Run Off anglers Stephanie Avent, Fuquay Varina, and Julia Simpson, Morehead City, combined to release a blue marlin and land a 22.9-pound dolphin Saturday to defeat a record field of 96 boats and win the 18th annual Keli Wagner Lady Angler (KWLA) tournament.
Ashley Lauren came in second with a blue marlin release and a 20.5-pound dolphin. Carnivore finished third with a blue marlin release and an 18.2-pound dolphin. It was the tightest finish in KWLA history, with 8 boats tied at 400 points before going to a tiebreaker.
Simpson, who had never fished the KWLA before, boated her dolphin shortly after the tournament got under way. Her catch served as the tiebreaker at the scales after Avent fought and released her first blue marlin.
”It jumped, it ran out and it went deep,” said Avent as she recounted her 35-minute fight. “It was a team effort and everyone helped catch this fish. It was all pretty amazing.”
The two catches helped Run Off win $10,200 from a record $60,668 purse. But late Friday it didn’t look as if any records would be broken.
“Last night, around 4 p.m., we only had 60 boats registered,” said KWLA tournament director Donna Hardy, who had a record 81 boats register last year. “I figured there was no way to even get close to last year’s number.
“Then the weather took a favorable turn and 36 more registrations occurred between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. We had 10 fishing teams register as non-fishing teams … they just wanted to support what we do. We had 33 sponsors this year and people are still coming out of the woodwork asking to help. This community is amazing.”
We III angler Abby Broughton, Washington, D.C., won the “Winner Take All” dolphin category to help her team win $37,400 with a 34.1-pound catch. The We III, captained by Preston Lea, Raleigh, also receives $3,400 for winning dolphin gamefish category.
Little Less Talk angler Erin Blaha, Newport, landed a 40.6-pound wahoo to win $3,400 in that gamefish division. No tuna were brought to the scales for the second straight year so that division prize of $6,288 will roll forward to the 19th annual KWLA next year.
Proceeds of $25,000 from the one-day billfish event will be donated to KWLA charities. Since 1998, the KWLA has raised $251,065 for area charities
Official results will be final after 10 p.m. Saturday – the deadline for all release forms to be turned in to KWLA officials. The KWLA – pronounced “koala” – is named after Keli Wagner, a local avid fisherman and supporter of this event who lost her battle with cancer in 2008.

The 17th KWLA serves as a kickoff event for the 56th Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament set to start Monday. So far, 118 boats have signed up for this year’s Big Rock, which has raised $3,337,836 for charity since 1988. This registration ensures the Big Rock purse will exceed $1 million for the 18th straight year.