Blue Fish News – May 1, 2023

What’s new at Blue Fish Canada: Blue Fish Canada volunteers and staff are hard at work preparing Youth Stewardship Kits, and as in past, the focus is on both fishing and conservation. This includes teaching youth how and when to use circle or barbless hooks, and non-lead alternatives. Along with actual tackle, youth are provided with the information needed to both fish sustainably, and engage in discussions with others who may hold opinions about the legacy of recreational fishing. It’s why we are constantly seeking out the latest science and best practices on issues such as lead fishing tackle. Read this issue’s editorial, listen to our podcast with Margie Manthey, and please share your input so we can continue to respectfully advance the conversation. Send your feedback to:

Photo of Wolf Lake Association’s Director of Fishing, Margie Manthey

This Week’s Feature – The Legacy of Lead Tackle

By L. Gunther

Lead fishing tackle could very well be one of the most divisive issues dogging recreational fishing, and yet, from a big picture perspective, it’s also relatively insignificant. So why is it that any talk to phase out lead fishing tackle generates such strong responses from both angling stakeholders and environmentalists? Having followed the lead tackle debate for over a dozen years, I think the problem boils down to people working with incorrect information, and worse, that banning lead is the thin edge of the wedge meant to cast fishing as an outdoor activity that should be brought to an end. Let’s look at what we already know about the legacy of lead fishing tackle.

Lead poisoning from ingested fishing tackle in common loons has been well documented. Across North America lead poisoning accounts for 49% of documented loon mortality and occurs from adult loons ingesting lead fishing tackle. Jigs and sinkers are the main culprit. But why does mortality occur, and why is it that loons swallow lead tackle in the first place?

Like many other birds, loons depend on their gizzards to help with the digestion process. The gizzard is the section of the digestive track where plant material is broken down by small bits of gravel intentionally ingested by loons. Unfortunately, when a lead sinker or jig is mistakenly added to the gizzard, lead being much softer, it too is quickly broken down by the small rocks. This “emulsified” lead is then infused into the blood of the loon leading to significant lead poisoning symptoms and often mortality.

If the loss of the loon itself isn’t enough, there’s also the plight of scavengers that consume the remains of the dead loon. It’s a meal that now includes high levels of lead, which in turn either impairs the functioning of the scavenger, or results in mortality. Yes, raptors too are impacted by lead fishing tackle.

I understand that building your own fishing lures can be quite rewarding. Purchasing lead wheel weights from tire shops, melting them down over a camp stove, and pouring the liquid lead into inexpensive molds or ones you design yourself can give an angler a real sense of accomplishment. Adding some paint, maybe a bit of fluff or feather, and selling your creations to your friends or through your local tackle shop, and voilà, an entrepreneur is born.

We now know that working with lead brings with it health risks of its own. Lead fumes generated during the melting down process, lead trimmings after weights and jigs are removed from the molds, and the dust alone generated by lead materials being moved about, can all result in the person working with the material absorbing lead into their system through their lungs, their skin, their eyes and ears, and so on. Maybe not enough to result in mortality, but lead absorption can be accumulative in that once it gets in your body it doesn’t easily come back out. Go ahead an install ventilation equipment, wear a respirator, and cover up using a hazmat suit if you want, but it’s still resulting in a part of your home, garage or shed becoming a hazard zone. Is it worth it?

I often come across old fishing tackle boxes at garage sales, junk shops, and flea markets. The first thing I notice are the loose lead jigs and sinkers tumbling around in the treys and the bottom of the box. I ask myself do I really want to put my hands into that decades old tackle box that has been accumulating lead dust for dozens of years? And I think about how lead jigs and weights are tackle that we never seem to find ourselves in short supply. It’s cheep, easily found in any shop that sells fishing tackle, and relatively long lasting, until it’s lost.

As a boy my friends and I all used our teeth to clamp lead sinkers to our fishing lines. We did it because we couldn’t afford to buy expensive needle nose plyers. Of course, with age came better sense and jobs that now meant we could afford plyers, but the temptation to clamp down on that lead sinker that keeps slipping down my line with my teeth never really goes away. And then there are the line ties on the jig heads that are clogged with paint, and yes, maybe a bit of lead, that need to be cleared out with something sharp and tough enough to break through the paint and lead so fishing line can be passed through the “eye” of the jig. All those small paint and lead fragments that are now on my fingers that I then wipe on my pants. None of this represents safe lead handling practices given what we now know.

I admit, Tungsten jigs and weights are by far superior to lead. They are smaller than lead by about 30% for the same weight, which means they will fall through the water column that much faster. Tungsten is harder, which means I get more accurate feedback when my jig head or sinker bumps into a rock, stump, gravel bottom, or some other structure that may be holding fish. It works amazingly well, but I do feel the pain when it breaks off – a single Tungsten weight can easily cost two to five dollars, depending on the size and shape.

Other lead alternatives like tin, bismuth, steel and ceramic are much less expensive than tungsten, and come close to what are still the lowest cost fishing weights and jigs – ones made out of lead. Unfortunately, the general consensus is that none of these alternative’s function as well as lead, given that they are often larger in comparison. But does it really matter?

Yes, a 3/8-ounce jig will be noticeably bigger, but the smaller sized line weights commonly used under floats when fishing for panfish don’t represent any significant difference in size or function. So why not use a lead alternative?

I think about bottom bouncers, weighing as much as 2-5 ounces of lead, and also about trolling weights that range between 1-3 ounces, or catfish or carp rigs that can get up to five ounces easily. I have yet to come across alternatives to these sizeable lead weights. But then again, do they even represent a health risk? I can’t imagine any bird or fish swallowing any of these items, and when one is lost, which doesn’t happen that often, I would think that it wouldn’t take long before they are covered over by sediment at the bottom of the lake or river. But this isn’t always the case.

While fishing for sturgeon on the lower Fraser River near Mission British Columbia, I traveled upriver aboard an aluminum jet boat equipped with a six-litre V8 engine normally found in a pickup truck. My guide told me they use to hold jet boat races among anglers, until the cost of losing and recovering boats began to out-weigh angler enthusiasm for taking part. I was told that due to the strong flow of the river and the bottom compensation of the river’s bed consisting mainly of melon-sized rocks, meant any aluminum boat that sank during the race had to be recovered relatively quickly or it would be ground into aluminum dust leaving little behind except for the iron block of the engine. It got me thinking about the 16-ounce lead weights we were using to pin down our sturgeon rigs. It wasn’t unusual for one of these giant lead sinkers to break off when snagged between several large rocks, or to come free during the fight with a sturgeon. The goal is to lose the weight, and not your entire rig, or worse, to tether a sturgeon to the bottom should your line break. That’s a lot of lead that will soon be rubbed into micro-fragments and distributed along the river’s bottom by the current for who knows how long and to what detriment.

So, we know there is no safe amount of lead to have in our homes, our water, and the toys we give to our children and grandkids. All the experts agree that lead does not belong in our water pipes, the solder we once used to connect copper water pipes, the paint we once used in our homes, and so on. It makes me think, why is it we are so stubbornly slow to transition away from lead fishing tackle?

Numerous states in the U.S. have implemented lead tackle bans. National Parks in the U.S. are the latest to join this trend. Right here in Canada there are duck sanctuaries that you are allowed to fish in, but if you are caught with a single lead weight in your boat while doing so, you could be facing a significant fine. But maybe incentives are the way to go?

Margie Manthey from the Wolf Lake Association is leading the charge on creating programs designed to insentify anglers to turn in their lead fishing tackle and receive a gift certificate to put towards the purchase of non-lead tackle. Turns out most participating anglers are just happy to have found a location where they can unload their lead tackle safely and forego the gift card. So far, the program has collected over 80 kilos of lead tackle. And no, Margie isn’t against fishing – she fishes any chance she gets, and her sons are active competitive anglers as well. When Margie isn’t busy with running the “Get the Lead Out” program, she’s spear-heading the restoration of walleye spawning habitat. Margie is my guest on The Blue Fish Radio show:

Pallatrax Stonze fishing weights won a best-in-show award at the 2008 ICAST show and is still going strong. EagleClaw makes a wide variety of non-lead weight and jig alternatives guaranteed to earn praise from your more environmentally minded family and friends. Once you start looking you will be surprised by the number of alternatives on the market.

Final thought, let’s not wait to have some government official implement a plan that may seem well intentioned, but is riddled with rules that make no sense. Instead, I challenge anglers everywhere to take a page from Margie’s play book and find innovative safe alternatives to educate and insentify fellow anglers to begin making the switch away from lead. It’s up to all of us to define lead tackle’s final legacy.

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E395 Wolf Lake Walleye Restoration and “Get the Led Out” / BFR
Margie Manthey is a true local champion for her numerous efforts to improve the future of fish and fishing on Wolf Lake. The lake is located near Westport in eastern Ontario in a region known as South Frontenac. A passionate angler and Director of Fishing for the Wolf Lake Association, Margie has been instrumental in rehabilitating walleye spawning beds, replacing “perched” culverts, and strengthening shoreline resilience. But, her main passion is incentivsing anglers to switch away from using lead weights and jigs. Her “get the lead out” program resulted in over 80 kilos of lead fishing tackle being voluntarily turned in by anglers in just one year.

Special Guest Feature American Sportfishing Association Issues Statement on National Wildlife Refuge Lead Tackle Restrictions

On September 15 2022 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released a final rule announcing the prohibition of lead fishing tackle on certain National Wildlife Refuges that are being opened to fishing. The American Sportfishing Association issued the following statement from Vice President of Government Affairs Mike Leonard.

“It is deeply disappointing that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) ignored science and the concerns of the sportfishing industry. USFWS is charged with ensuring fish and wildlife resource management is rooted in the best available data and science. This proposed rule runs counter to that charge, and sets a dangerous precedent for future unwarranted bans on fishing tackle. Although USFWS states that this decision is based on concerns that lead ammunition and tackle have negative impacts on the health and wellbeing of both humans and wildlife, USFWS provided zero evidence of lead fishing tackle causing any negative impacts in these refuges.

“As we have previously said, ASA and the entire sportfishing community fully support science-based conservation initiatives. Our industry has long made sacrifices for the betterment of the environment and wildlife. While anglers should have the choice of whether they want to use alternatives, it is important to recognize that non-lead tackle may be more expensive and perform worse.

“We hope that USFWS realizes the error they made in this rule and reconsiders its implementation. Anglers should be able to keep using traditional fishing tackle as they have for generations.

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