COMMENTARY

Marlin, sailfish land Toledo angler in unique company

8/3/2014
BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

A protestant minister, an Army general, and a roofer are out in a boat, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean . . .

Toledo angler Scott Kozak shows off a Pacific sailfish he caught off Guatemala in December, 2013. The Whitmer grad is pictured with one of the mates.
Toledo angler Scott Kozak shows off a Pacific sailfish he caught off Guatemala in December, 2013. The Whitmer grad is pictured with one of the mates.

That’s it.

There’s no punch line, but there is a lot more to this fish story.

This unlikely threesome is trying to win billfish tournaments against some of the best saltwater anglers in the world. There’s no joke — this is serious.

The minister is Bill Easum from South Padre Island near the Texas-Mexico border, while the general is Jay Godwin, from Virginia Beach. The roofer is Toledoan Scott Kozak, who is fairly new to this top-tier billfishing game, but quickly making a name for himself in these exclusive ranks.

As a group, they are “Team USA.”

“It is kind of an odd trio, but they’re the greatest guys you’ll ever meet,” said Kozak, who hooked up with the minister and the general at a billfish tournament in Guatemala last November.

“That’s just the way fishermen are — you meet, you talk a little, and you become friends. The billfishing community is a very small, very tight group. These guys I’m fishing with win a lot of tournaments. I haven’t been on the winning side with them yet, but I’m confident I will be.”

There’s good reason the veteran saltwater anglers put Kozak on their team. Earlier this year, the Whitmer graduate was awarded the “Leas International Angling Trophy” by Florida’s West Palm Beach Fishing Club, one of the oldest and most respected sport fishing organizations in the world. The trophy goes to the club member who “makes the most outstanding catch in international waters” in each calendar year.

It is not an award customarily won by an angler who lives more than 500 miles from the nearest ocean, and more than 1,000 miles away from the club.

“I’m thinking ‘how does this happen to a guy from Toledo,’” said Kozak, who runs Manchester Roofing, a commercial business he started in 1983. “At the club, they see a lot of really nice fish, but maybe that helped me win the award, being from Toledo and not being able to get out and fish every day,”

Kozak made seven saltwater fishing excursions in 2013, tagging and releasing six Atlantic sailfish he caught with light tackle while trolling in the waters off Cancun, tagging and releasing 16 yellowfin tuna he caught off the west coast of Panama, tagging and releasing a blue marlin near St. Thomas, catching 15 dolphin near Aruba, and tagging and releasing 33 Pacific sailfish on two trips to Guatemala late last year.

In tournaments targeting billfish — marlin and sailfish — everything is quickly released. Kozak said protecting the resource is critical in his mind, so he is active in the formal tagging program of “The Billfish Foundation,” and for the past three years he has been a part of tagging yellowfin tuna in the waters off Panama for an Atlantic tuna project.

“Conservation is so important, so I’ve tagged almost 100 fish this year,” said Kozak. “I try to tag everything I catch.”

There are more than 137,000 anglers worldwide that are registered and active in the research and tagging efforts of “The Billfish Foundation,” and Kozak currently ranks seventh in that group for the number of fish tagged and released in 2014.

In tournament fishing, all the billfish are quickly released, with an official observer on board each boat during the event to record the species once the leader reaches the rod tip. Then the fish is released.

Each tournament fishing rig costs around $1,000, said Kozak, who brings his own two-speed Marquesa reel to the tournaments, with the rest of the gear supplied by his charter captain for the event. Tournament rules keep this very sporting — calling for 30-pound test line with 80-pound test leaders for the predominantly marlin waters, and 20-pound test line with 50-pound test leaders for sailfish waters. Kozak said most of the fishing is “stand-up” with the chairs used only to battle the largest marlin.

During a June tournament in Costa Rica, Kozak hooked a huge marlin, but it took about an hour and a half to get the 400-pound bruiser to the boat. The duration of that fight might have actually hurt his team’s chances of winning, he said, since the most fish caught win the tournament, not the biggest fish. His two partners had to have their lines out of the water while his big marlin was being fought. The trio led the event until the last day, but finished fourth.

Kozak grew up fishing Lake Erie with his dad and grandfather, with a few trips to Canada as well. He is a licensed captain who fishes for salmon on Lake Michigan each year, but his real passion plays out on the saltwater.

The now 54-year-old went to New Jersey a few years ago and tried tuna fishing, and although he came up empty on that initial excursion, the fire was lit.

“Knowing they were out there, but not catching one — that made me want to do it even more,” he said.

On a later trip off the Jersey coast when Kozak hooked that first bluefin tuna, he had the adrenaline fix he had been anticipating.

“Once I got that bluefin, and watched it crash the bait, and felt it as I held the rod in my hand — I was hooked,” he said. “It is an unbelievable thrill.”

After a few more tuna fishing trips, Kozak was introduced to billfishing in Florida. He attended educational sessions in Fort Lauderdale and became a certified tournament observer, hoping to learn the nuances of the sport and meet the best billfish anglers.

“I picked up a lot of very valuable information about how this is done, I made some good friends, and people started inviting me to fish with them,” he said. “For the last year or so, all I’ve done is work and go billfishing.”

And although many of these events are held in tropical locales, don’t get the notion that the fishermen are being pampered when they are off the water. There’s no chocolate mint lying on the pillow when they return from eight hours of chasing marlin and sailfish.

“Most of these are fishing lodges, so you’ll see a scorpion here and there, or have the cockroaches scatter when you open the door,” Kozak said. “And you might be sitting outside eating and have a monkey run by.”

Kozak has just returned from a tournament in St. Thomas, with plans to fish an event in Nicaragua next, and then travel to Puerto Rico two weeks later to work as an observer for a tournament. A tournament in Aruba will follow, with events in Guatemala and El Salvador after that, in November.

For most of those tournaments, it will be the minister, the general, and the roofer teaming up. Kozak plans to take his wife along to Puerto Rico, where the accommodations are a little more refined. 

He credits his family and employees for helping him feed his passion for saltwater fishing.

“I sometimes stop and think that here I am, off somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, fishing with the best billfishermen in the world,” he said. “It is just amazing to me that a guy from Toledo can be in that circle. I’m grateful, and I’m loving life right now.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.