The signs are clear: Toxic lead fishing tackle will very likely be banned one day. Is it now time.


Jim Brakken, BCLF & Northwest Waters

The debate is over. It is now widely known and accepted that lead is a toxic substance. It is, perhaps, more toxic than mercury, a chemical we have succeeded in reducing in our environment. Because of its high toxicity, lead has been eliminated from gasoline. Lead shot has been banned from use in waterfowl hunting. Lead sinkers and jigs are now illegal in several states and other countries. Still, their use continues to be allowed on Wisconsin lakes and streams.

The Bayfield County Lakes Forum is concerned about all toxins that are contributed to our environment, but especially the lead that ends up in our lakes and streams. We are also alarmed at the damage it does to our water birds, raptors and so much other wildlife.

Lead sinkers and jigs lost by fishermen are frequently ingested by water birds, resulting in a slow, painful death for these animals. Raptors often feed on the resulting carcass and suffer the same fate. Other wildlife, too, die as a result of lead lost in our lakes and streams.

Alternatives are now available to fishermen that are reasonably priced and effective.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has now demonstrated its concern and interest in reducing toxic lead contamination of our environment. The Department has now developed a plan to address the state’s use of lead.

Because scientific data clearly shows that lead has a negative effect on our wildlife and because alternatives are readily available, the Lakes Forum feels the time is right for legislation to reduce the amount of lead that is added to our lakes and streams each year.

The BCLF has developed a lead phase out plan that would include ‘toxic tackle swap’ events in each community. These events would offer sportsmen an opportunity to trade in their toxic lead sinkers and jigs for tackle made from tin, bismuth, ceramic and non-toxic materials. Based on our recommendation for such a plan, the DNR has budgeted funds for non-toxic sinkers and jigs for such swap events.

 Not long ago, the Lakes Forum teamed with Northland College’s LoonWatch program to bring this issue before the Wisconsin Conservation Congress. After objections from some anglers and a brief clash of words and wits on the convention floor, the Congress overwhelmingly approved our proposed phase-out of small toxic fishing tackle. The Conservation Congress, DNR and Natural Resources Board are now addressing this and other plans to reduce lead in our lakes and environment.

Last fall, the Lakes Forum polled area lake associations. Several in Bayfield and Sawyer County said they would be interested in hosting toxic tackle swap activities this summer. Plans for a large-scale voluntary switch from poisonous lead tackle to non-toxics are now being developed. The Namakagon Lake Association will host. Other lakes will soon follow.

The Bullet Points:

How much lead do we put into our lakes?

  • A study conducted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency surveyed five Minnesota lakes for lead tackle loss. They concluded that over the past twenty years, sixteen tons of lead tackle have accidentally been deposited in these lakes.  Sixteen tons is about the weight of a semi truck.

What is the impact of the lead we lose in our waters?

  • Lead poisoning has been documented in at least 25 species of water birds including herons, egrets, loons, ducks and many more.
  • Water birds pick up lead items along with the gravel they need for masticating food in their gizzard.
  • Mammals pass sinkers and live. Birds digest them and die.
  • One lead split shot is enough to kill an adult loon (10-12 lbs) and is 100% fatal if not treated.
  • According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Health Team, 26 Common Loons were submitted to their toxicity study team between 2006 and 2008. Approximately one-third of those loons were judged to have died of lead poisoning from lead fishing tackle recovered from their GI tracts. Research around the nation has found that poisoning from lead fishing tackle is responsible for up to half of adult loon deaths.
  • In Wisconsin, lead poisoning is a significant mortality factor for the Trumpeter Swan. Of 143 Trumpeter Swan carcasses submitted to the DNR for post-mortem examination between 1991 and 2007, 36 deaths (25%) were attributed to lead poisoning.
  • Of 583 Bald Eagle carcasses submitted to WDNR between 2000 and 2007, 91 (16%) deaths were attributed to lead poisoning.

 But, will switching to non-toxic sinkers and jigs help?

  • Nationally, lead poisoning of our waterfowl and ‘secondary’ poisoning of the Bald Eagle resulted in a 1991 federal ban on the use of lead shot in waterfowl hunting. In 1997 alone, the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimated that the ban on lead shot saved 1.4 million ducks. In Canada, a study showed a 50-70% decrease in lead levels in bones of waterfowl as a result of the ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting in that country. These and other studies have demonstrated that switching to nontoxic shot does help protect bird populations and improve the environment.

Why a phase-out instead of an immediate ban?

  • Nobody likes being told that the law has just been changed and we have to comply immediately. This phase-out will give bait shop owners and other merchants the opportunity to make adjustments and get used to the law. It will give anglers time to replace their small sinkers and jigs a little at a time instead of requiring them to do this all at once. It will also give sportsmen a chance to adapt to the idea over time and for the DNR to educate folks about the need for the switch to non-toxic tackle.

Is all lead tackle included in the phase-out proposal?

  • No. Only small lead sinkers and jigs (<1” & <1/2 oz.) are targeted. Larger baits, such as spinnerbaits, are not as large a problem and therefore not included in this proposal.

When will this take effect?

  • The first steps of the process are already taking place. The DNR and others are developing educational materials that will help anglers understand the problem and alternatives available that will both protect our wildlife and the rich traditions of sport fishing.
  • Manufacturers are gearing up for what many feel will become a nation-wide trend toward lead-free tackle. Many anglers have already made the switch.
  • Lake associations are spreading the word, as are conservation and sports clubs.
  • Public opinion is rapidly shifting toward non-toxic fishing tackle. The law requiring environmentally safe sinkers and jigs won’t be far behind.

Are we alone?

  • In a growing number of areas outside Wisconsin, non-toxic tackle is already law. Bans on lead  sinkers and jigs are now in effect in New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts.
  • Canadian national parks and national wildlife areas have banned lead sinkers.
  • Across the pond, Great Britain has banned lead sinkers. Denmark prohibits import or marketing of any product containing lead.

What can I do right now?

  • Stop purchasing lead items.
  • Use only non-toxic sinkers and jigs.
  • Outfit youngsters’ tackle boxes with non-lead items. They are nontoxic and far safer for kids to handle. Plus, inexperienced anglers tend to lose the most sinkers and jigs.
  • Wash your hands after handling lead. It is very important to remove lead residue from your hands especially prior to snacking on finger foods.
  • Never put a lead sinker in your mouth or bite down on slip shot—use a pair of pliers instead!
  • Place any small lead tackle you may have in a container, watching out for hooks, and either take it to one of the upcoming toxic tackle swap events or dispose of it properly. (Most communities have toxic waste disposal opportunities.) Do not give it away or offer in a yard sale. Recycle it.
  • Ask your local tackle shop to stock non-lead products and consider showcasing non-toxics instead of lead products as usually done.
  • Spread the word. Tell others about the problem and encourage them to switch to non-lead fishing tackle. You can help by distributing Get the Lead Out information cards to your friends, local sporting goods distributors, and sportsman’s clubs. Go to to view the card online and obtain cards for distribution.
  • Share this newsletter article with others.

Over 30 years ago, paint manufacturers cried out when the EPA recommended removing lead from paint. Now, more paint is produced than ever before and it is of better quality. And when an American toy company recently imported some toys from China that were coated with lead paint there was a loud public outcry.

The same will occur with lead sinkers and jigs some future day. Understandably, a number of anglers will object to the switch. When the word gets out that the alternative non-toxic fishing tackle works just as well and is reasonably priced, they will come around.   Some day it will be appalling to hear that an angler has been caught fishing with lead sinkers or jigs. Our water birds, shorebirds, raptors and other wildlife are anxiously waiting for that day to come. It may not be far away.