Lead alternatives good for the Highlands environment
By Bruce Litton
“That’s a half ounce sinker?” Joe Landolfi said. He sat opposite me in one of Dow’s rental boats, reaching across to look closely at the duck egg shape. I was rigging for hybrid stripers with live herring on Lake Hopatcong.
“It’s steel,” I said. “Some of them are rusted a little, makes them feel homey.”
Joe has an acute eye. Steel egg sinkers are not really outsized, although they do have about half the density of lead. Why use them?
Our lakes and reservoirs, some of the rivers, are frequented by diving birds like loons, bufflehead ducks, and mergansers, which ingest stones from the bottom to help their digestive process. Statistics show a great many such birds die from lead poisoning, the result of swallowing lead sinkers instead of stones. Even bald eagles die from the lead poison in smaller diving birds they eat. Everyone loses sinkers to snags, so for the health of the environment, it’s a good idea to use alternative weight such as steel, tin, brass, bismuth, or tungsten.
Alternatives are new on the scene, but many states have already passed legislation against the use of lead weights. For more than 5000 years, lead has been used for fishing beginning with ancient Egyptians, so the change is nothing less than revolutionary from an historical perspective. After what mankind has done to the Earth, we are entering an age of unprecedented environmental appreciation.
Fish have always fed people and symbolize human spirituality; spirituality is nothing if not connectivity to the planet. We anglers participate in a practice older than European origins—a form of endeavor upon which civilizations are based. America began with fishing. The Northeast seacoast, particularly George’s Bank, was exploited before settlements took root. And the following example is my favorite: a tax levied on the sale of striped bass paid for the first Colonial public school in Plymouth, MA, 1670. I wonder what kind of sinkers. Nets need them too.
Lead alternatives don’t make sinkers a big, bulging eyesore, and tungsten is twice the density of lead and a much harder metal. Tungsten is expensive, but cool stuff. If you want to punch through surface vegetation with a worm weight, nothing is better than a tungsten bullet sinker pegged at the hook’s tie loop. If you love jigging, why not invest in tungsten jigs to get a margin of more distinct feel? The metal makes harder contact against rock or sunken timber. It doesn’t make much difference, but that would be the whole point, just to see if you can appreciate the subtlety. And if you do, then it seems to be a big difference indeed.
Alternatives on the market cover everything now: spinnerbait heads, bladebaits, jigs, egg sinkers, split shots, tungsten putty, tiny cylindrical weights, and slip weights of all kinds. Like anything else, they need and deserve a critical eye to discern right uses. When I fished the Salmon River for steelhead with my son a few years ago, I weighted my float rig with shiny, tin split shots. A helpful angler approached who told me take them off I wanted to catch any. Steelheads are extremely visual fish and apparently get spooked by split shots that reflect light.
So Boss Tin of Colorado came up with solutions. By mixing tin and bismuth, the company has produced a line of dull toned split shots that are better than fresh lead to avoid scaring sight-wary trout and steelheads. They also have a complete line of fly leader sinkers that look like little sticks and bits of stone to camouflage the presentation, really ingenious stuff. Likewise, Bullet Weights has a complete line of alternatives from the famous bullet weight for bass, to split shots, to bottom bouncers—dozens of types.
Just Google lead alternative fishing weights and handfuls of companies come up. Water Gremlin was a household name in the 1970’s when we used to crimp lead split shots with our teeth—never a good idea, nor necessary. The EPA put out a warning to home-made tackle buffs against making lead weights, jigs, spinnerbaits, etc. When melted, lead produces airborne particles that can spread throughout a house, contaminating it just like a gas chamber. Lead can be very bad news in unexpected ways.
For the ultimate in environmental consciousness, Envio-Weights produces tackle made from reprocessed landfill steel and resin: buzzbaits, spinnerbaits, jigs, as well as split shots and other sinkers. Who would have thought that perhaps the New Jersey Meadowlands might become the source for a buzzbait cutting across calm, pristine looking Oak Ridge Reservoir at dawn?