South Jersey angler Rashawn Lewis loves the scenic Salem County fishing spot called DOD Ponds and known for the abundance in its waters.
“Large mouth bass, pickerel, sunnies, bluegills, muskies,” said Lewis, who’s been fishing for 30 of his 46 years. “This place here is an all-around fishery.”
But the secluded 342 acres of pretty blue ponds and sandy peninsulas between the Delaware River and Route 130 also are popular with illegal drug users.
They’re the sort of visitors who heedlessly litter the ground with used syringes — bio-hazardous waste, in other words — when not, say, building illegal bonfires or driving into the water.
“You have someplace like this that’s pristine, just you and nature,” said Fred Lentz, the president of the South Jersey Bass Club Association. “And then you have people come here and ruin it by trashing it up.”
At DOD Ponds — a former sand mining area named for the U.S. Army’s nearby Delaware Ordnance Depot — I met Lewis and Lentz one blustery afternoon last week.
It seemed the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife already had been there in response to their calls about the dangerous debris in the boat launch and parking area.
“This is the cleanest this place has ever been,” said Lentz, 65, a retired project manager who lives in Pittsgrove Township.
Even in the icy wind, the beauty of the area was obvious: serpentine sand roads, vistas of rippling water through the trees, and the hills along the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware rising in the distance.
DOD Ponds seemed refreshingly remote — but not remote enough, evidently — from the less picturesque settings most often associated with the opioid epidemic, which respects neither beauty nor boundaries.
Lewis, a Department of Defense specialist and Winslow Township father of two, was among about 15 members of his South Jersey Hook This! bass fishing club who stumbled upon a scatter of syringes at DOD ponds on April 14.
“A significant amount of used drug paraphernalia [was] littered where kids or innocent individuals could be poked or stuck by an unseen needle,” Lewis said, noting local families also use the DOD Ponds for swimming and picnicking.
“I felt a range of emotions, from disappointment to frustration to anger,” he said. “This stuff didn’t wash up. It’s not like someone dumped a container of sharps out here in the parking lot. I was not just thinking about my own health, but the families who come here.”
Anglers also have found the partly consumed carcass of a mattress in the remains of a bonfire, along with hundreds of surviving nails from pallets used for fuel, said Lewis.
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spokesman Larry Hajna acknowledged that littering and illegal dumping of all sorts are chronic problems in some of the state’s 350,000 acres of Wildlife Management Areas, such as DOD Ponds.
Management areas are often located in rural or semirural parts of the state and are periodically visited by DEP employees and local law enforcement, but not generally staffed, gated — or even equipped with trash receptacles.
The DEP has, however, stepped up its campaign against illegal dumping, which includes an app for reporting problematic locations or incidents.
“What we see in general is that when people go into these remote areas to do whatever they’re doing that is not fishing or hunting, they have favorite spots, and that’s where litter accumulates,” Hajna said.
Drug paraphernalia is sometimes included in the debris that heedless visitors leave behind. “Unfortunately,” he said, the opioid epidemic “is part of society.”
Rob Masterson, a Monmouth County small-business owner who, like Lewis and Wentz, is active in several New Jersey angling organizations, was among those fishing at DOD Ponds when the syringes were spotted April 14.
“DOD Ponds has been a hangout for years for kids, heroin users, whoever it is. It’s not the first time there have been needles there,” he said. “Three years ago I got there about 5:30 in the morning and three kids soaking wet from head to toe were walking up the road. Their car had ended up in the lake.”
Lewis said he also has encountered morning-after people who were “totally out of it.”
Given the amount of beer and liquor bottles visible in grassy areas even after last week’s state cleanup, alcohol is clearly among the drugs of choice for many members of the party crowd who trash DOD Ponds.
But the syringes, another of which Lewis and Lentz found in the grass during my visit, are another order of magnitude.
And amid all the well-intentioned talk about the desperate need for “safe injection sites” and clean needle exchanges, the sheer self-absorption addicts so often display — thoughtlessly tossing a biohazard on the ground where a child may step on it, for example — is galling.
As is the general lack of appreciation for a place like DOD Ponds, where one can kick back, create a mess, and expect someone else to clean it up.
“I know how hard resources are [to find] in the state budget for personnel and what have you,” said Lewis. Realistically, he added, reporting incidents and increasing public awareness are about all anglers can do.
“People have to be careful” where they walk, Masterson said. “With so many places to maintain, we can’t expect the state to know where every piece of litter is.”
The likelihood of finding syringes in the sand or in the grass won’t end, he said, “until the epidemic does.”