Three hops to Glory

ANGELS CAMP -- Jacob Smith plopped his bullfrog, Skeeter Eater, onto a piece of carpet at the Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee on Sunday, blew air on him and then started yelling while hopping behind the amphibian.

The mixture proved to be a winning combination.

Skeeter Eater jumped 19 feet, 3 inches to take first place at the 80th annual Frog Jump Grand Finals before leaping off the stage and into the crowd with Jacob in tow. A battalion of net-toting frog catchers couldn't even stop him.

"There weren't any netters close enough, so he just kept going," said a glowing Jacob, 16, a sophomore at Clovis West High School in Fresno, after returning from the stands with his amphibian friend back in hand.

Several hundred people cheered on the

49 bullfrogs and their so-called jockeys who made it to the final round of the fair's hallmark attraction. It honors "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," a short story by Mark Twain.

Like the central frog of the story, Dan'l Webster, the amphibious athletes arrive for their hop in boxes, most of them wooden. Their jockeys retrieve them moments before the jump, and the one that leaps the farthest in three hops wins. Rosie the Ribiter still holds a record set in 1986 at 21 feet, 5¾ inches. If a frog ever beats that record, its jockey stands to win $5,000.

Jacob took home $750 for Skeeter Eater's first-place finish Sunday. But it's unlikely Skeeter Eater will be back to break the record next year. He and the other frogs are supposed to be returned to where they came from, in Skeeter Eater's case, a canal near Fresno where Jacob's dad, Greg Smith, found him last weekend.

Competitors come from as far as Oregon. And most, if not all, brought frogs. They get them about a week ahead of the contest. Many have secret spots where they know bullfrogs frequent and keep their eyes out for particularly muscular ones such as Skeeter Eater.

Those do the best, said Jacob's uncle, Bob Yost of Sacramento, whose frog won first place in 1992 with a jump of 19 feet, 11 inches.

John Cole, 30, of Lebanon, Ore., said he goes out at night in a boat and uses a spotlight to pick his frogs. His uncle started competing in the Calaveras County event in 1969, and Cole said he's been coming since he was about 5 years old.

People can also participate in what are called "fun jumps," that aren't part of the official competition. Jubilee enthusiast Bill Guzules equips the event with 400 American bullfrogs plucked from local ponds and kept during the fair in a cavernous cellar underneath the stage. They live in water tanks cut in half and partially filled. Caretakers refer to them in jest alternately as condominiums and town houses but they are more like communal houses.

"They are very social," said caretaker Larry Thompson, and therein lies one of the challenges of repeatedly jumping the same frogs. Unlike the mythical Dan'l Webster, who excelled under the teachings of his keeper, Jim Smiley, the frogs at the fair become more docile (and less likely to jump) when they get used to people.

"Frogs handled the least do the best," Thompson said.

So organizers rotate the frogs so that none jump more than others, he said.

"We want them all to be the best. They are all great athletes," he said. "They are phenomenal. And they all want the opportunity to perform."

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at or 578-2324.