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Weighing the Benefits—and Drawbacks—of Non-Lead Fishing Tackle

Lead has been used in terminal tackle for thousands of years, but other metals are gaining acceptance.

Weighing the Benefits—and Drawbacks—of Non-Lead Fishing Tackle
Strike King offers a variety of terminal tackle made with tungsten, including the 1/2-ounce Tour Grade Carolina Rig Weight. (Photo courtesy of Strike King)

Metals play an integral role in every angling pursuit. From the gears and housings of reels to the line guides and hardware of rods, from tools and fillet knives to prop blades and trailer frames, anglers handle and use metals on every trip. No application of metals in fishing is more controversial, however, than its presence in lures and terminal tackle. The primary concern in this arena stems from lead—the most widely used metal in tackle—and the harmful effects this metal poses upon ingestion, primarily by diving ducks, swans, loons and raptors. There are emerging alternatives to lead, but their application and acceptance remain comparatively limited.

Lead has been used in fishing—first for sustenance and later for sport—for thousands of years. Archeological discoveries have identified lead weights used in fish-entangling nets from the Bronze Age, approximately 5,000 years ago. Lead sinkers, cast from molten metal using stone molds and affixed to lines carrying hooks, have been recovered from ancient sites near the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea.

tungsten bass jig
Because of their greater density, tungsten components are smaller than lead components of the same weight, a property Strike King harnesses in its Compact Tungsten Casting Jig. (Photo courtesy of Strike King)

Today, lead remains the most widely used metal in both sport and commercial fishing applications. Its relatively high availability, coupled with low cost and ease of processing into finished tackle components, support its dominance in both freshwater and saltwater markets. Indeed, data published by the Wildlife Society and the American Fisheries Society reveals that in 2003 nearly 4,000 metric tons (8.8 million pounds) of lead sinkers were sold in the United States alone.

drop shot fishing weights
Bullet Weights tungsten drop-shot weights

The use of lead in modern tacklecraft is not without its drawbacks. First, though, understand that lead is not mobilized into the water from lost tackle like sinkers, jigs and other types of metal-containing lures at a significant rate, especially once that tackle becomes buried in sediments. Instead, lost lead weights and jigs, either sitting on the bottom or present in a fish, present the most significant hazard to waterfowl and other fish-eating birds through ingestion. Once a lead sinker or lure is ingested by a bird, it remains in the bird’s gizzard where the natural digestive process mobilizes lead from tackle and can lead to a high incidence of mortality. For example, a New Hampshire study spanning more than 20 years and referenced in the scientific journal Ambio identified ingested lead fishing tackle as being primarily responsible for a decrease in that state’s loon population by more than 40 percent.

The biological and ecological impacts of lead have attracted the attention of lawmakers, leading to increased regulation of lead tackle components. Canada now forbids the use of lead fishing sinkers and jigs in national parks and wildlife areas. A number of states, including several in the Northeast as well as Washington, now restrict the sale and use of lead sinkers and jigs, especially the smaller pieces of tackle that are more likely to be ingested by birds. It is possible that, over time, the regulatory framework associated with lead fishing tackle will increase in both size and scope. Thus, modern tackle makers are on the hunt for lead alternatives.

Tungsten is perhaps the most widely used lead substitute. A non-toxic metal that is denser than lead, tungsten results in tackle components that are smaller than their lead counterparts of the same weight. This is especially attractive for those who employ finesse fishing techniques and for ice anglers, who often use diminutive jigs for panfish. Fans of forward-facing sonar have come to recognize that tungsten jigs are easier to see on their fishfinders than traditional lead-based tackle.

round-headed fishing jigs
Bullet Weights tin round jigs

There are some obstacles to using tungsten, however. While many manufacturers offer tungsten-based sinkers and weights, there is a very limited number of true commercial sources of raw, metallic tungsten. This factor contributes to substantially higher prices than those associated with lead tackle.

Converting raw tungsten into finished tackle components typically requires alloying with small amounts of secondary metals as well as substantially higher temperatures than those used to pour traditional lead sinkers and jigs, making the manufacturing process more challenging. As a result, much of the custom or workshop-based tacklecraft associated with lead does not have a realistic tungsten alternative.

brass fishing weights
Bullet Weights brass Carolina-rig weights

Multi-metallic alloys are currently used in some commercial production of fishing tackle. An alloy of bismuth and tin is more eco-friendly than lead and less expensive than tungsten. It melts at a relatively low temperature, making it less energy-intensive than tungsten tackle manufacturing and viable for components used in custom or small-scale tackle manufacturing. The bismuth-tin alloy is approximately 20 percent less dense than lead, so jigs and sinkers cast from this material will be larger than their lead counterparts of the same weight.

Stainless steel and brass, which is primarily composed of copper and zinc, have been used in tackle manufacturing for decades, largely as metallic rattles. These metals also find their way into heavy spoons for both jigging and trolling applications. Smaller tackle components, including sinkers and jigs, are also available in both brass and stainless steel. The sounds produced by these sinkers when contacting the bottom or glass beads are quite different than those that come from their lead counterparts, and they can be an effective attractant for curious fish.

swimming fishing lure
Strike King tungsten Thunder Cricket

Many of these alternatives offer advantages over lead, but a broad shift in angler attitudes and perspectives will be required before we witness their widespread adoption in the fishing marketplace. The smart money says that it’s time to give some of these alternate metals a try, as lead regulation is unlikely to stall or reverse direction.




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