Lead Sinkers

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Reekfish's picture
Lead Sinkers

Hi everyone!

I am doing some research on lead sinkers and their impacts on wildlife and was curious about the opinions of Roughfishers. From the things I have read it seems pretty clear that ingestion of lead sinkers has led to harmful effects in eagles, geese, ducks, loons and other birds and possibly also the things that eat them. I am going to be doing more digging and also plan to conduct a formal survey of tackle shop proprietors and other anglers (so stay tuned). One of the things I would like to know more about is the actual volume of lead weights that are lost in our water bodies via angling each year. I have personally lost countless sinkers and split shot over the years so assuming that's somewhat normal I imagine it adds up to a lot.


Anyway, I'd be interested in any discussion about this topic. Here are some questions for thought:

  • Do any of you feel conflicted about using lead sinkers, but in your mind there's just not a good alternative (based on cost or availability)?
  • Are the alternatives available just not diverse enough to provide all the sinker shapes and sizes you desire?
  • Do you know of any companies that make very good alternative products that may be looking for more business?

And here are some articles on the topic if you care to check it out.


Joy smiley

Corey's picture
My thoughts on the Impact of Lead Tackle on Wildlife

I personally take a pragmatic approach to lead tackle.


A little background:


Lead is toxic when ingested. Of this, there's no debate. There are two major areas where lead has been banned because of proven impact on wildlife populations: lead shotgun pellets for waterfowl hunting (and in some areas, for big-game), and lead paint in homes. I support both of those bans.

Lead paint in homes is an obvious danger; coating the interior of your house with a toxic compound is a bad idea. Still, the effects of lead paint are largely due to children ingesting lead paint flakes; the lead compound used tastes sweet and children often consume it habitually. In any event, lead alternatives are easy to produce and inexpensive and banning lead paint in homes makes perfect sense.

The most apt comparison for environmental impact is comparing rates of lead ingestion from lead shotgun pellets to fishing sinkers.

Lead shotgun pellets were banned in the 90's. Before then, it was a serious problem. I grew up shooting ducks with lead shot, and learned how to shoot as a young man, using lead. The most popular lead duck load used is the 3 inch magnum 12-gauge shotshell loaded with #4 shot. This cartridge contains about 150 lead pellets. It's not unusual to go through a box of 25 shotshells in a typical day's hunting. Additionally, duck hunting is typically undertaken in the silt-bottomed marshes where dabbling ducks feed and lead pellets are the perfect size to be ingested by ducks, which are perfectly evolved to sift small, hard objects out of soft sediments to ingest them for food. So, to summarize, the average hunter on a duck marsh was depositing 4,000 toxic pellets per day into the very marshes where ducks filter small, hard objects out of the sediment to feed. A hunter who spent 10 days hunting was thus responsible for 40,000 toxic lead pellets per year. On a typical popular hunting marsh, where 100 hunters hunt on each day of a 60 day duck season, the hunters were depositing approximately 24 million lead pellets per year, directly into that marsh where ducks feed. Nationwide, the waterfowling population of 2.5 million hunters were depositing 300 billion lead pellets every year, with a combined weight of metallic lead of 62,500 tons. The effects of this activity were affecting the waterfowl population, with obvious cascading effects on the predators that feed on the crippled and lead-poisoned ducks. To stop this, the government banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting. We all had to switch to much lighter steel shot, which cost three times as much and is much less effective at killing ducks, especially at long range. We did it gladly, even though it made hunting more difficult. Of course, lead shot is still perfectly legal for hunting birds that don't live in marshes - pheasant, grouse, quail, etc. Lead shot that gets deposited in upland areas is not fed upon by animals, and the only effect on wildlife is from birds that are struck and wounded by lead shot and subsequently not recovered by hunters, leading to them being eaten by predators, who then may or may not ingest the lead pellets. This, importantly, has negligable effect on predator populations. However, many wildlife areas ban all use of lead shot, even for upland game hunting. Why? Because hunters could use lead to hunt on marshes for ducks, but when arrested would claim to have been hunting pheasants. Wildlife managers banned all lead to close this loophole. These government policies are sensible and neccessary.

Lead fishing tackle undoubtedly poisons a certain amount of wildlife, but it's a good idea to quantify the deposition of lead by anglers - which is one of the aims of your current research. I applaud your efforts and hope your study is well-funded. As a baseline to start from, I'll enumerate my own use of lead fishing tackle. 

By gross weight, large lead sinkers in the form of pyramid sinkers, bell sinkers, and egg sinkers (mostly one ounce or larger) make up over 99% of my lead fishing tackle arsenal. These are exclusively used for fishing in the swift current of rivers and are often lost in snags (usually rocks). I probably lose about 30 of these sinkers per year. These are invariably utilized in rocky, high-current areas of rivers. The idea that any species of living thing could find and ingest these large lead sinkers in a swift rocky river is ridiculous. For a particular example, the 2-ounce lead pyramid sinker, my most common lost sinker (which I manufacture myself using home lead casting equipment) is almost impossible to be ingested and has never been implicated in any wildlife deaths - so I use them without a twinge of guilt. If there's an animal out there that will scour the rocky riverbeds for lead pyramid sinkers to swallow, I'd like to see it.

I also use split shot, which are small, round, lead sinkers that are easily ingested by wildlife. Fortunately for your study, I bought a big gigantic bag of them back in 2002 and am still using that same bag. It had 360 split-shot in it and it now has about 100 left, so over the last 12 years I have used 260 from that bag. I also use a variety of other sizes occasionally, so I'll err on the side of caution and double that number to 520 shot expended in 12 years, for a rate of 43 shot lost while fishing per year. Most of these are lost in rocky rivers. The few that are lost in lakes are broken off on logs or rocks in snaggy areas.

I'm not a walleye fisherman, so I don't use a lot of jigs. Lead jigheads have been implicated in wildlife deaths - mainly because they are usually made into a delicious meal by adding either a lifelike plastic tail or a real live or dead bait to the hook, which makes them attractive meals. They also contain a big steel hook, so animals that swallow one are likely to die from having a big steel hook in their throat rather than the much slower death from lead poisoning, but there is some evidence that the lead in these jigs kills some loons and mergansers. I have personally removed hooks from the throats of live loons, and the idea that a lead jighead with a hook would be more damaging than a plain steel hook is a little bit unlikely. A loon that eats a lead jighead is going to die from having a steel hook in its throat, not from the lead.

Microshot are very small sinkers, mainly used by flyfishers. They are crimped on the leader and they tend to fly off the leader occasionally because of the violent, high-acceleration casting motion that flyfishers use. I probably lose 20-30 of these per year. They are tiny and round, and ducks would probably eat them as they are virtually identical to the #4 lead shotgun pellets that devastated the duck population. However, they are usually lost in small, swift, rocky rivers - where silt-feeding animals don't typically feed, and where they are co-mingled with natural stream gravel. At my rate of use, I'd use the equivalent of one shotgun shell's worth of microshot every six years. But those shot are deposited in small streams where they are unlikely to be ingested by wildlife.

The counter-argument I typically hear from wildlife biologists in my area is that loons and trumpeter swans have been found dead from lead fishing tackle. This is undoubtedly true. Yet, loon and trumpeter populations are robust and healthy; trumpeter swan populations are higher than they have been for a hundred years and loons are recolonizing areas where they haven't been seen for decades. If lead fishing tackle were truly a threat to wildlife populations, then these populations would be declining. They are not; these populations are healthy and robust.

In the grand scheme of things, the impact of lead tackle on wildlife populations must ultimately be measured against other human activities that kill our treasured wildlife populations. For just a few examples, consider the impact of elevated electrical wires, free-roaming housecats, wind farms, and automobiles. We'll ignore habitat destruction from human development and agriculture, which dwarfs all other impacts on wildlife into insignificance. For each wild animal killed by lead fishing tackle, I'm certain that more than a million are killed by other human-caused factors.

But why not ban lead tackle anyway? Why not elimate the tiny number of animals killed by lead tackle, and thus "help" wildlife by reducing the total number killed from human activity? It's a noble idea, and one that many people who I highly respect subscribe to. There is no argument against it. It makes people feel good, as if they are making a difference. They are, indeed, making a very small difference. And it's a good choice to make, if it makes you feel better. It doesn't make me feel better, though, because I look around and I see the actual impact of human beings on the landscape. I see wetlands being drained, and rivers dammed, and forests cut down, and the sky filled with power plant and vehicle emmissions. I see 95% of America's primordial grasslands destroyed, and 90% of our precious wetlands destroyed. I see our forests forever lost, and entire desert ecosystems sucked dry to build golf courses. How much money, effort, and human attention should be devoted to a feel-good cause that has no measurable effect? By drawing human money and effort into a lead tackle ban, the human money and effort that we can muster against real, scientifically measurable human impacts is reduced. For every dollar that is funneled into banning lead tackle, to no good effect, we are reducing the money that is spent fighting against habitat destruction.

I applaud efforts to introduce lead alternatives to the angling community, but if I had a billion dollars to spend on the angling industry to help wildlife, banning lead tackle would be the very last thing on my list. There are much bigger problems out there, and those causes are desperately in need of our time, money, and public attention.





TonyS's picture
Corey and I share similar vie

Corey and I share similar views on this subject but I'll throw in a few of my personal insights too.


  • Do any of you feel conflicted about using lead sinkers, but in your mind there's just not a good alternative (based on cost or availability)?

No.  No conflict for me.  Like most people here I loose (mostly) big sinkers in deep water.  Everything I've ever seen shows that large sinkers are not being ingested.  As such many places that ban small lead sinkers allow sinkers over 3/4oz.  The two places I fish that have water birds feeding in the fishing areas are the BWCA and sloughs/creeks that hold Bowfin and Pike.  In the BWCA I use 1oz+ sinkers for dead ciscos and keeping spoons deep for trolling. No worries about those sinkers,  no loon is swallowing 1oz+ sinkers. For bowfin and pike I almost never use sinkers.  I just freeline - for me that is more productive anyway.


I do keep a few tin split shot on hand.  I almost never use them.  But if I'm fishing a spot that I think would have feeding birds AND I need a small sinker I reach for the tin shot.  This is always shallow, low velocity water so the lower density isn't a problem, though I don't loose many rigs in water like this either.


I rarely use shot when fly fishing - my casting is bad enough without them... I just weight my flies.  Some are lead, some are not.  But being directly on a steel hook is probably a problem for anything that eats them...


I do use small lead shot when centerpin float fishing... but this is in fast, deep runs so the risks are minimal.


  • Are the alternatives available just not diverse enough to provide all the sinker shapes and sizes you desire?

Like I said I don't have much need, based on the fact that my lost sinkers are unlikely impacting any wildlife.  Beyond that, if I wanted to use large non-lead sinkers I would have three problems:


1.Cost (though I could get over that)  


2. Shape/size variety - I rarely look but I don't think there are many non-toxic large pyramids - though I could technically replace my slinkies and that might actually have some additional benefits.


3. density - lets face it. I would need a much larger tin/steel sinker to replace my 1-3 pyramids. And even then they wouldn't hold as well because there would be more water pressure on their surfaces


  • Do you know of any companies that make very good alternative products that may be looking for more business?

Nope, sorry. 


Another thing I wonder about is bismuth and tungsten.  Not that I'm interested in them for bottom fishing sinkers but marketting heavy metals as "non toxic" seems a bit questionable

TonyS's picture

Without beating the dead horse... if we want help the critters of the world survive our number 1 priority is habitat.  Habitat loss is the biggest factor in the decline in duck populations from what they were 200 years ago.  Habitat loss is why the Pallid Sturgeon, Colorado Pikeminnow, and probably millions of other species are struggling.  


That's why Kenny summed up a big part of my philosophy of life, below-vvv

zippyFX's picture
The only alternative I have s

The only alternative I have seen has been tungsten in line rollers. They are significantly more expensive though. I know some bass fishermen who like them because they are more dense and have a smaller profile than the same sized lead ones allowing them to fish weeds with fewer snags.

Mike B
Mike B's picture
Love the essay Corey, articul

Love the essay Corey, articulates pretty much everything I believe on this subject. The use of lead weights is a side issue of insignificant comparison when one considers the enormous impact of habitat degradation. People look at my territory and think of it as untouched wilderness. To this I tell people to go to Google Earth and look at gigantic Lac de Gras about 200 miles northeast of Yellowknife. It's where all the diamond mines are that power the economy of the Northwest Territories. Lac de Gras is on the traditional migratory route of the Bathurst caribou herd, until a decade ago the largest caribou herd in the NWT. Today it is facing extinction.

Looking at Google Earth, it's clear these mines are no mere pinpricks on the environment. These are city-sized mines supplied by massive winter roads (Ice Road Truckers anyone?), and they've only been there about 15 years -- around the time the caribou started declining. Yet it's taboo to consider their impact on the caribou decline. People prefer to scapegoat other relatively insignificant factors such as wolf predation and big game outfitters because the diamond mines are the golden goose that keeps the territory alive.

This is the sorry state environmental protection responses from government today. A loon is found with a lead jig in its throat and environmental agencies immediately call for the ban of lead fishing products but a huge multinational from Antwerp can pillage lakes and land as long as they have the cash for resource royalties. Thus the burden falls on ordinary anglers and outdoorsmen, which looks like something is being done because the consequences are immediate and local. But in fact the impact is minimal. This seems pretty much the state of affairs everywhere.

Further to Tony's point on bismuth and tungsten. I agree it's nonsense to market them as non-toxic. Enforcing tungsten weights won't prevent deaths among shore birds and will only be more a of a pocketbook burden on the angler. That said, I love tiny tungsten jigs.


mike b

Outdoors4life's picture
No Doubt

After Corey's writeup not much for me to say. I agree with his statements.


On the other hand I have spent the last year trying to get much of the toxins out of my body after renovating at my house with no protection from the lead paint. Lots of health issues that are complicated by the amount of lead in my body. I pour lead but now I take procautions for myself. There is no doubt lead is dangerous when ingested. I do use some lead free splitshot but that is all.

It is all perspective!

Acer Home Inspections

Eli's picture
Can't help but agree with wha

Can't help but agree with what was said above.

I'm much more concerned about corporate whores damming, draining, dredging, and otherwise degrading the river than I am about a few pieces of lead lying on the river bottom.




Jason E.
Jason E.'s picture
I wonder about the impact on

I wonder about the impact on human drinking water.  My guess is its negligible, but in Massachusetts. officials banned the use of lead sinkers/tackle on the Quabbin Reservoir due to fears it would contaminate Boston's drinking water supply.  My guess is that this ban was fueled by hype, but I'm not a biologist so I can't say for sure.  

My sensne is that emotions motivate a LOT of these debates.  The perspective among PETA and other activisits is that anglers and hunters are cruel human beings who torture animals for pleasure.  Anything that will make anglers' lives more difficult will, according to this view, positively impact the world.  That is, the goal is not to reduce lead contamination but to reduce the number of anglers on the water, protecting fish from injury and harm.  In reality, the money anglers and hunters contribute helps protect the environment and the species involved.

Reekfish's picture
Great comments

Hi all,


Thanks for your thoughts and insights! I really appreciate you all taking the time to articulate your feelings on the subject.


First let me say, I absolutely agree that there are much, much, MUCH larger issues facing our natural systems (especially habitat destruction), but I don't agree that that makes small, localized battles obsolete. I think it's okay to strive for cleaner, healthier, more robust ecosystems at a variety of scales. My aim is not to compete for funding or resources that would help solve other issues; really my effort would only involve my own time and effort to meet with groups and eventually approach our state legislators to sponsor a bill.


In terms of harm to wildlife from ingesting lead weights, I echo many of the comments above that large, oddly-shaped weights (pyramids, spiders, etc.) are unlikely to be swallowed by animals. I still wonder about the long-term impacts of these lost weights (e.g., at what rate do they chip or break down and impact water quality or other wildlife we are not as easily able to study), but realistically I think a ban on lead weights <1/2 or 1 oz (which has already been passed in a number of states) would be an achievable way to reduce wildlife poisoning via ingestion in my state (Michigan) while still allowing anglers access to more specialty large sinker shapes/sizes.


Even if the impact of replacing lead split shots and sinkers of less than 1/2 or 1 oz. with non-toxic alternatives is small compared to other actions, I think it's a meaningful change that we can make knowing what we know about the toxicity of lead (and also knowing that there is so much we cannot know about the long-term effects of our actions). As Corey said, there really is no argument against doing it. Like I mentioned in my original post, I will be putting together a more formal survey of anglers' attitudes on this issue so stay tuned. And please feel free to continue chiming in with any other thoughts on the topic!!


Cheers, and thanks again for your input. smiley