Of loons and lead

I’m sitting on a cooler on frozen Birch Lake, working a jig down 17 feet, waiting for the light tap on the line or a slight motion of the rod to signal the bite of a bluegill. At a time like this, why am I thinking about loons? It’s not because I envy the warm climate they now enjoy after their migration south. It’s because of the metal my jig is made from. For a number of years we’ve been told, as anglers, that fishing with lead tackle poses a risk to loons. A jig or split shot we lose while fishing can later be swallowed by a loon as it seeks pebbles to help its gizzard grind food. Lead, of course, is highly toxic, and one piece of lead tackle inside a loon’s digestive system is a death sentence.

The jigs I use for ice fishing are made of tungsten. I choose them because tungsten has a much higher specific gravity than lead (19.2 versus 11.3). That means they sink faster, getting down to where the fish are better than lead jigs of the same size. Tungsten happens to be non-toxic. It’s also rather expensive. Tiny tungsten jigs cost roughly $2.50 to $3.50 each, several times more than lead jigs. And yet, in my favorite tackle store, there’s wall display several feet wide and nearly floor to ceiling with nothing but tungsten jigs; few self-respecting ice anglers use any other kind.

I bring this up because a knock against non-toxic jigs for open-water fishing is that they’re too expensive. But the non-toxic tin-bismuth jigs I buy for that purpose cost only two to three times as much as lead. So my question is: Why is price an issue for open-water fishing, but not for fishing through the ice? Some would argue that the issue isn’t really price – it’s performance. It’s true that the non-toxic alloys are less dense than lead, and so it takes a larger jighead or split shot to achieve the same weight. Does that really need to be a concern? I don’t think so, if we weigh it against the possibility of losing a lead jig or sinker and killing a loon as a result.

Consider that Carrol Henderson, a board member of the National Loon Center in Crosslake, Minnesota, calls the loss of lead tackle by anglers each year a “cumulative contamination” of lake bottoms that puts loons at increasing risk, Despite the efforts of loon advocates, and “Get the Lead Out” programs sponsored by departments of natural resources, non-toxic tackle for open water has been slow to catch on. Many tackle stores don’t carry it because there isn’t enough demand. What it comes down to is that if anglers won’t use it, manufcturers won’t make it, and tackle dealers won’t sell it. So if as anglers we love loons as much as we claim to, we need to commit to non-toxic items, and force the marketplace to respond.

The price premium we pay for non-toxic items like jigs and split shot is a pittance when compared to everything we spend in a season’s worth of angling. It’s a price we need to start paying. At least that’s what I’m thinking as I dangle my $3.69 non-toxic ice jig just above the bottom of Birch Lake.