Do you believe every fish tale you hear? The Tampa Bay area has one that gives local anglers nightmares.
"It's head was as wide as the hood of a pickup truck," Larry Mastry said when describing our local legend. "Very scary."
He's talking about a giant hammerhead shark fisherman call 'Old Hitler'. He, or perhaps she, is part-Loch Ness monster, part-Bigfoot and ocean UFO. The massive fish is said to be over 20-feet long (up to 25 feet if you find a lively storyteller) and around 2,000 pounds – unbelievable numbers for a hammerhead.
"I never caught a 20-footer but I've caught some big hammerheads," said Joseph Guyas, who drives from the Orlando area to fish from the Sunshine Skyway pier. "Twelve, 14-footers but never, ever a 20."
Old Hitler stalked the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the mid-1970s and, some say, still does. Depending on which salty, sea scoundrel you happen to find in the bait shop that day, the way Old Hitler got its name slightly varies.
Some claim the soldiers during World War II that came to fish the clear, warm waters of Tampa Bay gave the nickname to the scariest, most notorious fish they encountered. Others say aircraft looking for enemy boats mistook giant hammerheads for ships and eventually named the largest beast, Old Hitler.
Whatever the original reason, people who have fished under this region's most recognizable bridge for any length of time all know about the most infamous fish in these waters.
"The head was the size of a pickup truck," said Larry Mastry, who says he saw Old Hitler up close as a young man in the 1970s. "As he cruised by he was looking at you with his eye. You could see his eye actually move and look towards you in the boat. It was a really eerie experience."
"Old Hitler" Larry Mastry extended interview
Mastry's family has owned a St. Petersburg bait shop for four generations. Earlier this month, fisherman in Mastry's shop recalled a Port Charlotte man's catch – a giant hammerhead caught in Boca Grande that some anglers thought could be the famed fish. That shark turned out to be over 13-feet long and 1,060 pounds. It was pregnant and estimated to be 49 years old.
A huge fish, but not Old Hitler.
"I've never seen anything like that again of that size," said Mastry. "I mean, this thing was serious."
The International Game Fish Association keeps track of record-setting catches. The world record for the largest hammerhead caught on line and reel is 1,360 pounds. That would be a minnow compared to the size of Old Hitler…if you believe those kind of fish tales.
"Yes, I believe the story," said Captain Mike Longnecker. "There is an Old Hitler out there. There's got to be. Got to be."
The legend of Old Hitler lives on even if the shark itself may not. Scientists say most hammerheads live between 20-30 years but some have been found to be older.
Believe or don't. Every fisherman is different.
But, if you trust in fish tales the size of "Old Hitler", the stories will only continue to grow.