OCEAN CITY — Angler Cheryl McLeskey is coming back to Ocean City to defend her 2015 White Marlin Open title, but for the Virginia Beach native, fishing in the world’s largest billfish tournament is about much more than a pursuit of glory.
McLeskey became the first woman to win the tournament in its 42-year history when she hooked a 94-pound white marlin one year ago today (Aug. 5) aboard the Backlash.
This year, she’ll be fishing aboard the Delta Don, which is owned by Pete Manual, also of Virginia, and will be captained by Steve Richardson, who skippered the Backlash last summer.
“It will be myself, and Pete and my cousin Rachael (Davanzo) fishing this year on the Delta Don,” said McLeskey. “We are very excited to get back to Ocean City and try and defend the title.”
That competitive spirit has been a part of the 63-year-old’s psyche since she was a competitive swimmer in San Francisco in her younger years, but it’s almost underscored by her plentiful pursuit of spiritual conquests and her generous and charitable heart.
“My late husband Wayne got me into competitive fishing in the ‘90’s, and the White Marlin Open was always one of the tournaments he dreamed of fishing,” she said. “So, after he died in 2012, fishing the White Marlin Open became a bucket list item for me.”
McLeskey donated her winning white marlin, which was the third largest in tournament history to the food bank, and donated the entirety of her portion of the $1.17 million in winnings to various charities as well.
“I split my winnings with the other people on the boat last year, and I took my portion and donated $100,000 in honor of my late father, who was Spanish, to a charity that focuses on helping underprivileged Hispanic students in Catholic schools in Virginia and the rest to other charities. I’ve been very blessed in my life and I like to think part of the reason that I won the White Marlin Open was to really make a difference in other people’s lives.”
But she says the thing that perhaps draws her to the sport the most is the connection she feels to her late husband’s spirit when she’s many miles out in the ocean with a fishing pole in her hands.
“It’s a very spiritual thing and I feel it every time I’m offshore in a boat,” she said. “Last year, it was very special to fish in the tournament. I could feel him with me. Fishing has always been a big part of my grieving process after he passed away.”
Wayne McLeskey owned the Virginia Beach Fishing Center since the late ‘70’s, and was considered a local legend in the fishing community in Virginia and North Carolina, winning the Big Rock Tournament in Morehead City, N.C. in 1982 and the Hatteras Marlin Tournament in 1984. He and Cheryl were married in the early 90’s and since his death in 2012 at age 88, Cheryl has run the daily operations of the fishing center, and last year, she launched a white marlin tournament in her late husband’s honor called the F. Wayne McLeskey Memorial Marlin Tournament, which saw 10 boats in the inaugural competition.
As McLeskey prepares for this year’s White Marlin Open and hopes that “lady luck” will once again look kindly upon her “as she has my entire life” she says looking back in hindsight on that winning fish from 2015, which she pulled reeled into the boat in just 10 minutes, has revealed many interesting and almost spiritual coincidences.
“Our boat assignment last year was 87, which the birthday of our captain Steve is Aug. 7,” she remembers. “Right there, we thought good things. Then the weight of the winning fish was 94 pounds, which is really special because Wayne and I were married on Sept. 4. Then on top of it all, I was presented with the winning check at the White Marlin Open award ceremony last year on my birthday, Aug. 8.”
All superstition aside, however, McLeskey had a banner year as an angler in 2015, not only winning top honor at the White Marlin Open in Ocean City, but also being named “top female angler” in the Virginia Beach Billfish Tournament.
McLeskey says that sense of accomplishment she gets from succeeding as a female in a largely male dominated sport largely outweighs the monetary winnings.
“I’m very proud that I am the first female to win the White Marlin Open, and I am proud that I’ll always be in the history books as the first woman to win such a major fishing tournament,” she said. “I hope my success and the amount of luck that I’ve had in my life will shine a light on this great sport and get more women interested in competing.”
Yet, as McLeskey gets set to return to Ocean City for the defense of her historic title, she says she’s most looking forward to the quiet moments on the boat, far offshore, where she hopes to feel that connection with her late husband Wayne, once again.
“Winning is all about luck, but just the very act of fishing offshore is much more spiritual than anything else to me,” she said.