VIKING VIXENS

The team “Viking Vixens” from the boat On Point poses for a photo at the KWLA captains party Friday. Those shown in the photo are, left to right, Sarah Everhart, Courtney Burrell, Courtney Auman, Tracy Hemby, Debbie McCutcheon and Jessica Lanier. (Zack Nally photo)

MOREHEAD CITY — The Keli Wagner Lady Angler (KWLA) Tournament just keeps growing and growing.

Once thought to be just a kickoff for the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament the following week, the KWLA has blossomed into the largest one-day billfish competition in the country.

This year, the 22nd annual tournament has attracted a record 167 boats for a $177,500 purse, despite an earlier grim weather forecast for the competition. Organizers feared a washout Saturday, but instead, the weather opened up with just light rain and cloudy skies.

The tournament has increased its boat count each of the last six years. There were 161 boats in last year’s competition, 142 in 2017, 125 boats in 2016, 96 in 2015, 81 in 2014 and 48 in 2013.

“We have set the bar pretty high the last few years,” KWLA Director Madison Maxwell said. “And every year, the boat count goes up, the crowd here gets bigger. It’s pretty exciting.”

This is Maxwell’s third year as the KWLA’s sole coordinator after sharing the role with Big Rock Tournament Director Crystal Hesmer in 2016. The 2011 West Carteret graduate has worked with the tournament for six years overall.

“I had a summer job here my first year, and then I did my internship here at the Big Rock,” Maxwell said. “They offered me a job after graduation, it was a win-win situation. 2016 was kind of like an intro year. I did it with Crystal side-by-side, and I learned a lot. It was really fun to be able to come back to the place where I grew up to work for an organization like this one.”

The focal point of the KWLA’s captains party at the Crystal Coast Civic Center is the Best Dressed Contest, with many of the lady angler boat teams donning ocean-themed costumes to compete for a variety of Best Dressed categories.

Food is provided by Fat Fellas BBQ & Grille in Newport, and with the throng of Big Rock returners mingling inside and out of the convention center, the night serves as a sort of reunion party.

“It gets everyone’s morale up,” Maxwell said. “It’s the first time everyone is seeing each other since last summer’s competition. The ladies get in their outfits, and they’re ready for tomorrow. Everyone is excited for the fishing to begin.”

Many of the teams honored cancer survivors, fitting since the bulk of the KWLA’s charitable donations go to the Raab Cancer Clinic in Morehead City. One team, named “Support the Cure” from the boat Whitetail Properties, raised $3,055 and organized care packages for cancer patients.

“We’re so excited to see people really getting behind the charitable side of this competition,” Maxwell said. “Registering for this tournament is already showing support, but a lot of teams tonight are going above and beyond to honor that.

Thanks to a slogan of “Charity First,” the KWLA has contributed more than $349,165 to charities since it began in 1998. To date, $303,916 has been donated to the Carteret Health Care Cancer Center.

The one-day tournament had lines in the water at 8 a.m. Saturday with them required to come out at 2 p.m. Teams earned 400 points for blue marlin and 125 points each for white marlin, sailfish, spearfish and hatchett marlin. Winners are also crowned in yellowfin tuna, dolphin and wahoo weigh-in categories. This year, winning teams must provide indisputable video or photo evidence and file release paperwork to qualify for release points and prizes.

Last year Hit-N-Run captured the 21st annual competition with the release of a blue marlin and a white marlin. Capt. David Fields and the rest of the team beat out 161 boats to win $66,046 from the tournament’s $149,388 purse. The blue marlin was reeled in and released by West Carteret alum Mindy Ballou Fitzpatrick who is a former All-American basketball standout at West and the University of South Carolina. The white marlin aboard Hit-N-Run was released by Laura Russell.

There were a total of 20 billfish releases last year, including five blue marlin releases, five white marlin releases and 10 sailfish releases.

Enough angler Lauren Dudley reeled in the heftiest dolphin, a 52.7-pounder to win her team $71,571.

The KWLA Tournament is named in honor of the late wife of former Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament President and last 2014 Big Rock winner, Casey Wagner. His wife, Keli Wagner, lost her battle with cancer in 2008. She was instrumental in having proceeds from the KWLA Tournament donated to the Raab Clinic, specifically for patient comfort and care.

See results of the KWLA Tournament in the Wednesday issue of the News-Times, as well as a special Big Rock Daily Line issue on Tuesday morning which will be distributed at businesses along the Morehead City waterfront and is free of charge. The Big Rock Daily Line will also be published as an insert in the Wednesday issue of the News-Times and once again distributed at businesses along the waterfront Thursday. Two more Daily Line issues will appear as inserts in News-Times issues Friday and Sunday, June 15 and 17.

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