The World’s Top Ladies-Only Billfish Tournaments

More fun than you can imagine

February 28, 2018
The World's Top Ladies-Only Billfish Tournaments
The World’s Top Ladies-Only Billfish Tournaments Jessica Haydahl Richardson

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.

The World's Top Ladies-Only Billfish Tournaments
Tiffany Ramsey celebrates a blue marlin release during the Keli Wagner Lady Angler Tournament. Courtesy of Big Rock Kelli Wagner Lady Tournament

Beware the Skirts
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.

The World's Top Ladies-Only Billfish Tournaments
Boat-decorating and team-costume contests are just some of the many social aspects of ladies-only tournaments, where the creativity is matched only by the enthusiasm. Courtesy of Big Rock Kelli Wagner Lady Tournament

Gotta Get It to Give It
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 World's Top Ladies-Only Billfish Tournaments
The Decorated Bra Contest is a highlight of the Alice Kelly Memorial in the Outer Banks. Courtesy Alice Kelly Memorial Tournament

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 two-day 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.”

The World's Top Ladies-Only Billfish Tournaments
When it comes to charity events, the passion for winning translates into a resolve to give. Courtesy of Big Rock Keli Wagner Lady Angler Tournament

Fish Hard, Play Hard and Donate with a Vengeance
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.

The World's Top Ladies-Only Billfish Tournaments
The ladies on Reel Quick 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. Tom Spencer

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.

The World's Top Ladies-Only Billfish Tournaments
A lucky lady goes for a swim during the Mobile Big Game Club’s annual ladies tournament, in honor of her first billfish release. Jack Snow / Offshore Imaging

Alice Promised
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.

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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.

The World's Top Ladies-Only Billfish Tournaments
A team’s costume theme frequently extends to the boats, which are festooned with ribbons, balloons and more pink than one can imagine. Courtesy of Alice Kelly Memorial Billfish Tournament

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.

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 fishing and boat­building on the Outer Banks for more than 20 years.

From the Director’s Chair

Stuart Sailfish Club Ladies Tournament
Every year in Stuart, Florida, a group of lady anglers — the Saltwater Sisters — gathers for fishing, fun and food to raise money for local charities. Recently, after a rough day on the ocean, the ladies came back from fishing for a live auction. As our version of Vanna White was struggling to showcase an overflowing Yeti cooler full of goodies for the crowd, two strapping young mates jumped up to assist her. One spirited angler yelled to the auctioneer, “How much are they going for?” as the whole tent erupted into laughter. Yes, we do have fun!
Margaret Dyer

Alice Kelly Memorial Ladies Only Billfish Tournament
“Captain’s choice” takes on a new meaning when there is only one fishing day a year and your charter party is composed of six women. Conventional wisdom dictates that it should be called “the captain thinks he has a choice.” The wind could be blowing 25 knots, or there could be well over 200 billfish releases. And that’s when the magic happens: Each girl gets two turns in the chair, and there are double-digit release flags on the rigger coming home. It’s also a hell of a send-off for the boys fishing in the Pirate’s Cove Billfish Tournament the next day, and the ladies love to show them how to get it done.
Heather Maxwell

Keli Wagner Lady Angler Tournament
So many thoughts popped up when I was asked for my favorite story from our 20 years of the KWLA. We’ve had tiebreakers to win for most billfish releases, a dolphin larger than the angler who caught it, a dying father’s wish for his daughter and then for her to win. However, I think the fact that the KWLA supports our local cancer center is still by far the biggest story of our 20 years and the reason these fishing women break records and barriers each year. And our 2014 tournament had to be one of our favorite fishing stories, with ­Caroline Wagner releasing the first blue marlin in the KWLA and Casey Wagner, her father, winning first place in the Big Rock. The KWLA was named after the mother and wife of these two fabulous people.
Crystal Hesmer

The World's Top Ladies-Only Billfish Tournaments
Ladies-only tournaments combine charity, camaraderie and more fun than you can imagine. Courtesy Big Rock Keli Wagner Lady Angler Tournament

Only for the Ladies

Keli Wagner Lady Angler Tournament
June 9, 2018

Ocean City Marlin Club Ladies Tournament
August 2-4, 2018

Mobile Big Game Fishing Club Ladies Tournament
August 3-5, 2018

Alice Kelly Memorial Ladies Only Billfish Tournament
August 11-12, 2018

Poor Girls Open
August 16-18, 2018

Wine, Women and Fishing
August 18-19, 2018

Bluewater Babes Fish for a Cure
October 5-6, 2018

Stuart Sailfish Club Ladies Tournament
October 12-13, 2018


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