New Hampshire became the first state to ban certain fishing leads in 2000, barring the use or sale of lead sinkers or jigs 1 ounce or lighter unless longer than 1 inch overall.
Proposed New Hampshire Senate Bill 89 now wants to include all lead 1 ounce or lighter, regardless of size.
At issue: Waterfowl ingest lead, causing lead poising. “Loons, in particular, can be very aggressive,” says Steve Cole, owner of Upper Valley Outfitters in Lebanon, New Hampshire (uppervalleyoutfitters.com). “They’ll take a fish right off your line.” And with the fish, he says, they might swallow lead tackle.
But are the alternatives better? “Right now, to fish walleye on the Connecticut River, [which separates New Hampshire from Vermont], you need a 3/8-ounce jig about an inch and a quarter long,” he says, which is currently legal in lead because of length. “If you could get the equivalent [weight] in tin, you’d have a piece of metal about twice the size. Is that any less deadly to waterfowl?”
In 2007, New Hampshire’s western neighbor, Vermont, and in 2002 its eastern neighbor, Maine, banned lead sinkers 1/2-ounce or lighter but not jig heads. Southern neighbor Massachusetts enacted a ban last year on sinkers and jigs weighing less than 1 ounce. Since 2004, New York has prohibited only the sale of lead sinkers less than 1/2 ounce. All five states exempt lead-core line, spinnerbaits, buzz baits, spoons, poppers, plugs and flies, as does the new proposal in New Hampshire. An attempted lead ban in Connecticut in 2011 expired in committee, never receiving a vote. Maine Legislative Document 730 currently seeks to include all sinkers and jigs weighing up to 1 ounce unless greater than 2 1/2 inches long.
Cost is one issue with Cole. “A puck with assorted lead split shots was a couple of bucks. Now that’s $5.75 in tin,” he says. Convenience and effectiveness are also issues. The tin alloy is a third lighter than lead, requiring larger sinkers and therefore more weight to reach the bottom in moving water. “The conversion chart on the package says to use a size-five split shot to get the same weight as a size-seven lead,” he says, but the conversion doesn’t account for added resistance in water. Steel-alloy alternatives are closer to lead in price and density, but can’t pinch closed. Tungsten is heavier than lead but while $20 buys about 100 1/2-ounce leads, it will buy merely a half-dozen 1/2-ounce tungsten weights. Steel, tin and tungsten are also more abrasive than lead to fishing line.
Availability is a bigger issue. “As a retailer, I can’t buy standard small jig heads that aren’t lead through my wholesalers,” he says, even though New Hampshire has required them for more than a decade. A few lead-free jigs can be found online, but they can’t be bought at most local tackle stores. Even tungsten split shots heavier than 1/8 ounce aren’t easy to find. And while flies are specifically exempt from New Hampshire’s law, Cole can’t sell special-purpose 1/32- and 1/16-ounce lead jigs to at-home fly tiers.
“In 2000, fishermen were told the 1-ounce ban would take care of the problem,” Cole says. “It seemed reasonable. It didn’t really affect a whole lot of what we were doing except for some of the real finesse ice fishing. Now they want more. I worry what will happen the first time a loon shows up with a spinner bait in its gullet.”