Fishing is one of the world’s oldest hobbies. The earliest known fishing hooks date back to 42,000 years ago, and the earliest sinkers (used for nets rather than for lines) date back to 29,000 years ago. Even after thousands of years, a lot of the basic fishing techniques haven’t truly changed at their core. They may have developed, but the most basic principles are the same.
One of these principles is that you need to add weight to your hook so that it gets down to where the fish are. Even if you’re dry fly fishing and you’re landing your fly on the surface of the water, you still need to have some weight to your fly line so that you can cast appropriately. Today’s weights aren’t made of stone. Instead, they’re frequently made of lead. This has caused some recent problems that have led to the development of tungsten fishing weights as an alternative.
Lead weights have been the fishing weights of choice since they were developed in Egypt around 9,000 years ago. Lead is a soft metal that’s easy to work with– so easy that individuals can cast their own lead weights over a small fire. This made lead weights easily accessible when you had limited access to funds or manufactured goods. Even today, some fishermen like to cast their own lead weights. This requires good ventilation and special care because lead fumes are highly toxic to people.
Danger To People
Lead weights come in many different shapes. One of the most common is split shot, which is a lead ball with a groove running through it. To use these, you thread the line through the groove and then pinch it tight to attach the weight to the line. These are easy to add in scenarios where you need more weight quickly, but split shot in particular poses a threat… to you.
It’s the pinching mechanism that does it. There are plenty of old-school fishermen out there who will pop the split shot weight on the line and then use their teeth to lever it closed. Putting lead in your mouth is always a bad idea. If you’re using split shot weights, you need to close it with your fingers or pliers, not your teeth. You also need to thoroughly wash your hands after handling lead weights– you don’t want lead residue sticking around on your skin or getting in your mouth as you eat or drink. Lead weights can be handled safely; you just need to be smart about it.
Environmental Impact Of Lead
The most major criticism against lead weights comes from their environmental impact on waterbirds. Fishing weights are a necessary part of your tackle, but there’s been an ongoing problem with the standard lead weights that have been used for years: environmental toxicity. Starting in the 1990s, people started noticing the impact of lead consumption on waterbirds and other wildlife. Lead is a leading mortality indicator for loons and other waterbirds because birds swallow small, rounded objects to act as gizzard grit and help them digest their food. But lead breaks down and makes its way into the animal’s bloodstream. The lead found in just one small split-shot sinker is enough to kill an adult loon.
While lead was known in antiquity, tungsten wasn’t discovered until the 1780s. It wasn’t until 1847 that tungsten took on any industrial importance when it was used to create high-performance steel alloys. Tungsten’s first real break came about in 1904, when it was used to create lamp filaments. Tungsten began to break into the fishing scene in the early 2000s, when people started to realize that it was a viable alternative to lead and outperformed lead in virtually every aspect of performance.
The first tungsten weights were quite expensive and a little ungainly due to the plastic sleeve running through them to protect the line. However, there have been major improvements in the quality of tungsten used and the variety of tungsten weights available. This has driven down the price and the size of these weights and created many overall improvements to their performance.
Lead Vs. Tungsten Fishing Weights
In addition to the different levels of environmental impact, lead and tungsten also have some key performance differences.
Tungsten weights are denser than lead weights, meaning that they transfer more vibration up the line than lead weights do. This means you’ll have a better idea of what’s happening at the end of the line. You’ll get a better feel for the types of surfaces your lure is running over, and you’ll know more quickly when you lose contact with the bottom because a fish has nibbled your hook. You’ll have a better chance of correctly setting your hook when you fish with tungsten weights.
Tungsten also moves through the water more quickly than lead, since the smaller surface area means less resistance. The performance increase in responsiveness is one of the many reasons that tungsten weights have gained massive popularity in the competitive fishing scene.
Again, tungsten is denser than lead, meaning that you can use smaller weights for the same effect. When you’re fishing, you want your weight to be as invisible as possible, so tungsten’s smaller size gives it an advantage. Smaller tungsten weights are less likely to snag or get caught on debris. Tungsten’s density also means that it’s louder as it knocks into debris or the bottom, which can be very attractive to game fish like bass. Tungsten weights produce a similar effect as a jig rattle without needing to add such a rattle to your lure rig, and can ultimately improve your bite rate.
Lead weights are usually more than 30% cheaper than tungsten weights. If you like to fish in areas with lots of debris and obstacles, and you get hung up or tangled frequently, you might want to go for lead weights because they’re less expensive to replace if they break off. However, for this same reason, we recommend not using lead weights. If you are losing weights frequently, you would be adding lead to the environment which can have a negative impact, therefore, it is worth paying a little more for many. Also, no fisherman is ever going to be casting their own tungsten weights– tungsten has the second highest melting point of any element and needs lots of special equipment to melt and cast.
Tungsten weights can be used anywhere, but lead weights are restricted in New York, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, and Washington. Lead sinkers smaller than 50 grams are banned in Canada. A blanket ban on lead weights is in the cards for the EU, and mid-sized lead weights (the size that waterfowl are likely to swallow) have been banned in the UK. Keep this in mind if you’re planning to go fishing when you’re traveling!
Lead Vs. Tungsten Comparison Chart
|Lead||Sinks line slower than tungsten||Dense, sinks quickly||Cheap||Harmful to humans and animals||Banned in eight states, several countries, and all national parks in the US and Canada|
|Tungsten||Sinks line faster than lead, provides tactile feedback, sensitive to obstacles and debris, sounds attract fish, less likely to snag||Twice as dense as lead||About 30% more expensive than lead||No known correlation between human and animal poisoning and tungsten||No bans; actively encouraged|
The Importance Of Environmental Stewardship
Fishing is a great way to connect with nature. When you’re out there casting your line from the bank or a boat, it’s easy to lose yourself in the incredible beauty of the outdoors. We’ve been fishing for millennia, and if we care for the environment and remember to be good stewards of the waters we fish in, we can enjoy the sport for centuries to come.
As anglers, we owe it to ourselves, the environment, and the next generations of anglers to do whatever we can to keep the environment protected. Choosing to use tungsten weights or making sure to take all our lead weights with us is only one part of that.
Anglers Impact The Environment With Line Also
It’s also important to remember that discarded lead weights aren’t the only threat that fishing refuse poses to the environment. Discarded monofilament lines are also deadly. Animals can’t see monofilament and often get tangled in it; strands of monofilament line can get wrapped around a fish’s gills or a bird’s beak and cause amputation or even death. Monofilament can also damage boat motors if it gets wrapped around the shaft, and it poses a risk to swimmers. This information isn’t here to downplay the risks of leaving lead in the environment; it’s here to serve a greater point, which is that if you’re an angler, you have a duty to the environment to protect it as much as possible so that future generations can enjoy it, too.
To make sure that you leave the environment in good shape, always carry out your fishing line and all of your weights. If you have to cut the line, pull it as close to you as possible and leave as little in the environment as you can. Many popular fishing areas will have special canisters for discarded tackle; otherwise, dispose of your broken lines at home. Lead weights should not be disposed of at home, however. Improperly-disposed-of lead can lead to lead leaching into the water table around a landfill. To dispose of lead properly, take it to a metal recycling facility or scrap metal company and let them take care of it.
The Final Word
Environmental concerns aside, tungsten weights outperform lead weights in every scenario. The only advantage that lead has is price, but when you look at how cheap these weights actually are, the roughly 30% price increase from switching to tungsten really isn’t much at all. If you already have a lot of lead weights, you can still use them, but next time you’re shopping for weights, give tungsten a try. You’ll probably make the switch once you realize how much more responsive your line is with tungsten on the end.
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about