With lead under attack as a sinker material, anglers are discovering the advantages of other materials for their fishing.
By Ken Duke
"Get the lead out" is a shopworn phrase that has traditionally meant "hurry up" or "get moving." It still has that meaning for many tackle manufacturers, but it also has the more literal meaning of "eliminate lead from fishing products." It's a controversial subject, but one that may lead to advancements for anglers, most of whom have used lead sinkers for decades but who now have other options.
THE LINK BETWEEN FISHING, HUNTING AND LEAD Years ago, researchers concluded that lead poisoning from lead sinkers, jig heads and lead shot was a major cause of death among certain waterfowl species. Some studies have estimated that lead kills between 1.5 and 2.5 million migratory waterfowl in North America each year.
Lead has been linked to other problems as well. In fact, California requires manufacturers selling lures with lead in them to print a warning on the packaging to this effect. The warning tells potential purchasers, "This product contains lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects and other reproductive harm." You may have noticed these labels yourself. Many manufacturers who do business in California leave the labels on their packaging for all states rather than have special packaging for the California market.
Concerns such as these about the health impact of lead have convinced legislators in several states and foreign nations to re-evaluate lead as a permitted fishing product. Today, one state (New Hampshire) and the nation of Great Britain ban the use of lead sinkers in freshwater lakes and ponds. Similar legislation, which would ban the use of lead sinkers and jigs in certain national parks and wildlife refuges, is presently being considered here.
In an effort to protect waterfowl, some manufacturers are offering alternative sinker materials, including tin, brass, steel, bismuth, tungsten, recycled glass and even granite. None of these is as cheap as lead, unfortunately, but in some cases they offer other advantages.
Tim Gregory believes that tungsten sinkers are in your future as a fisherman. Photo courtesy of Tim Gregory
THE TUNGSTEN DIFFERENCE Tim Gregory is the owner of Bass Boys, L.L.C., manufacturers of Tru-Tungsten sinkers and baits (www.bassboys.net). His company is a leader in the alternative-weight industry and a pioneer in new technology that produces quality tungsten products.
That tungsten is safer than lead for waterfowl and humans is a real plus in Gregory's eyes, but not nearly the only reason he advocates the shift to tungsten. In Gregory's eyes, tungsten offers practical fishing advantages in addition to its health and safety considerations.
"The first thing anglers will notice when they see one of our sinkers is that it's about half the size of a lead sinker of the same weight," Gregory said. "This isn't true of all tungsten sinkers, however, because Tru-Tungsten weights are made without the plastic sleeve that some manufacturers use. Since our sinkers lack that sleeve, they're a little more compact than other tungsten products."
The plastic sleeve running through the center of most tungsten slip-sinkers protects your line against abrasions caused by the sinker itself. Gregory's Tru-Tungsten sinkers don't need it, he said, because his products use tungsten that's more pure - 96 percent tungsten, in fact. With the higher-grade materials comes a better product, according to the manufacturer. Gregory points out that the plastic sleeve acts as an insulator in the sinker, deadening feel for the angler and making the sinker larger than necessary. Those are two costs that he's not willing to pay.
Smaller size and a sleeker profile mean fewer snags, according to Gregory. "There's simply less to get hung up when you're fishing," he said.
The smaller, sleeker profile can also mean more bass. After all, the less there is to reveal your offering as a fake, the more likely a bass is to be fooled into thinking it's the real thing and gobble it up. But that's not the only reason Gregory thinks tungsten outproduces lead.
"Because tungsten is denser and smaller than lead, you'll hang up less and fish more," he said. "It will also give you greater sensitivity because of its density. You'll be able to feel what your bait is doing with tungsten far more easily than with lead. With that greater feedback come fewer lost baits, more fishing time and a better feel for strikes."
Tungsten's density also makes it louder than lead, a quality that's pretty highly prized by a lot of bass anglers, especially those who fish a lot of Carolina or doodle rigs with glass beads. While lead is soft enough to absorb some of that noise and disturbance, tungsten transmits more of it through the water, drawing bass to your rig from greater distances.
The hardness of tungsten will also allow anglers to avoid one of the other traditional hassles of lead - that the hole through the sinker sometimes closes up when lead sinkers bounce around inside a tackle box. When that happens with lead, you have to pry the hole open with a pin or metal tube and then smooth out the rough edges so they don't cut your line. It doesn't happen with other sinker materials, like tungsten, brass or steel.
In fact, tungsten weights are so hard that Carolina riggers will find that their sinkers will shatter a glass bead if allowed to contact it during a cast. Most Carolina riggers place a glass bead between the swivel and the weight in order to protect the knot and generate a little noise that may attract bass. It's a great idea, but if you're using tungsten sinkers, you might want to place a metal bead or "clacker" or plastic bead between the sinker and the glass bead. If you don't, the tungsten sinker will slap against the glass bead on the cast and eventually shatter it, leaving your knot unprotected and forcing you to retie.
So, tungsten isn't perfect - far from it - but its major drawback is cost rather than performance. Few could argue that tungsten doesn't outperform lead, but at a cost that is several multiples of that of lead sinkers, tungsten sinkers are avoided by many anglers who opt for lead where it's still permitted and search for other, cheaper alternatives.
Why does tungsten give you that old sinking feeling when you look at its price tag? "It's because nearly half of the world's tungsten is in China," according to Tim Gregory, and the folks there prize it pretty highly. There's very little domestic tungsten in the United States. Shipping it to the U.S. market can also be expensive, especially when you tack on import taxes and t
ariffs from the Far East or other foreign source.
And then there are the production costs. They're not cheap, either! By way of illustration, Gregory pointed out that the melting point of tungsten is better than 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It costs a lot of money to fire up those molds, get them up to the melting point and pour the sinkers, jigs or other tungsten products. And once you've poured a series of products and are ready to change out molds to pour different materials, the molds must cool for two full days before they can be changed out. This causes a loss of valuable production time and makes the tungsten products even more expensive.
The bottom line, then, is that tungsten sinkers, jig heads and baits are likely to remain a good deal more expensive than good ol' lead. Costs may come down over time, but lead will likely always be much cheaper and easier to obtain.
LIKE A ROCK! High tech isn't the only way to go when you're looking for new sinker materials. You can also go retro, if you have a mind to. That's exactly what a company called SafeCasters (www.safecasters.virtualave.net) did with their line of environmentally safe fishing weights.
The "Safe" in SafeCasters stands for "Save America For Eternity," and they plan to do this through their line of "economical, non-toxic, non-metallic fishing weights" that will "help to combat the toxic lead weights that are being lost by fishermen every day in our lakes, rivers and oceans."
SafeCasters' retro fix involves using the most natural of all commercially available sinker materials: granite . . . that's right, granite! Their sinkers are billed as "extremely durable, will never dissolve, and 100 percent guaranteed to work the same as other metallic weights."
The first thing you'll notice about SafeCasters' granite weights is that - ounce for ounce - they're a good deal larger than lead and a great deal larger than tungsten. The company doesn't see this as a disadvantage, however. In fact, they see several positives that go beyond granite's environmental advantages.
Just as Tim Gregory touted the snag-proof qualities of his tungsten sinkers because they are smaller than lead, the folks at SafeCasters believe their weights are snag-resistant because they're bigger than lead! (And you probably had no idea that lead was so prone to snag because of its intermediate size.)
"A slightly bigger weight will decrease the chances of snags, because it will slide over the cracks and won't get caught," according to SafeCasters' marketing materials. "With the proper rigging, these sinkers have been cast over 200 times without a snag!"
And SafeCasters claims that the benefits continue once the weights are in the water. That's where the granite sinkers "appear like a wet stone - thus favoring your odds for a more bountiful catch of fish."
Whether the bigger granite sinkers are more or less effective than lead or tungsten is open for debate, but there's little arguing to be done over their environmental impact. If you lose one in the water, you've really done little more than throw a stone in the lake!
TIN IS IN AND THE FEEL OF STEEL Tin and steel are yet other alternatives to lead, and Bullet Weights (www.bulletwts.com) has been an industry leader in these areas for several years. Their tin split shot and Ultra Steel 2000 sinkers have been around since 1995.
Doug Crumrine is the president of Bullet Weights and a staunch advocate of lead alternatives. He maintains that Bullet Weights' tin split shot and Ultra Steel 2000 sinkers are environmentally smart and attractively priced for fishermen.
"When we introduced our Ultra Steel 2000 line in about 1995," Crumrine said, "we knew the sinkers had to be cost effective for anglers. We felt we had to make a sinker that fishermen actually wanted to use, not one that they would use because the government decided it was environmentally safe."
The result was a steel sinker that is about 20 percent larger than its lead counterpart and that is priced very comparably to lead. "The cost of producing our Ultra Steel 2000 sinkers is very similar to the cost of producing lead sinkers," Crumrine said. "We package it like lead and the cost per sinker is almost exactly the same as lead."
But the boon to the environment and a good price structure are not the only advantages of steel sinkers in Crumrine's eyes. "Our steel sinkers are harder than lead, so they transmit feel better and produce more noise," Crumrine said. "They also hold paint better; so colored sinkers will retain their colors better than lead models."
The folks at Bullet Weights have added another dimension to their Ultra Steel 2000 line that goes beyond the basic qualities of the material itself. Their PermaScent sinkers are actually impregnated with a long-lasting scent designed to attract fish - or at least mask undesirable human odors.
"Because we've been able to bring a quality steel product to anglers at a price that's about the same as lead, our steel sinker business has been growing by leaps and bounds every year - even in those markets where alternatives to lead are not required!"
Bullet Weights got into the tin split shot business at about the same time they introduced Ultra Steel 2000. "We needed something that was softer than steel," Crumrine said.
Lead, of course, is very soft and has long been the standard in the world of split shot. Tin is just as effective as lead - if you're willing to make a couple of adjustments.
First of all, tin is a lot more expensive than lead. It costs about twice as much, so getting rigs unsnagged or using reusable split shot becomes a necessity unless you're willing to spend the money.
Second, tin is not as heavy as lead for its size. "It's about 67 to 68 percent as dense as lead," Crumrine said. "For that reason, I usually bump up my sinker selection by one size when using tin rather than lead. That gives me about the same weight as a lead split shot."
Apart from those two qualifiers - increased cost and less density than lead - tin is actually a more attractive sinker material than lead. Because it's harder than lead, which tends to absorb the kind of signals that anglers feel through their lines and rods, tin will better transmit sensations like a rocky substrate, a limb, a weedbed . . . or a strike!
Despite the additional cost of tin, Crumrine reports that Bullet Weights' sale of tin split shot has increased annually since it was introduced.
CONCLUSION It's hard to predict the future of the lead sinker in the world of fishing. The material has served us so well and so inexpensively for so long that anglers and manufacturers aren't going to give it up easily.
And right now, we don't h
ave to! The ban on lead sinkers is far from widespread, and there doesn't appear to be much in the way of lobbying for a national or international ban. Of course, as political climates change, so could the future of lead fishing products.
Fortunately, there are several attractive alternatives to lead sinkers, jig heads and the like. Some of them will even outperform lead, though typically at a premium price. Each of these materials has qualities that distinguish it from the others and from lead. Ultimately, the well-equipped angler may be carrying samples of several of these lead alternatives and using each for specialized applications for which that material is best suited.
Whatever the future of lead, these alternative materials are likely to be around for a long while. Some offer real advantages over traditional sinkers, and you owe it to yourself to give them a try. They just might put an extra fish on the end of your line.
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