Bucky Dennis knew people would be mad when he reeled in a world-record hammerhead shark.
This time of year, a shark as big as this one was likely pregnant. Nobody wants to kill shark babies. But Bucky is a competitor. He already held one world record for shark fishing and he wanted another. And you can't weigh a 1,000-pound shark on a 20-foot boat. You have to kill it, haul it ashore, hang it on a really big scale and smile for the picture.
Bucky couldn't help himself.
"I just had to do it," he said. He's 39. His legal name is Clyde, but everyone calls him Bucky. "I could tell everyone I caught the world record and let it go. But nobody would ever remember."
The shark weighed in at 1,060 pounds. It shattered a world record of 620 pounds, set in 1992.
Bucky posed for his photo, talked to some newspapers, welcomed a crew from ESPN. But he also got smacked around by the backlash. A shark researcher rejected his trophy shark, telling him he was disappointed and could not condone what he'd done. Bucky's story traveled the Internet, where it encountered a catch-and-release audience that was not on his side. It's impossible to print a lot of what the public has had to say about him, but it wasn't "nice catch."
"Times have changed, I understand," Bucky says. "A lot of people want to save the world."
• • •
By nature, Bucky has always sought trophies. He wrestled in high school. He raced dirt bikes in amateur motocross. He won snook tournaments.
In 1998, Bucky got his captain's license. He liked to watch the giant hammerheads that came into Boca Grande Pass to feed on tarpon every year in May and June.
Bucky kept looking for a world-record hammerhead. Giant hammerheads are among the largest sharks in the gulf, and they are known for their endurance. But he either couldn't reel them in or they weren't big enough.
"Then I got the big one," he said.
On May 23, 2006, Bucky was out in Boca Grande Pass, close enough to shore that he could see the bathers on the beach, when a hammerhead latched on his line.
It took five hours, but when he got it on the scale, even he was surprised. Fourteen feet, 1,262 pounds. His first world record, which was caught on different test line than the latest record.
Bucky's first big catch also drew criticism. Bucky gave the shark to researchers. He felt that he'd contributed to the larger understanding of a creature he loved.
Mote Marine Laboratory dissected the shark and found 55 pups inside, the largest number of babies ever known to have come from a hammerhead. A piece of its vertebrae was sent off to determine its age, which was about 50 years old.
Bucky wasn't done. The International Game Fishing Association gives records for fish caught using different test lines. Bucky had landed the 1,262-pound shark with a 130-pound test line. He wanted to break another record, this one with an 80-pound test line.
About a year later, he hauled in one that looked to be about 800 pounds. It was likely over the 620-pound record. But he knew he could do better.
He let it go.
• • •
This month, Bucky took a Port Charlotte couple, Dale and Julie Deibler, out on a shark fishing trip. He helped them catch a 350-pound bull shark. They took pictures and released it.
He replaced the hook.
Twenty minutes later, a large gray shadow passed the boat. Bucky knew it was a hammerhead as soon as it tugged at the stingray on his line. He put on his fishing vest, grabbed his phone.
"Got a big one," he texted a friend. "Need some help."
Over the course of the next two hours, the Deiblers watched him circle the boat as the shark led him half a mile this way, half a mile that way.
Bucky worked his twin-drag reel, letting the shark pull the boat and get tired, and then pulled it in close so he could hook it with his gaff.
When he finally tied up the shark beside the 20-foot boat, they could tell it was big. But it was not until they saw it on land that they realized how big.
"We were just standing there going, 'Oh, my God', " Julie Deibler said.
Bucky took the shark to a weigh station at the Boca Grande Causeway. It was so heavy it fell off the forklift.
• • •
He has been called a killer and a coward, a tool and a moron, a stupid redneck.
"A real fisherman wouldn't have killed that beautiful machine," wrote a guy named Bob on one of many online blogs that covered the catch.
"Great Job, A------," another blogger wrote. "Way to kill a pregnant endangered female."
Giant hammerheads are not officially endangered, and it is legal to harvest them. But Robert Hueter, the shark researcher who rejected Bucky's second shark, said research shows hammerheads are between 75 and 90 percent depleted in the Gulf of Mexico. Fishermen see a lot of them coming in for the spawning tarpon at Boca Grande Pass, but their numbers are still dwindling.
Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, said Bucky's second shark looked pregnant in the pictures and video he saw.
"I just didn't want to accept that specimen and encourage the killing of pregnant females," Hueter said.
Bucky still doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
One of his fishing buddies compared him to Ernest Hemingway, who was always looking for big marlins off Key West and wrote the Old Man and the Sea.
If Bucky lived in Hemingway's time, would everyone be so angry at him?
"Fifteen years ago, he would have been a hero," says Capt. Ryan Rowan, a fishing guide.
But today, even some of his fishing colleagues are criticizing him.
"I have a lot of respect for Bucky's ability, and to be quite honest with you, I want to do the same thing he's doing," said Fishin' Frank ("that's how I go, no last name"), the owner of Fishin' Frank's Bait & Tackle in Charlotte Harbor.
"I'd just like to see him a little more humbled before the shark."
Bucky says he's not out to kill any more pregnant sharks. He doesn't need to, since he already landed the biggest one in the world.
"Unless I'm out there and an 18- or 20-footer came by me," he says. "Then I wouldn't be able to help myself."
As for this one, when Hueter rejected the shark, Bucky didn't know where to turn. He said he cut the teeth out and allowed one man to get some meat off it.
Then he returned the dead shark to the sea.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.