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How a giant tadpole brought out my inner warrior

A bullfrog baby became a ticking time bomb in the depths of my tranquil backyard pond, and taking action gave me a surprising sense of purpose during the pandemic.

This tadpole kept me up at night.
Amanda Kooser/CNET

Editors' note: This week, we're running a special report on the science of happiness and how to strive for it during difficult, complex times. Read more about what the research says about how to be happyhow to boost your happiness hormones, why pursuing happiness has a dark side and how a range of people are finding everyday small ways to perk themselves up. Here's one CNET writer's story of finding a bit of purpose during the pandemic. Hey, everyone has their ways right?   

Like so many people attempting to ward off pandemic-related despair over the last several months, I've cultivated a series of hobbies: magnet fishing. Satellite-spotting. Jigsaw puzzles. Sourdough bread. And obsessively hunting for bullfrog tadpoles. Well, one specific bullfrog tadpole I named Chubby Cheeker. 

Freaky frogs

Bullfrogs are an invasive species in New Mexico and range clear across the US. They're big suckers, topping out at around 8 inches (about 20 centimeters) long. Voracious. Known to munch on birds. Birds! If it can fit in their mouths, they'll eat it. That includes things the size of the precious, innocent little fish that live in my backyard pond. I'm so protective of them, I shoo away roadrunners, concoct elaborate turtle tacos and buy fancy fish foods. I was not going to let a bullfrog become the tyrannical ruler of my backyard paradise. 

For 10 glorious days this summer, I was a warrior, wielding nets and fashioning traps from water bottles and duct tape. I stalked the edges of my small backyard pond at midnight with a flashlight. In those moments, I wasn't thinking about lockdowns or deadlines or politics. It was just me pitting my wits against Chubby, the deviously speedy Concorde jet of the tadpole world.

It started with a neighbor on Nextdoor giving away water lettuce that had turned his pond into a jungle. He just wanted to be able to see his fish again, unobscured by an aquatic carpet of greenery. I went over and scooped the floating plants and their long dangling roots into a bag, but little did I know that bag also contained Chubby. Back at home, I set the water lettuce afloat in the  pond I'd fashioned from an old galvanized stock tank. 

I first saw Chubby -- a big-headed creature as long as a Snickers candy bar -- when I poured the excess water from the bag into the pond. He rode the waterfall like he was chilling on Splash Mountain. I immediately recognized what he was and my mind filled with nightmare images of a future bullfrog slurping down my fish like living sashimi. I steeled myself for battle. 

Trouble in pond paradise

Let me tell you about my pond. It's sunken into the ground and home to several common goldfish and a Shubunkin called Dot. There are too many mosquito fish and rosy red minnows to name. It's my Albuquerque desert oasis. 

My pond is my backyard oasis. You can see the water lettuce Chubby hitched a ride on floating near the center of the pond.

Amanda Kooser/CNET

Bullfrog tadpoles mainly eat algae and insects, so I knew I had a grace period to catch Chubby before he turned into the Joey Chestnut of fish-eating. My pond is small, around 4 feet wide -- you couldn't even social distance properly with it between you and someone else -- but it has plenty of hiding spaces under roots and rocks. Chubby figured this out fast as I probed the water with a net, searching in vain for the fat-cheeked little monster. 

My tadpole hunt kicked in as I was struggling more than usual with the stress of the coronavirus pandemic. The only trips I made were to the grocery store. I checked New Mexico's COVID numbers every evening, watching the spikes, reading the details of the daily deaths. I knew other people had it so much worse than I did. I told myself I shouldn't be feeling so down, but the weight was real. That's when my new life's purpose presented itself: I had to catch Chubby and save my fish.

Frogger in real life

At first, I tried to track Chubby in daylight, looking for a telltale shadow swishing through the pond. Two days in, I switched to a night assault plan. I spotted Chubby hoovering the algae off the rock that holds my submerged filter in place. Easy-peasy, I thought, as I swiped the net through the water. But Chubby was off like a Falcon 9 rocket. I didn't even get close. 

Chubby and I repeated this dance over the next few nights, spending two to three hours together out in the dark. I would shine the flashlight on Chubby, who would keep nibbling algae without a care in the world. As soon as I got close, he was off. Greased lightning. I've never seen an aquatic creature move so fast. 

This trap didn't catch Chubby, but it did confuse some fish.

Amanda Kooser/CNET

So I did what anyone else in my position would. I went to YouTube. That's where I found Dillon L. Fishing's tutorial on how to catch tadpoles. I built a trap by cutting up a plastic bottle and baiting it with par-boiled lettuce. I left it in the pond overnight. In the morning, I strolled out and found two very confused rosy red minnows. 

I was going to need a bigger trap. I made another one out of a larger bottle and baited it with corn, just like Dillon did in the video. The next morning I had successfully captured a mosquito fish. Chubby was too smart for me. 

By this time, I'd managed to take some photos of Chubby in the water. I studied them for signs he was growing back legs, the telltale first step in becoming a bullfrog. He had some suspicious bulges. I could feel the sands of time slipping away through the hourglass.

Nine days in. The traps weren't working. The nets weren't working.   

Victory is imminent.

Amanda Kooser/CNET

But Chubby's downfall was imminent; hubris would bring him into my grasp. I went out that night just after 9. I saw Chubby in a new spot eating algae near the surface of the water. I already had a net in position and lifted it underneath him, sweeping him up tail-first. 

Catch and release

I plopped Chubby into a waiting bucket of water and commenced a celebratory dance around the pond. I took photos and then gave him some kelp flakes to eat and a bunch of water lettuce to hide out under to make it through the night.

Feeling elation, relief and triumph, I checked on Chubby obsessively until midnight, making sure he was safe and comfortable in his temporary lodgings. As I tucked into bed, I realized I hadn't checked New Mexico's coronavirus numbers that evening. That could wait till tomorrow. 

Chubby Cheeker is now in residence at a garden center pond.

Amanda Kooser/CNET

My neighbor didn't ask for the tadpole back, so I made other arrangements. I have a friend who's a gardener at the Albuquerque Garden Center, a beautiful little facility in the middle of the city with a lovely pond filled with koi fish that are too big to fit into a bullfrog's mouth. 

We set Chubby Cheeker free in his new home. He swam away under the lily pads, looking smug like usual. 

I had fulfilled my mission to protect my fish. The world might be crumbling around me, but at least I was (slightly) smarter than one New Mexico balloon-cheeked bullfrog tadpole with afterburners that would make an F-16 proud.