As fish tales go, Charles “C.J.” Wickersham says with a grin that he’s “got a pretty good one.”
Wickersham, 21, of Longboat Key, was spearfishing with friends about 6 miles off the coast of Anna Maria Island Sept. 24, when he became the fifth recorded shark-bite victim in Manatee County waters.
Eight days after a bull shark left Wickersham with a gaping 14-inch wound on his left thigh, a shark — authorities don’t know what kind — bit a fisherman in waist-high water off Anna Maria’s Bean Point. The injury that 38-year-old Javier Perez of Kenneth City suffered Oct. 2 was minor. Manatee County’s sixth recorded shark-bite victim in more than 100 years was treated and released from Blake Medical Center in Bradenton.
Wickersham’s injury had required multiple procedures and a six-day stay in the trauma center at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.
Closing the wound took about 800 stitches. Wickersham, an avid fisher and former football player for Manatee High School, says the only other memorable injury he’s suffered was from a skateboard fall when he was 16. He hit his chin on a rock. That cut required six stitches.
Wickersham went to his home in Longboat Key’s village Sept. 30. He’s recuperating there, aided by relatives, encouraged by friends and entertained by television and Xbox games.
“It feels pretty good — no pain pill since Saturday,” Wickersham says during an interview Oct. 6. He’s sporting a nearly 2-week-old red beard that his mother said made him look like a lumberjack.
“I haven’t felt much like shaving,” he explains.
Wickersham rests in a recliner in a sunny living room, with “Tiger Woods PGA Tour” paused on the Xbox. His injured leg is in a brace and bandaged.
“I go back the 26th to get the stitches out,” he says, referring to a doctor’s visit later this month.
Wickersham went home with pain medication, but hadn’t needed any after the first day out of the hospital. He is taking only baby aspirin as a blood thinner.
Full recovery is expected “once the muscle branches out,” says Wickersham, who is contemplating a request that he and his rescuers appear on NBC’s “Today” show, which could involve traveling to New York City.
When asked about the voluminous media attention, he chuckles.
“I never thought you could get that much attention for getting bit by a shark,” he says.
But Wickersham gets serious when he says that the six friends on the boat outing with him Sept. 24 “probably saved my life.”
Those friends — Connor Bystrom, Max Gazzo, Katie Mattas, Kiera Dunn, Oceanna Beard and Lee White — rescued Wickersham from the water and tended to his wound as they rushed him to first-responders on the shore at the Rod & Reel Pier.
“They acted fast,” Wickersham says.
On Sept. 12, at about 6 p.m., the group of seven is expected to gather for a heroes’ reception at Holmes Beach City Hall, 5801 Marina Drive. The Islander is organizing the event, with participation from Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Longboat Key mayors.
Wickersham was in water about 40 feet deep, having just completed a free dive, when he felt a bump. “I was catching my breath,” he remembers. “I came back up from a dive, felt a bump and I looked.”
He thought one of his friends was goofing around, playing on his minor fear of sharks.
But then he saw the bull shark — identifiable by its bullish head — and his own blood. The bite was not painful.
“The teeth are so sharp,” he says.
The 911 call from Dunn to the county emergency operations center lasted 10 minutes, ending when Gazzo beached the boat next to the pier.
Wickersham says he remained conscious throughout. His friends told him he complained on the way to the pier, not about the bite but about his uninjured leg bouncing against the back of the boat.
“I remember it,” he says of the rush to the shore and then the Bayflite helicopter ride to the hospital.
“I was trying to stay conscious,” Wickersham says, adding that he was told he lost about five units of blood.
The International Shark Attack File, a database managed by the University of Florida’s ichthyology department, contains details of 625 shark-related incidents in Florida since 1882. Until recently, with the attacks on Wickersham and Perez, there were four recorded incidents in Manatee County:
• On March 23, 1970, 19-year-old Robert Fetterman was wading in county waters when a shark lacerated his foot and calf.
• On Sept. 15, 1981, a shark — possibly a hammerhead or tiger shark — bit Mark Meeker’s right calf. The report indicates that Meeker, 26, swimming in Tampa Bay between Egmont Key and the Island, suffered a fatal wound. An autopsy showed that the New Jersey man bled to death.
• On July 4, 2000, 55-year-old Beverly Comstock was spearfishing near an artificial reef about 3 miles offshore of Manatee Public Beach in Holmes Beach. A 4-foot nurse shark bit her lower, right calf.
• On Aug. 29, 2001, 29-year-old Kristi Herzberg was bit on an arm by a shark. The species was not identified. The bite occurred while she was standing in the Gulf at Coquina Beach in Bradenton Beach.
The database now includes the bite Wickersham suffered, although the location erroneously is listed as “Santa Maria Island,” and the bite Perez suffered, also erroneously listed as occurring on “Santa Maria Island.”
Wickersham, who grew up on Longboat Key, knows his way around the islands, the bays and the Gulf. And he knew when he went out Sept. 24 that there were sharks in the water.
“I’ve seen hammerheads, bull sharks, lemonheads,” he says. “This time of year, there’s always sharks out there. Usually they just swim by.”
The attack was unprovoked, in clean, clear Gulf water.
Wickersham says he’s not dwelling on why?
“It was pretty crazy. There’s no why.”
Wickersham is not likely to go diving or spearfishing again soon, not just because he’s recovering from the shark bite.
“It’ll be winter soon,” he says. “Too cold to dive.… So probably next summer.”