Marlin - - CONTENTS | FEATURES - By Heather Maxwell

Ladies-only tour­na­ments com­bine char­ity, ca­ma­raderie and more fun than you can imag­ine By Heather Maxwell

You don’t have to look hard to find a ladies-only bill­fish tour­na­ment. Many of the bet­ter-known big-money events give a nod to the ladies either be­fore or af­ter the main event. The sim­i­lar­i­ties among these tour­na­ments are many, but each lady-an­gler event puts its own spin on wet­ting a line for fame and glory. Aside from the com­pet­i­tive fish­ing, if there is a ladies-only tour­na­ment out there that doesn’t boast a team cos­tume con­test then I can­not name it, and many par­tic­i­pants also com­pete for the glory of the best-dec­o­rated boat as well. Most have a lit­tle prize money in the purse, and each one can claim a com­pet­i­tive spirit that would ri­val any big-money tour­na­ment on the cir­cuit. But the real draw is the fun, and there is more than enough to go around.


Tears of laugh­ter flooded a re­cent con­ver­sa­tion with Crys­tal Hes­mer, tour­na­ment direc­tor of North Car­olina’s Big Rock Blue Mar­lin Tour­na­ment and the Keli Wag­ner Lady An­gler Tour­na­ment. The KWLA will cel­e­brate 21 years in June, and is one of the largest ladies-only events in the world. One day of fish­ing with an awards din­ner af­ter­ward might be con­sid­ered run-of-the-mill, but in More­head City, North Car­olina, the an­nual cos­tume con­test is be­yond mem­o­rable. And that is Hes­mer’s Achilles’ heel. Truth be told, it is mine as well, and that’s where the laugh­ter comes into play.

A few months on the back side of the event and ev­ery­thing looks light­hearted and funny, but when you’re sur­rounded by 600 lady an­glers who have poured their hearts into cre­at­ing the ul­ti­mate team-themed cos­tumes, it’s not such a laugh­ing mat­ter. They take it very se­ri­ously. The thing that al­ways gets me gig­gling the hardest is that Hes­mer dis­trib­utes well over $1 mil­lion in prize money each year at the Big Rock Blue Mar­lin Tour­na­ment and I man­age to jug­gle 80 teams and all of our spon­sors as tour­na­ment direc­tor of the Pi­rate’s Cove Bill­fish Tour­na­ment — and both of us are afraid of a bunch of girls in cos­tumes.

Fish­ing out of Ocean City, Mary­land, the Ocean City Mar­lin Club Ladies Tour­na­ment, known as the Heels and Reels, is one of the only events with a three-day for­mat. Fish­ing for a full three days in just about any weather, the ladies are tough. And just as with the North Car­olina-based ladies-only events, they fish hard, play even harder and are never shy about let­ting you know if the ser­vice isn’t up to snuff. Con­versely, the ladies are also the first to say thank you for a job well done.


When it comes to com­pet­i­tive sport fish­ing, most tour­na­ments have some char­i­ta­ble aspect. Tour­na­ments have as­so­ci­ated foun­da­tions, or the events them­selves are run as a non­profit. Auc­tions, raf­fles and per­cent­ages of the en­try fees pro­vide for the char­i­ties that de­pend on the gen­eros­ity of par­tic­i­pants. The ladies events are spe­cial, though, be­cause each one was con­ceived as the sole cause for char­i­ta­ble giv­ing.

It is true that emo­tions run very high when there is con­sid­er­able prize money on the line. Tour­na­ment di­rec­tors will agree that the drama plays out in the cock­pit more times than not, but each has a story of some highly mo­ti­vated team mem­ber who has a pas­sion­ate way of mak­ing their feel­ings known. Take away the prize money and in­stead re­place it with char­i­ta­ble con­tri­bu­tions, and you get a highly mo­ti­vated par­tic­i­pant who is even more en­thu­si­as­tic. When it comes to char­ity events, that pas­sion trans­lates into a re­solve to give, and that is a beau­ti­ful thing. Cou­ple that zeal with a tour­na­ment direc­tor or com­mit­tee that of­fers some fun ways to give and you’ve got a win­ning com­bi­na­tion.

Im­age a tour­na­ment party: Whether it’s cock­tails and hors d’oeu­vres or beer and bar­be­cue, live band or DJ, big tent or ban­quet room. Grab a drink, min­gle about and what do you see? Thirty man­nequins clad only in brassieres. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret spe­cials either: These are fully dec­o­rated bras born of the creative minds of gen­er­ous folks who might have su­per-glued a cou­ple of fin­gers to­gether in the process.

The Dec­o­rated Bra Con­test at the Alice Kelly Memo­rial Ladies Only Bill­fish Tour­na­ment at Pi­rate’s Cove is one of the event’s most suc­cess­ful fundrais­ers. The “artists” pay a fee for a bra kit, and guests bid on their fa­vorite bras over two nights. It’s a dou­ble-dip for the char­ity and keeps the par­tic­i­pants en­gaged as well. That event, cou­pled with a 50-50 raf­fle, a per­cent­age of the Big Dol­phin jack­pot, tour­na­ment spon­sor­ships, ven­dors and the gen­eros­ity of a pa­tron spon­sor, en­ables the Alice Kelly to ful­fill its com­mit­ment to sup­port­ing sev­eral im­por­tant char­i­ties.

Fund­ing a siz­able char­i­ta­ble cof­fer with a two­day event is no easy task though. The eas­i­est av­enue to in­creased rev­enue is to bor­row good

ideas from other events. Capt. Omie Til­lett al­ways said the best-built boat is just a mat­ter of tak­ing the pieces you love from other builders and putting them to­gether. Well, if it’s good enough for Omie, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

In 2017, the Alice Kelly “bor­rowed” a pre-party event suc­cess­fully ex­e­cuted by the Stu­art Sail­fish Club Ladies Tour­na­ment. Mar­garet Dyer and her team ex­tend their event’s two-day for­mat by host­ing fundrais­ers ear­lier in the year. They choose a venue, of­fer dis­counted menu items and auc­tion off a man or two, and voilà, the fundrais­ing is ex­tended over a longer pe­riod. In ex­change for the pre-party con­cept, the Stu­art Sail­fish Club Ladies Tour­na­ment hosted its first Dec­o­rated Bra con­test in Oc­to­ber 2017. “The pre-party proved to be a great idea for us when restau­rants be­gan calling and ask­ing us to host our event there,” ex­plains Dyer. “And the dec­o­rated bras were a last-minute idea, but it worked so well, we have cre­ated a mov­ing dis­play.”


In 2017, the 97-boat fleet in the 28th An­nual Alice Kelly re­leased 79 bill­fish in seven hours of fish­ing. It wasn’t the fast-and-fu­ri­ous ac­tion of the Pi­rate’s Cove Bill­fish Tour­na­ment just two days later, but it was pretty good fish­ing all the same. The ladies tipped the scales with some nice meat fish, and the dol­phin jack­pot reached nearly $20,000.

Just three years be­fore, the event took place in a small-craft ad­vi­sory. Fifty-four teams en­tered, even though just four at­tempted to cross the bar at Ore­gon In­let. Four places filled at a five-place awards cer­e­mony isn’t cause for much cel­e­bra­tion,

but the story has al­ready be­come one of those fish­ing leg­ends. The boys gave the re­spect that was earned that day, and those 24 salty gals will live for­ever in our mem­o­ries. And what of the other 300 an­glers? Well, they did it for the party, and the char­ity. They played hard, and in a year that should have been a dis­as­ter, the tour­na­ment reached its goals for fun and do­na­tions. Since that time the Alice Kelly has dou­bled its giv­ing goals, and the num­ber of an­glers as well.

A cou­ple of coun­ties to the south, an­glers at the Keli Wag­ner Lady An­gler Tour­na­ment in More­head City vie for cash prizes in three meat-fish cat­e­gories and in top bill­fish re­lease points. There is a dol­phin win­ner-take-all that of­fers a fat purse each year, and all of this is covered in the base en­try fee. As for the play, each boat gets a su­per-cool sea bag, and it must be fun to watch the girls fight over the good­ies in­side. The ladies awards are com­bined with the kick­off for the Big Rock Blue Mar­lin Tour­na­ment, which makes for a rowdy party that is the talk of the town for months af­ter­ward.

Down in Palm Beach, Flor­ida, the Blue­wa­ter Babes Fish for a Cure event of­fers some se­ri­ous fun and next-level giv­ing. The tour­na­ment char­ity has mor­phed from help­ing sev­eral breast and ovarian can­cer funds to its own fi­nan­cial-as­sis­tance fund. Not only do the babes run the tour­na­ment, they also field ap­pli­ca­tions for fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance, promis­ing up to $2,500 per qual­i­fied per­son in as lit­tle as five days. The event is known for its through-the-roof fun me­ter and boasts a cock­tail con­test and wa­ter-gun fight in ad­di­tion to the pop­u­lar team and boat dec­o­rat­ing. A ter­ri­ble fore­cast plagued the 2017 event, but an­glers like Traci Ewer, from Mac­Gre­gor Yachts, signed up just for the fun. “The tour­na­ment is just too much fun to be missed,” she told me, and I get it. In just nine short years, Fish for a Cure has hit the $100,000 an­nual giv­ing mark, which is hard to do with a week­long event, let alone in just two days.


My love af­fair with the Alice Kelly Memo­rial Ladies Only Bill­fish Tour­na­ment first be­gan as a par­tic­i­pant in 1990. Since then, I have been a vol­un­teer, the tour­na­ment direc­tor, a par­tic­i­pant again and back around again as the event’s direc­tor. It is hard to be­lieve we are head­ing into our 29th year in 2018.

I never knew Alice — she was gone be­fore I left the docks in Rudee In­let, Vir­ginia — but I am

sure I would have liked her. She had the heart of a fish­er­man: She fished off the beach and off­shore from Ore­gon In­let, as well as in the sounds and the back­coun­try. Any chance to wet a line, she took it. Her story ended in a tragic loss when she died from com­pli­ca­tions of Hodgkin lym­phoma, leav­ing be­hind her dog and more friends than you could count. What she learned as a can­cer fighter back in the 1980s is still shap­ing the lives of can­cer pa­tients to­day.

The Outer Banks of the 1980s was a beau­ti­ful but iso­lated place, much like it is to­day. Back then, there was no ra­di­a­tion, no chemo­ther­apy and ba­si­cally no can­cer treat­ment avail­able. There was also no out­reach for lo­cal pa­tients. Kelly fought her dis­ease and at the same time cre­ated the Outer Banks Can­cer Sup­port Group, which brought to­gether fight­ers and sur­vivors to show that they were not alone. The sup­port group or­ga­nized vol­un­teers to drive pa­tients to their can­cer treat­ments, usu­ally in Vir­ginia, and also funded the trips.

Fast-for­ward to 1989 and the sup­port group was in dire need of funds. A group of Kelly’s friends work­ing at Pi­rate’s Cove de­cided they would find a way to raise them. The Alice Kelly Memo­rial Ladies Only Bill­fish Tour­na­ment was con­ceived as a two-day event that would kick off prior to the start of the sev­enth an­nual Pi­rate’s Cove Bill­fish Tour­na­ment, and the first Tour­na­ment Week at Pi­rate’s Cove was born. The event grew in pop­u­lar­ity over the years and con­tin­ued to fund the trans­porta­tion needs of lo­cal can­cer pa­tients un­til the early 2000s, when the group was fi­nally able to ex­pand its mis­sion and be­gan an out­reach pro­gram. Tour­na­ment do­na­tions funded lo­cal out­reach for an­other 10 years.

In 2014, the Outer Banks Can­cer Sup­port Group merged with the Outer Banks In­ter­faith Com­mu­nity Out­reach. At the same time, the Alice Kelly and the Pi­rate’s Cove Bill­fish Tour­na­ment were sold to a non­profit spear­headed by a group of lo­cal fish­er­men. With all the changes, one thing quickly be­came clear: The In­ter­faith Com­mu­nity Out­reach can­cer pro­gram was now a pro­fes­sion­ally run non­profit, and its abil­ity to reach the com­mu­nity would mean an in­creased de­mand for fund­ing. The tour­na­ment, and the com­mu­nity, re­sponded. In three years, the Alice Kelly has nearly dou­bled its char­i­ta­ble do­na­tions to the ICO.

To this day, no one has seen me cry, but with more than 600 an­glers and grow­ing each year, I am run­ning out of places to hide. And in 29 years, one thing hasn’t changed at all: Vol­un­teers still pro­vide un­lim­ited trans­porta­tion to can­cer treat­ments. Alice Kelly promised, and we de­liver.

The ladies on Reel Quick (above) had a good day of white mar­lin fish­ing out of More­head City, North Car­olina, dur­ing the Keli Wag­ner Lady An­gler Tour­na­ment, held prior to the start of the Big Rock Blue Mar­lin Tour­na­ment. The Dec­o­rated Bra Con­test is a...

Tiffany Ram­sey cel­e­brates a blue mar­lin re­lease dur­ing the Keli Wag­ner Lady An­gler Tour­na­ment.

A lucky lady goes for a swim (left) dur­ing the Mo­bile Big Game Club’s an­nual ladies tour­na­ment, in honor of her first bill­fish re­lease. A team’s cos­tume theme fre­quently ex­tends to the boats, which are fes­tooned with rib­bons, bal­loons and more pink...

ABOUT THE AU­THOR: Heather Maxwell grew up on the docks in Rudee In­let, Vir­ginia, and af­ter an eight-year hia­tus as a gen­eral con­trac­tor, she has re­turned as tour­na­ment direc­tor of the Pi­rate’s Cove Bill­fish Tour­na­ment. She has been writ­ing about...

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