Secaucus fishing derby brought out young and old

Annual competition is a reminder of the town that used to be

Santino Leon caught the biggest catfish in this year's fishing derby.
Santino Leon caught the biggest catfish in this year's fishing derby.

Rain didn’t keep people from coming out for the 2019 Secaucus Fishing Derby on May 4. Scores of kids showed up in the early morning, dragging their sleepy-eyed parents to the Duck Pond, where they sloshed along the muddy shore and cast their hopeful fishing lines into the water.

Young and old gathered alongside the Duck Pond to try their luck. The youngest in this year’s derby was 4 years old

Awards were given in various categories. Youngest Male Fisherman went to Kaileb Rodriguez and Youngest Female Fisherman to Luciani Azaceta.

Although one young fisherman caught a 17-inch catfish early on, his catch was dwarfed by the 21-inch catfish later caught by Santino Leon.

Sloan Bello won a prize for biggest bass – which was 8 inches long. But the very energetic Steven Vega caught the most fish overall with 19.

This was the 18th fishing derby in 19 years. The derby was begun in the early 1990s at the insistence of then-Councilman Tony Just to help kids remember what Secaucus used to be like when pig farms, the Hackensack River and flower and vegetable gardens dominated the area instead of outlets, malls and warehouses.

Just, who had grown up on a pig farm within walking distance of the current Duck Pond, often swam in this area as a kid.

Surprisingly, despite the massive amount of development that had taken place over those five decades, he found the pond, a 2.6-acre body of water surrounded on two sides with development, still unscathed. The d-shaped pond, however, looked nothing like the one in which he used to swim and catch birds during the Great Depression.

“People had dumped trash there,” Just said during one derby in the 1990s as he recalled his efforts to salvage the site.

Former mayor Just started it

As a councilman, and later mayor, Just started a tradition of inviting kids down to fish in the pond. In seeking to preserve what was left of old Secaucus, the mayor and council came to a 99-year lease agreement with Hartz Mountain that would preserve the area as a park. Hartz had purchased a huge section of south Secaucus in the 1960s, building most of the roads and the buildings in the area around the pond.

Town workers went in, cleared out the trash, and dubbed the body of water “The Duck Pond” because of the number of ducks that lived there.

Each year since, the town had conducted an annual fishing derby, something Just called “a living legacy” to his administration, and proof of his commitment to open space.

“A fishing derby is the kind of thing kids will talk about when they get older,” he said.

The pond has since become a place for outdoor classroom activities, fishing enthusiasts and, of course, a home for scores of chickens and ducks.

From early spring to late fall, people come here to sit, picnic, take wedding photographs, or just ponder the reeds and the fountain located at the pond’s center.

Foreign visitors

In 1993, the 2.5-acre Duck Pond took its place in the history books when Richard Koeppen, a rail bridge operator on the Hackensack River, caught the second largest piranha ever caught in freshwater in the United States. Someone had, at some previous date released the fish into the pond, where it had prospered.

While no kids caught the alligator that was reportedly spotted in the Duck Pond in 2017, many collected some of the hundreds of fish that the U.S. Wildlife Service and Secaucus Fire Department stocked in the pond. Many of the kids caught their share of prize-winners.

In order to make sure the pond had enough prize-winning fish, Engine Company Number One, of the Secaucus Fire Department, donated over 200 special tournament-sized game fish. The town provided the free hot dogs and soda.

Mayor Gonnelli said he was very pleased with the turnout, and spent time talking to fishermen young and old, posing for pictures, even helping some of those who attended to feast on the free hot dogs offered.

Gonnelli said the town has applied for grants from the state Department of Environmental Protection that would allow improvements to the Duck Pond like benches, a new walkway around the pond as well as a gazebo, which will replace the train car that currently sits on the tracks bordering the east side of the pond.

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