lightly floured and sautéed (along with string beans and pasta), Shealy called it a night. Notwithstanding the frog bonanza, it was also turkey hunting season in the Big Cypress, and he planned to be in the woods at dawn trying to call in a gobbler for even more gourmet entrees.
As a bonus, perhaps the elusive skunk ape would show up.