Displayed at Anna Maria's Island Historical Society located near the north end of Anna Maria Island, is the record setting Great Hammerhead Shark caught by Frank Cavendish and Dr. Ralph French at the Rod & Reel Pier, Anna Maria Island. STAFF PHOTO / THOMAS BENDER

The legend of Spiro the Shark

ANNA MARIA ISLAND — Frank Cavendish was the owner of a wooden fishing pier who sold hot dogs and beer to cigarette-flicking fishermen sitting on turned-over bait buckets.

He could be a showman, too, so the tourists really loved him. For years he would dye his beard a different color each day, sprinkle glitter in it, and then dive into the water at 3 p.m. sharp to rinse it all out.

And just before he’d go home each night to relax with a Manhattan or two, he would throw the oddest contraption into the water, one that consisted of a hook, tire, rope, chain and a sting ray.

That was how he caught the monster sharks.

On the morning of June 29, 1973, he checked his contraption at the Rod and Reel Pier on Anna Maria Island and what he saw continues to be part of local fishing lore: The biggest hammerhead shark ever caught.

A veteran fisherman who hauled in more than 700 sharks, the 63-year-old Cavendish had never seen anything like it. No one had. This hammerhead measured 17 feet, 1 inches and he calculated it to weigh 1,386 pounds.

Doc French and Frank Cavendish and their catch on the Rod & Reel Pier. Photo provided by Anna Maria Island Historical Society
It was 83 inches in girth, had a 28-inch dorsal fin and its tail was 42 inches from tip to tip. It was the biggest shark Cavendish had ever caught by 630 pounds and it bit on a 14-pound sting ray.

“It looked like a whale, not a shark,” says 66-year-old Dale Woodland, who was on the pier that day as a teenager. “I was stunned.”

The local island newspaper didn’t write much on the catch, but noted that the shark was basically dead when Cavendish first saw it and that many people helped hoist it onto the pier. Perhaps hundreds of people came to see it throughout the day and the colorful Cavendish posed for pictures while straddling it.

Woodland, who lived on Anna Maria Island then, remembers hearing about it through the “coconut telegraph'’ and rushing over to the pier to see it. He said he was “uncomfortable” being around a dead shark.

“I mean, I was impressed with the size, whoa, it was huge, but there were two different emotions,” Woodland says. “One was excitement over seeing something that big, but the other one was, ‘It was dead, so what?’

“It was like going to a museum.”

It was later revealed that the giant hammerhead Cavendish caught was carrying 50 pups, each about 2 feet long, a revelation that would spark outrage today.

Just ask Port Charlotte resident Bucky Dennis, who captured a world-record shark in 2006. He thought he would be a hero. Instead he encountered people on the Internet who wished him dead because the shark he caught was carrying 55 pups.

Dennis set an International Game Fish Association all-tackle record by catching a 1,280-pound shark while using a 130-pound test line. It was the largest ever landed with a rod and reel and it was so powerful it took five hours to fight and pulled him 12 miles out, so far he couldn’t get cell phone reception. subber Cavendish used a much different method in a much different time.

He would attach a massive hook to a chain that was fastened to 70 feet of 6,400-pound nylon test rope. It would be tied to a tire and dropped near the dock pilings each night before he went home. When he returned each morning he would check the line and often he had a shark hooked.

Most newspaper accounts also credit Cavendish’s friend and fishing partner Ralph French with helping to catch the huge shark. He was known to the locals on the island as “Doc.”

French really was a doctor, too. He attended Columbia, then the NYU College of Medicine, and did fellowships at Georgetown as well.

He later moved to Anna Maria Island because he liked to swim and scuba dive and it was said he lived modestly and invested his money wisely.

After he died in 2009 the Ralph S. French Charitable Foundation was established, and last year 18 veterans from around the country received scholarships worth $4,000 apiece to help further their educations.

Cavendish — who is also deceased — quit his job at Tropicana to buy the pier in 1961 and he owned it through the 1970s. In the beginning he had planned on quietly becoming a fishing bum until he got washed away by the excitement of shark fishing and soon became a local attraction.

He claimed to have documented catching 779 sharks that weighed more than 150 pounds each. He stopped shark fishing after “Jaws” came out in 1975 because too many people began the quest of catching the next monster shark.

“He was a tough guy,” Woodland says of Cavendish. “He ran this pier tough, but he wasn’t a bad guy either.

“Now, Doc French, he was just fascinating, interesting. It didn’t matter what the subject matter was.

“They literally were two peas in a pod. They were characters, but in such different ways.” subber Woodland says the shark that was caught in 1973 is not the fabled “Old Hitler,” which has been said for years to be lurking in the waters from Boca Grande to Tampa Bay, but this shark has become legend nonetheless.

Oddly, Cavendish and French named the shark “Spiro” after Spiro Agnew, former vice president of the United States.

As the story goes, Cavendish gave a shark-jaw trophy to Kentucky Governor Louie Nunn in March 1971 and Nunn kept it in his office.

Both Agnew and President Richard Nixon went to Kentucky the following year to campaign on behalf of Nunn, and when Agnew saw the shark trophy on the wall he remarked that he wanted one, too.

Somehow this got back to Cavendish and French and they sent the shark’s teeth to Agnew and named the fish after him.

The Rod and Reel Pier still looks today much like it did decades ago, even after hurricanes and fires. On the wall in the bar are old faded newspaper accounts of the big fish people have caught, including “Spiro” the shark.

And people are still attracted to the legend. Last Friday afternoon, Andre and Elmary Erasmus stopped by. They are originally from South Africa but have lived in Bradenton the past 15 years.

Elmary’s mother was in town visiting and they came to the pier specifically for one reason: they wanted to show her the spot where it happened.

They sat on a bench in the back, stared out over the water and tried to imagine what it must have been like on that morning in 1973, when the world’s largest hammerhead shark was caught at Frank Cavendish’s wooden fishing pier.

— Chris Anderson, Herald-Tribune