Blair Wheeler had fished only a few times in her life when she decided to rent a charter boat off Tracys Landing near Deale in late July to celebrate the respective birthdays of her husband and brother. It was the first time Wheeler had gone fishing on the Chesapeake Bay.
It probably won't be the last.
Wheeler, a 25-year-old from Herndon, Va., who works as a television news producer in Washington, became the first person to win the Diamond Jim fishing contest's $25,000 grand prize in the nine years since the Maryland Department of Natural Resources revived it as part of the agency's Maryland Fishing Challenge.
Not that Wheeler had any idea that her catch — a “19- to 20-pound rockfish,” she said — would earn her a virtual treasure trove that also includes a pair of 1-carat diamond stud earrings and six $1,000 gift cards from local tackle shops that sponsor the contest.
Recalling her July 28 catch aboard Capt. Stu Burgoon's charter, Hook Mash, Wheeler told the large crowd assembled Saturday at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis that “I thought there was something wrong with the fish,” after seeing the chartreuse tag attached to it.
Wheeler was among a record-high 39 anglers eligible for the top prize, and one of 58 overall who caught striped bass designated by the DNR with the Diamond Jim tag between May 24 and Sept. 2. She is the first to catch the real Diamond Jim since 1957, when one fish was designated with a diamond stud attached to its jaw.
Martin Gary, who helped revive the Diamond Jim contest while working for the Natural Resources Police as a fisheries ecologist, said longtime Evening Sun outdoors columnist Bill Burton was the person “most instrumental” in bringing back an event that first ran between 1956 and 1958. Sponsored by a local beer company, the contest had a winner in 1957.
“Bill Burton hammered us for several years about how we should bring back the Diamond Jim,” Gary said Saturday. “He arrived at The Sun the second year they had the Diamond Jim, and he never forgot how much it inspired and excited people to go fishing.”
The format had changed over the past nine years as the grand prize, and the chances of winning it, went up. The prize money in the Diamond Jim contest for one month rolls into the next if the Diamond Jim fish isn't caught.
“For the first three years we did it, there was always that one big-money fish up to $25,000, but by the third year, we were getting some feedback that everyone's initial excitement wore off because the statistical odds of catching that one fish were pretty slim,” Gary said. “When we decided to split it up if nobody won it, people went wild with that. It was even exciting if you didn't catch the real one.”
This year, because there were so many “impostors,” those who caught fish with a Diamond Jim designation each earned $500. The increased number of fish caught this year “is a reflection of how good the fishing has been,” Gary said. “In the 27 years I was at DNR, I've never seen the quality of fish that we have seen this summer. It's been an incredible year.”
Wheeler said catching the fish with the Diamond Jim tag was only the start of her journey toward claiming the top prize.
She had to bring the fish to Annapolis to prove its validity, then had to take a polygraph test in Salisbury to prove she was the one who caught it. By the time she got back to Northern Virginia, the stench of the dead fish had permeated her car.
“We tossed it,” she said of the rockfish.
Wearing the crimson T-shirt of her alma mater, Wheeler said she would use her earnings to help pay off student loans from the University of Oklahoma, where she graduated with a degree in journalism in 2010. When a DNR official told her she would also get $6,000 in gift cards from local tackle shops, Wheeler smiled.