LAKE OF THE WOODS -- It was the crappie hole off Hay Island, where the fish tended to be deeper, suspended off the bottom maybe 30 feet under the ice in 60 feet of water.
The problem was getting the jig down to the 12-14-inch keepers we wanted to catch that seemed to be hanging below the smaller 10-inch fish. Usually we could just use bigger stuff, like walleye lures, to get deeper faster. But on that day the crappies would have none of that.
The answer, for one guy, was a strangely shaped jig that dropped faster than the ones we were using. It wasn’t any bigger, just heavier. And he was the only angler who had them. We all caught fish, but he caught more big ones.
That was 20 years ago when tungsten was new to the Northland fishing scene. Since then most serious ice anglers have added a few tungsten lures to their arsenals for specific jobs — like getting down deeper faster or fishing in heavy weeds — especially for panfish when using small tackle matters most.
But a growing number of anglers — and not just in winter but all year long, and not just in lakes but rivers, too — are switching their entire arsenal of small weights and jig baits over to tungsten and other nontoxic materials like tin, bismuth, zinc and copper.
It’s not only that they can help catch more fish, but they also help not kill loons and other water birds.
"I don’t think I have a single piece of lead tackle left in any of my tackle boxes," said angler Mark Hutchins of Duluth. “The cost is about the same now, or close enough. And I’m a pretty avid birder so that is part of it. … I made the move to nontoxic shot for deer hunting and bird hunting quite a while ago and just decided to do the same for fishing.”
A decades-old debate
Lead is a deadly neurotoxin. That's the reason the stuff was taken out of paint and gasoline decades ago, to protect humans, especially children. Lead in old pipes was the root of the massive Flint, Mich., water system debacle.
Lead has been illegal for waterfowl hunting nationwide since 1988 in an effort to protect eagles and other birds of prey, as well as the waterfowl themselves, and California has banned lead rifle bullets for hunting to protect condors and other birds of prey that feed on carcasses.
Back in 2002, the Duluth News Tribune ran a special report called "Poison in The Tackle Box," the first of many stories in recent years about the deadly problem lead tackle causes water birds like loons that mistake the small pieces of tackle — namely round weights and jig heads — as pebbles they swallow to help digest their food.
The lead dissolves into the bird’s bloodstream, causing an agonizing death. The lead in one split-shot sinker is enough to kill a loon. According to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources biologists, lead at levels as low as 0.02 parts per million are toxic to loons. Anything over 1 part per million is fatal. A loon with lead poisoning may fly poorly, have crash landings or stagger onto the ground. Lead-poisoned loons often gasp and tremble and their wings droop as lead moves through the bloodstream. Eventually the loon stops eating and seeks seclusion, becoming emaciated and often dying within two or three weeks.
It’s believed most poisoned loons are never recovered. But, of the dead loons in the wild that are recovered, lead is the leading cause of death. Research from six New England states found that, of adult dead loons found, 26% died from lead poisoning. Some popular fishing lakes saw lead as the cause of over 50% of loon deaths.
Previously: Minnesota lawmakers introduce bills to ban small lead fishing tackle like jigs and sinkers under one ounce.
In Michigan, another 15-year study examined 186 dead loons and revealed that lead poisoning — primarily from lead jigs — was the leading cause of loon deaths at 24%. A study conducted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that lead caused 12% of adult loon deaths.
Also back in the early 2000s, Minnesota environmental agencies began their first push for nontoxic tackle, asking anglers to make the switch from lead and offering free unleaded options at tackle exchanges, a voluntary education effort called “Get the Lead Out.” At the same time some state lawmakers introduced bills to ban small lead tackle. Both efforts were met with skepticism by some anglers and outright disdain by others. Minnesota companies that made lots of lead tackle pushed back, helped kill the legislation and continued to sell their lead tackle unabated. Some anglers even hyped the effort as some sort of evil environmentalist plot to stop fishing entirely.
Opponents said the move to nontoxic tackle would cost anglers more money, which was true. Lead is perfect for molding into small fishing tackle because it is soft, easily formed and, especially, cheap. Tungsten, tin, zinc, bismuth and other materials can be molded like lead, but are often more expensive to start.
So the Minnesota effort to promote unleaded tackle slowly moved to the back burner for a decade or more, and Minnesota loons keep dying.
A renewed push to nontoxic
Now the move to unleaded tackle is being revived, in part pushed by lawmakers and state agencies but also by anglers themselves and tackle companies that are making more varieties of nontoxic tackle than ever before.
Already in 2021, bills have been introduced at the Capitol in St. Paul that would ban the manufacture, sale and use of lead weights and jigs 1 ounce or smaller, or smaller than 2 inches in length. The bills would give lure makers, stores and anglers three or more years to make the switch. And to avoid any unintended consequences, and to quash conspiracy theories, the new laws would have zero impact on any other kind of tackle or even on larger lead pieces like bottom bouncers, downrigger balls or lead-core fishing line.
Meanwhile the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is using some cash it received from oil giant BP as part of the massive legal penalty the company paid for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil well explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The PCA received $1.27 million last year earmarked specifically to revive the “Get the Lead Out” program to promote the use of nontoxic fishing tackle in an effort to save loons. (Minnesota loons became an issue in the oil spill settlement because most of the state’s 12,000 loons spend their winters in the Gulf. The state received $6 million in all for loon conservation efforts in the settlement.)
“Our goal is education and outreach,’’ said Kelly Amoth, who heads the program for the PCA. “And to get as much lead-free tackle into the hands of as many anglers as we can.”
Amoth said the program is especially targeting youth, who have yet to develop their tackle-buying habits and who may be more open to environmental concerns. She recently made video presentations to 300 Cloquet Middle School science students about the issue. When the pandemic passes and we can return to face-to-face events, Amoth said the PCA will renew tackle exchanges at stores and events like boat shows and fishing tournaments where people can turn in lead and take home free tungsten and other products.
Now, as Minnesota anglers gear up for late winter panfish ice angling, and begin to organize their summer tackle boxes and stock up for open water fishing, Amoth hopes more will take the nontoxic plunge.
“We need to let more people know that a single piece of lead fishing tackle is poisonous to loons,’’ she said. “And we have to remind people that lead is toxic to people, too … that they shouldn’t throw their old lead sinkers and jigs into the garbage at home. They should bring it into a household hazardous waste facility, like the WLSSD in Duluth.”
As prices fall, more nontoxic options available
Unlike 20 years ago, when it was hard to find unleaded tackle in most stores, and much of it fished and looked different than traditional lead tackle, a recent survey for the PCA found non-toxic tackle at virtually every tackle and sporting goods store near Duluth — large or small — including Chalstrom's, Dick's Sporting Goods, Fisherman’s Corner, Fleet Farm, the Fredenberg Minno-Ette, Gander RV & Outdoors and Marine General.
The PCA’s Get the Lead Out webpage lists no fewer than two-dozen companies that make tungsten-based jigs and lures, several of them based in Minnesota, and another 17 that make tungsten sinkers and weights. That doesn’t include another nearly two-dozen companies that make tackle out of bismuth, tin, steel, iron, cement and even pewter.
A Baldwin, Wis., company, Tactical Fishing, makes its jigs out of glass. Want a lighter jig for a slower drop? Missouri-based Jade’s Jigs, made from a nontoxic alloy, are about the size and shape of popular bass, walleye and crappie jigs but are 20% lighter. Colorado-based Boss Tin makes nontoxic bismuth jigs for all types of fishing and has tin split-shot sinkers that are competitive in price with lead. Their specialty is unleaded tackle for river fishing, including new nontoxic weighted hooks for tying sinking flies.
Boss Tin owner Stetson Adkisson said increasing choices and decreasing prices are moving more anglers to switch to nontoxic tackle.
“I think we’re seeing it really take off now as more (anglers) do it because it’s the right thing to do. … As long as the price is competitive, and it’s a quality product that works, why not go nontoxic?’’ Adkisson said. “But the other thing pushing it is that more states, and more countries, are getting away from lead tackle entirely, banning it. I just got a call from New Zealand and it sounds like they are going away from lead for fishing, too.”
Not only are small, specialty tackle companies capturing the growing nontoxic market, but Minnesota-based tackle giants like Clam, Rapala and Northland also are offering more unleaded alternatives in more sizes, shapes and colors. That’s key to attracting hardcore jig anglers who sometimes have hundreds of their favorite jigs on hand in dozens of shapes, sizes and color options.
That’s one reason Hutchins, the Duluth angler, has made the move away from lead. Hutchins said he’s been using nontoxic tackle for about five years and notes that there's more selection at sporting goods stores now than even a few years ago. Hutchins also uses brass lures ice fishing, such as Swedish Pimples, and has made the move to split-shot sinkers made from tin for his summer fishing.
But he especially likes the way tungsten lures help him catch more panfish, especially this winter when keeping the action steady is important for a special reason.
“My 4-year-old daughter started fishing with me this winter, so we have to try for something that’s going to be a little more cooperative biting, so we go after panfish mostly,’’ Hutchins said. “The fish seem to like the way it (tungsten) drops. It fishes heavier than lead and I think it gets down past the smaller fish and down to maybe some of the bigger fish faster. … And it shows up better on the graph.”
Jarrid Houston, News Tribune fishing columnist and local fishing guide, said lead still dominates most tackle boxes for jigs, in part due to price and selection. But he sees a growing movement toward other options. Some of his favorite ice fishing lures are now tungsten, including the Northland Tungsten Punch Jig, Northland Tungsten Punch Fly, the Northland Tungsten Silver Spoon and Clam Pro Tackle Drop TG and the Clam Pro Tackle Tika Minnow.
"Tungsten came on as a popular choice for panfish anglers to push through cabbage and get baits down faster on moving schools of fish," Houston said. “It is important to try and keep a school under you, so having your bait down quickly is a huge advantage. For game fish, the industry is still getting there for tungsten as a mainstay lure, but some great ones have come about.”
Lead fishing tackle restrictions elsewhere:
New Hampshire banned the use and sale of lead fishing sinkers that weigh less than an ounce and lead jigs smaller than an inch.
Vermont banned the sale of lead sinkers weighing 1/2 ounce or less starting in 2006 and then the use of those lead sinkers in the state in 2007.
Massachusetts Fisheries & Wildlife Board prohibits the use of lead sinkers, weights and jigs.
Washington state prohibits the use of lead weights and jigs on 12 lakes in the state where loons breed and raise their young. Anglers cannot use lead weights smaller than 1.5 inches.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has banned lead sinkers in two national wildlife refuges and Yellowstone National Park; restrictions have been discussed on the use of lead sinkers and jigs at other national wildlife refuges where loons and trumpeter swans breed.
Great Britain restricted the use of lead fishing weights weighing less than 1 ounce.
In Canada, you can’t use any lead fishing sinkers or jigs in Canada’s national parks and wildlife areas.
Prices getting closer
Prices for unleaded tackle are still higher, in part because raw materials are more expensive, especially tungsten. But supporters say the gap will narrow as more unleaded tackle is made and companies gear up more production lines. (The original steel shot nontoxic waterfowl shotgun loads were once far more expensive than lead, for example. Now popular steel shot shells are generally less expensive than comparable lead shells.)
A single Northland Fireball tungsten jig, for example, sells for about $3.99. A Northland Fireball lead jig sells for about $1. In the end, compared to the cost of boats, bait and travel, the cost to go non-toxic won’t be that noticeable.
One major big-box online sporting goods store offers a package of 72 nontoxic tin split-shot sinkers for $6.99, while they sell a pack of 60 lead split-shot for $1.99.
Another national retailer sells the Clam Pro Tackle Drop Tg Tungsten Jig, that fishes and looks identical to traditional Minnesota walleye and crappie jigs and comes in the same weights and colors, sells for about $6.99 for a pack of three. They sell a pack of similar lead jigs for $4.99 for a pack of 10.
You can get a plastic container of hundreds of Boss Tin tin split-shots, with six different sizes, for about $15, about the same as lead.
Here’s what Minnesota-based Clam says about its Drop-brand tungsten jigs:
- Tungsten is 1.74 times as heavy as lead, so a jig the exact same size and shape can be 1.74 times heavier. Or you can size down to a smaller jig shape and have it be the same weight as lead.
- Tungsten jigs fall faster and hang tighter than their lead counterparts, especially helpful in deeper water.
- Tungsten jigs will tighten back up more quickly, keeping you in contact with the jig.
- Denser tungsten shows up better on graphs and sonar.
- Tungsten is more sensitive. Lead absorbs impact. Tungsten better transfers the energy of impact with a rock, sand, mud, wood or a fish through to the line and ultimately to the angler.
- Lead absorbs sound. Harder tungsten makes more noise to attract fish when coming in contact with rocks, boulders and other structure.
- Clam offers Drop jigs as small as 1/32 ounce up to 3/8 ounce.
- “With high-grade materials such as tungsten and the aluminum alloy used in our spoons, we are reducing the amount of lead used in our tackle lineup. Clam Pro Tackle is proud to stand apart as an "eco-friendly" tackle brand!’’
Tons of lead lost each year
Minnesota anglers don't lose much tackle on a given fishing trip. But collectively, tons of lead sinkers and jigs are ending up on lake bottoms each year. That was the conclusion of a study by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The study looked at five popular walleye fishing lakes — Rainy, Namakan, Leech, Mille Lacs and Lake of The Woods — using survey interviews to find out how much fishing tackle anglers lost.
On each trip, each angler lost remarkably little tackle, the study found. For example, one leadhead jig was lost every 40 hours. But when multiplied by millions of anglers over millions of hours fished, year after year, the lead is piling up.
During the summer of 2004, anglers in the five lakes surveyed lost 215,000 pieces of tackle to snags and broken line. Of that, about 100,000 pieces were made of lead, totaling more than 1 ton of lead lost in the lakes.
And that was just five lakes over one summer. Over 20 years, using DNR survey data, the study estimates anglers left more than 1 million pieces of lead in Lake Mille Lacs alone. That adds up to more than 9 tons of lead in one lake.
Get the Lead Out: PCA tips to avoid toxicity, in people and birds
Use sinkers and jigs made from nontoxic materials.
Never throw old fishing gear into the water or on shore or in the garbage. Dispose of it at a household hazardous waste facility.
Never put a lead sinker in your mouth or bite down on a slip shot. Use a pair of pliers instead.
Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling lead sinkers or cleaning out your tackle box.
For more information on non-toxic fishing tackle check out Minnesota’s Get the Lead Out campaign at www.ca.state.mn.us/leadout or email firstname.lastname@example.org.