The numbers were just too good to be true for Cheryl McKleskey. She believes divine providence was at work when she landed the largest fish at the 42nd Annual White Marlin Open last week in Ocean City, Maryland. It’s hard to argue with McKleskey’s logic.
McKleskey was fishing aboard the Virginia Beach-based Backlash with Captain Steve Richardson. Other team members included mate Chris Ward, Mike Gingell, Rachael Davanzo, Kurt Ward and Will Austin.
The team left early on the morning of August 5. “I had a really good feeling that day,” said Cheryl. “We were on boat number 87 and Steve’s birthday was two days away, 8-7 and my birthday was August 8. So the numbers were adding up for us,” added Cheryl.
At 2:40 that afternoon, Captain Steve yelled, “white marlin!” Moments later the fish was hooked and McKleskey wasted little time getting that fish to the boat. “We saw how big that fish was and we started getting nervous,” said Richardson. “A fish had to be 67 inches or 70 pounds to qualify. I’ve caught quite a few of these over the years so there was no doubt in my mind that this fish was going to qualify,” added Richardson.
After a quick celebration, the crew put the fish in the bag and made the two and half hour trip back to the docks in Ocean City. “When the scale said 94 pounds everyone started hollering and jumping up and down. It was a great feeling,” said Richardson. “But when you get the fish on the scales and you think you might just win a million dollars and you have to wait two more days, it takes all the fun out of the tournament because you are worried to death that somebody’s gonna come in with a 95 pound fish,” added Richardson.
With 307 boats fishing and some of the best anglers in the world competing in what is known as The World’s Largest Billfish Tournament, that certainly could happen. “I’ve been there before where I was leading going into the final day only to finish in 3rd place,” said Richardson.
But the fish held up and with it a first place check worth $1,176,113. “This was a life changing moment for many of us on this boat. That kind of money can change the direction of your life,” said Richardson.
McKleskey became the first female winner in the 42-year history of the tournament. Her 94-pound white marlin was the third largest landed in the tournament’s history.
McKleskey plans to donate much of her share of the winnings to charity and she is quick to point out the most important number to come from her tournament experience, “It hit me last night that the 94 pound fish is the same number as my anniversary with my late husband Wayne. We were married on September 4, or 9-4. I knew he was with me the entire time and he’s always with me when I’m out at sea.”