When Big Rock president Casey Wagner stood in front of a large gathering Friday night at the Crystal Coast Civic Center to announce that 70 boats had registered for the one-day billfish event named in honor of his late wife, it seemed hard to believe that just a dozen years before the event drew much less than half that number.

The continual growth has been phenomenal thanks in part to the efforts of the Big Rock board of directors and its year-round staff. But a lion’s share of the praise goes to the lady anglers themselves. Each year, they’ve pushed to make the Keli Wagner Lady Angler (KWLA) tourney bigger and better. Each year, they’ve helped grow the event beyond what the Big Rock directors ever imagined.

“The reason we do this tournament is to raise money for charity,” Wagner told the gathering. “Over the last several years, this tournament has donated over $127,000 to the Raab Cancer Clinic in Morehead City. That money is designated to go for patient care over and above what a hospital would normally provide to make the patients more comfortable.”

Wagner thanked everyone responsible for the success, but had special praise for KWLA competitors who each year bring additional boats and anglers to the competition.

“We appreciate your support,” Wagner told them. “We’re happy to see you back here, year after year and we’re glad to be able to make big contributions to the Raab Clinic.”

The early years of the KWLA featured just a handful of boats heading offshore in what seemed to be a continual string of bad weather. Perseverance seems to have paid off, however, as the forecast for tomorrow couldn’t be nicer.

“I want to put my ladies on a fish tomorrow and see what happens,’’ said Waste Knot captain Patrick ‘Pizza’ Kannan. “There’s been some good billfish fishing this year. I think we’ve got a big week on the horizon, starting tomorrow with the ladies.”

Last year, Fin Hunter caught and released a sailfish to win the 14th KWLA. Competitors this year expect multiple blue marlin hook ups in the billfish release-only competition.

“While the six day Big Rock competition is what everyone focuses on, we’re proud of what the KWLA has become,” said Big Rock tournament director Crystal Hesmer. “The lady anglers should be proud of how big this event has become. It’s exciting to see it get bigger and better every year.”

While lady anglers compete offshore Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Hesmer and her cast of volunteers will be reeling in the final Big Rock registrations. Totals through Friday were on pace to match last year’s field of 135 boats. Hesmer hopes this means the competition’s purse will top $1 million for the 15th straight year.

“We’ve got a great weather forecast and we’re ready for another great tournament, Hesmer said. “Everything’s ready … now we just have to count down the final few hours to the start."

Competitors in the 54th Big Rock are allowed to fish four-of-six fishing days and must notify officials of the days they do not intend to fish. The competition kicks off Monday morning at 9 a.m. after a blessing of the fleet and the official announcement that lines are allowed in the water.