Since its discovery in ancient times, lead has ridden a roller coaster of praise and damnation. Though the Romans were well aware of the metal's hazards during manufacture, they continued to use it for water pipes and eating and drinking utensils. Accumulated lead poisoning is the generally accepted explanation for the aging empire's physically and mentally degenerate patrician class.
Lately, lead sinkers have become the whipping boy of detractors bent on identifying a single villain for the poisoning of waterfowl, specifically loons. This blame comes despite a National Wildlife Health Research Center study--the largest of its kind--that concluded that only 27 birds of 37,000 examined in necropsies had ingested lead sinkers while feeding.
Nevertheless, several states have banned the sale or use of lead sinkers (usually of split-shot size or on specific waters) and there has been a decided push to make sinkers of other materials. Most anglers are willing to bite the non-toxic bullet if it means any benefit to wildlife and the environment at all, but they want to know how these new sinker materials compare with lead. Here are some answers.
Sinkers are now being produced in a variety of alternative materials: steel, bismuth, tin, tungsten, brass, glass, ceramic, polymer/metal composites, thermoplastics and granite--the last attached via Velcro and bobber stops.
Metals receiving the most attention these days include bismuth, brass, steel and tungsten. Bullet Weights, Water Gremlin and Angler Sport Group offer split-shot renditions in tin, which is slightly lighter and less dense than steel. Hildebrandt was the first to make spinnerbait heads of tin, and now uses it or bismuth exclusively in all its lures. Water Gremlin also turned to bismuth when it launched a new line of fishing weights.
Following is a list of the alternative weight materials being used now.
Bismuth: Its low melting point makes bismuth nicely pliable. Only slightly less dense than lead, bismuth is brittle--Water Gremlin shrink-wraps its weights to avoid breakage should a sinker fracture when slammed against a rock. This is expensive stuff.
Brass: Less dense than lead, brass contains a minuscule amount of lead that does not leach into water. Its color is likely attractive to fish in some conditions. The cost is in the mid-range.
Steel: Far less dense than lead, steel is available in many shapes. It's fairly porous and it holds paint or scents well (for example, Perma Scent in Bullet Weights). Steel makes a real racket when used with a bead or clicker in a Carolina rig. In non-stainless form, it can oxidize, but some anglers lacquer-coat steel weights or place a penny as a sacrificial anode in a tackle box. The price is equivalent to that of lead.
Tin: Less dense even than steel, tin is soft, is easily formed and can be reworked and reused for various fishing tasks. Tin produces less noise on clicker rigs. It's also very economical.
Tungsten: Far denser than lead, tungsten has the best sink rate. It's the hardest metal listed here and has great sensitivity. Tungsten is difficult to mold, which is why some weights contain more of other materials (such as lead in spinnerbaits and jigheads). Fewer shapes are available. Tungsten is the most expensive sinker material.
The density of different materials is of vital concern to anglers because it relates both to the size of a sinker (or jighead) and its sink rate. Consider that a less dense sinker requires a larger profile to reach the same weight and sink rate as lead. To get a handle on how all this affects performance, we contacted Florida engineer Dick Murray. He created a slew of equations that resulted in a head-to-head comparison of size and sink rates for weights made of different materials compared to lead. The table on the previous page is exclusive to OUTDOOR LIFE and applies to any family of sinker shapes.
In practical fishing applications, sink-rate performance of different materials will be most apparent in deeper water and with heavier weight sizes, and far less noticeable in shallow situations. The table is based on absolute numbers. After weighing different brands of sinkers on my reloading scale, I found that the labeled weights of some often erred on the light side by a few grains.
GOOD TO KNOW
Murray discovered that when a cone-shaped sinker's height is greater than twice the diameter of its base, it will sink faster than a split shot of the same weight. The reverse is true if the cone's height is less than twice the diameter of its base.
Tungsten, steel and brass will produce more sound effects when used with clickers or beads. Until now, painted finishes on tungsten weights chipped off, but Bass Boys' Tru-Tungsten now comes with fast colors.
Down the road we're sure to see more innovative uses of these materials. Technology never stands still, even regarding something as seemingly simple as a fishing weight.
Go to www.outdoorlife.com for a list of manufacturers producing lead-alternative sinkers and lures, a list of states with lead restrictions and further technical information.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
|How Various Metals Stack Up | Bismuth | Brass | Stainless Steel | Tin | Tungsten |
| Sinker diameter for the same weight in lead | 5.5% larger | 9.3% larger | 13.8% larger | 15.6% larger | 16.2% smaller |
| Sinker diameter for the same sink rate in lead | 17.6% larger | 37% larger | 54.3% larger | 62.8% larger | 43.3% smaller |
| Sink rate compared to the same weight in lead | 5.5% slower | 10.4% slower | 14.1% slower | 15.8% slower | 21.6% faster |
TOUGH BEADS "Pure tungsten weights are so hard they'll break glass beads used as noisemaking clickers with Carolina or Texas rigs. Instead, use beads made of the mineral hematite, available in craft stores. Plastic beads won't produce as much sound."
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