By Frank Berte
Destin Fishing Rodeo’s Weighmaster extraordinaire. A seemingly simple man with a complex, tangled past. A man who, to some, has become synonymous with the very Rodeo itself has lived a far more tangled past. His fascination with fish has been lifelong, as has his chronic sea sickness. This ironic twist is just the tip of the iceberg that is Bruce’s origin story. One that dates back through the centuries, a legacy intertwined with the history of our nation, our town and our docks. One that brought him to our humble fishing town and, some may say, kept the place the “world’s luckiest fishing village.”
Our story begins way back in 1835. A large fishing vessel out of New London, Connecticut had lost its way in rough seas by the Bermuda Triangle. The ship was caught in a mighty storm. It was a brave and mighty crew who had seen many days at sea and they were weary when first they caught sight of the massive tentacle arms of an unknown creature from the depths. The tentacles quickly wrapped around the giant ship and crushed it like it was a tin can. The great beast devoured most of the crew and when it had its fill, it headed west and made its way into the Gulf of Mexico. There weren’t many survivors to talk about that, but there was Leonard. He was able to make his way to shore floating on a handmade raft of scrap wood. He became quite the fisherman – set up camp right in front of Crab Island. His last name was, of course, Destin.
Meanwhile in Germany, The Kaiser had had enough. In August 1914, World War I broke out in Europe. Fishing and shipping channels were threatened. Around that same time, well exactly that same month, the Panama Canal opened. Not coincidentally, a certain sea monster, we’ll call the Destin Kraken, made its way to the Pacific, and there it feasted. It fed on everything – quid, whales, great white sharks, and mediocre minnows up and down the west coast.
In 1951 a man was born who would change the fishing world forever. Coming from the little town of Monterey, California, Bruce grew up by the sea, on the northwest coast where fishing is very popular, and where there are plentiful fish the Destin Kraken is sure to follow. It was here that the two met up. Bruce was reeling in a halibut and as it got closer, he noticed something was wrapped around his fish – it was a giant orange tentacle.
As he reached down to pull the tentacle from his flippy floppy halibut, the tentacle stung him instantly and made his stomach turn at the thought of being on a boat. The beast did this because it realized that he would be the creature’s greatest foe. Three things happened that day as 10-year-old Bruce wrestled the stinging tentacles off the approximately 438.38-lb. halibut. He was seasick any time he was on a boat from that day forward; next he suddenly could guesstimate the weight of almost all fish within ounces, and finally, the Destin Kraken had met his match.
The mighty Kraken sensed something special in that young boy it had stung. The two had a special connection. So much so that when Bruce took a job in Destin in 1977, the beast followed him. Back through Panama Canal, it went, back to the Gulf’s emerald green waters. Bruce’s illustrious career along the docks put him close to the waters where this orange monster awaited their next encounter. There were several close calls and near misses until the fall of 1990.
It was late August and not a slow year for hurricanes. Destin Fishing Rodeo Officials were looking for someone to set a new benchmark, to be the voice of the fishing community, and someone to weigh all the fish at the Rodeo. But they would have to wait another year.
As one might imagine, by October Bruce was becoming quite the weighmaster. His time on the Destin docks was exposing him to an exponential number of species and aquatic creatures of every color, shape, and size imaginable. It was about that same time when the young movie director Louis Leterrier was on a fishing trip with some L.A. friends in some lower Alabama or was it Florida town, known for fishing. He couldn’t remember. Louis met Bruce after a pretty dismal weekend of fishing,. It was maybe a Monday. The two men bonded over the poor conditions. Louis joked about making a movie about Bruce’s life. He was so desperate to bring fish home to L.A., that he might have said something like “Bring me a fish, and I’ll make you famous!” Bruce laughed, but then a little seasick feeling hit him in his gut.
Bruce was named the official weighmaster for the Destin Fishing Rodeo in 1991. But we are still in 1990. Lured in by all the fish from the tournament, the great beast had come into the harbor. That very night, after he and Louis had joked, Bruce was the last guy on the Docks. The last guy save for a stray bum, who passed out a little too close to the edge. It was after the last cooler was cleaned, that a loud slurping sound came from just behind him. By then the bum was dinner. Bruce swung around and saw his old friend the Destin Kraken. The beast tore down half the old docks in the battle that ensued. The damage was so massive that the whole place had to be remodeled and, in 2007, they opened the Emerald Grande on top of what had been the greatest battle the Town of Destin had ever seen. The next day Bruce brought his new friend a chunk of the beast he had killed.
Louis made good on his promise. Though it took a few years, the Kraken played himself. They replaced Bruce with Perseus in the final cut of the movie and, in 2010, The Clash of the Titans was released. That same year the City of Destin declared October 16th “Bruce Cheves Day,” and, I mean, can you blame them?