New Jersey

After Whale of a Wait, 3 N.J. Fishermen Win $2 Million in Fishing Tourney

They originally came in second at the 2016 White Marlin Open, but it was determined this week after a federal lawsuit that the winner was disqualified.

Three Jersey guys thought pulling the 236-pound tuna onto their boat last year during a fishing tournament was hard enough.

On the first day of the 2016 White Marlin Open, they hit a log and broke the steering system aboard Damien Romeo’s boat. They had to spend the first two days of the tournament getting the rig back in order.

Even after hooking and gaffing the tuna, the boat broke down again, and they had to be towed back to the shore.

Yet they never realized the real fight would come in securing the prize money for the trophy fish.

But it was worth the whale of a wait: Last week, nearly a year after the tournament was held last July off the Maryland coast, Rich Kosztyu, Brian Suschke and Damien Romeo were awarded $2 million for the top prize in the prestigious event.

“It's been a long year waiting for it to be resolved, ” Romeo said.

A federal judge ruled in June that the original winner be disqualified because he started fishing prior to the official beginning of the tournament, according to DelMarVaNow. Tournament officials decided this week that the New Jersey fishermen were the true winners.

Kosztyu, the man on the rod when the tuna was hooked, is a Hamilton, Mercer County, firefighter. He and the other two, who are also from Mercer County, had already been awarded $767,000 for the tuna, which they claim to be the largest prize in history for a tuna.

Damien Romeo

“We were very happy we had [the tuna] in the first place,” Romeo said.

Damien Romeo

"A week and a half later, we were fishing in another tournament and got a phone call that the white marlin had been disqualified,” Romeo said.

The controversy first arose when Phillip Heasley of Naples, Florida, was originally declared the winner of the 2016 White Marlin Open Tournament, reeling in a 76.5 pound White Marlin- the prized catch.

Phillip Heasley and his team pull to shore what was a record breaking marlin. However, because a judge determined they broke contest rules, their title and winnings have been revoked (Video courtesy of Dave Messick, Hooked on OC)

However, the week following the competition, officials scrutinized the report Heasley and his crew filed when they caught the Marlin.

Officials determined the crew had written and erased the time of their catch — from 8:15 a.m. to 9:05 a.m. — so the catch wouldn’t violate tournament rules, which says fishing begins at 8:30 a.m.

Officials then said that Heasley and all the crew members failed polygraph tests, which the competition requires when disputes involve more than $50,000 in winnings.

“We don’t fish for work, we fish for the love of fishing,” Brian Suschke, a Trenton police sergeant, said. “Group fishing is how we all met, it’s been great. The guys are great, we all have positive attitudes on the boat. They’re two of my best friends.”

Suschke grew up on the water. When he was still in diapers, his father would take him out on the family’s charter boat to reel in a daily catch.

“On the weekends, that’s all we did,” Suschke said.

With the summer fishing season in full swing, the crew is happy to just be back out there, with no distractions hanging over them.

“We’re excited to put this behind us. It couldn’t have happened at a better time,” Suschke said about the court’s decision and subsequent ruling by the tournament officials.

The trio will be back at Maryland's White Marlin Open in Aug. 7-11 to defend their title. 

“There’s always a little bit of luck involved," Romeo said.

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