By now, most ice fishermen know that a 1/32-ounce tungsten panfish jig is smaller in size than a lead jig that weighs the same. The density and hardness of tungsten are greater. The tungsten alloys used in jigs are about 40 to 60 percent denser than lead. That means a tungsten jig of the same weight as a lead one falls faster, because it has less surface area and less water resistance as it drops.
Lead is toxic. It also “dusts.” That white substance on old, unpainted jigs is sometimes called “dross.” Who knows how much lead is inhaled, ingested, or smeared on the skin of the average fisherman? Lead poisoning can lead to brain damage, so it’s no idle concern. And lead poisoning of birds by lost and discarded lead jigs and sinkers is the reason some states, like Massachusetts, have outlawed lead fishing tackle.
Yet, despite the apparent advantages of tungsten over lead, guides and pros continue to choose the latter in many circumstances. Northland Tackle recently had two ice flies in their lineup—the Helium Fly, made with lead, and the Tungsten Larva Fly. Guide Garrett Svir of Minnesota preferred Helium. Uh, lead. “Except in the smallest, 1/100-ounce size, the Larva Fly drops too fast,” he says. “The Helium Fly falls slow, doing the opposite of what everyone else is trying to do. We can pick off big bluegills when they’re in shallower weedbeds with a slower drop. The fall rate of the Helium Fly is slower than anything I’ve ever fished—so slow, you can’t fish it properly in water deeper than 10 feet.
“There are times for lead over tungsten,” he says. “Fall rate is critical with pressured fish. Drop on them too fast and they take off when the jig is halfway down. They can be gone by the time it reaches the right depth. But they wait for it and come up to meet you halfway more often with lead. I’ve caught so many big fish with a Northland Gill Getter because it has a flat underside that promotes glide. It shows up better on a flasher, and when you pound it hard you get a darting action. It’s important to pay attention to little things that affect triggering action. Pounding hard or light can be a subtle thing that makes a big difference.”
While everybody else is trying to hurry jigs down to the fish, Svir says a slow drop is something they haven’t seen recently. “Even on 2-pound line, a lead fly with hackles takes forever to drop,” he says. “But the first time you fish a light, feathered fly and see big bluegills suck it in, you’re hooked. It works better in cabbage than coontail, probably because bluegills are looking for epiphytes that fall or swim off those broad leaves. Where panfish get pressured, the fly is key. Panfish see something fall slowly off the leaves of the cabbage and they’re opportunistic about it.”
Walt Matan, who founded Custom Jigs & Spins along with his father, Poppy, says, “There’s still a time and place for lead. When finicky bluegills try to suck a jig in, you feel a little tick and miss the fish. A small lead jig comes in handy during a finicky bite. But big jigs always outsell smaller ones about 3 to 1. That’s the trend. I don’t understand it myself. I’m an Iowa-southern Wisconsin guy where fish are more finicky. Coming here, don’t get rid of your lead jigs. Drop speed can become a spook factor. A slower drop is needed for crappies sometimes. When fishing over 30 feet deep, tungsten is the odds-on call almost every time.”
“I use lead, too,” says Minnesota guide Tony Roach. “One of my favorites has been the Northland Mud Bug,” he says. “Mud Bugs have the right colors and the right hook design. The Northland Fire-Ball is another one of my favorites. In shallow water it doesn’t make as much difference. When fishing deeper in midwinter, it’s nice to have tungsten options. Micro tungsten spoons are perfect for fishing greater depths, but sometimes fish don’t want that abrupt drop—especially in shallow water, and prefer something falling slower. A lead jig with a flat bottom glides better than tungsten. Some of those subtle differences can be important. Sometimes they want jigs falling slower with more movement. Lead ice flies are better than fishing with tungsten when perch are keying on shrimp. A soft fall is important. Tungsten provides more options, but it’s not the go-to material for everything.”
Let’s be real for a minute. Tungsten retains all those advantages mentioned at the top, drives through weeds better, and penetrates several atmospheres of pressure faster when fish are deep. The place of tungsten is, probably, forever reserved in our collective tackle boxes. But does it require specific equipment in order to present it with the required panache?
“I like the direction of quality rods these days,” Roach says. “High-end lines, rods, and reels make us better anglers. You can have the greatest presentation in the world, but if you don’t have the right equipment, it doesn’t work. The St. Croix Custom Ice Tungsten Tamer rod is a case in point. It supports the weight of a tungsten jig and puppeteers your presentation without a lot of wave in the rod tip. A droopy tip won’t fish tungsten right. Technique-specific rods provide full control over lures. Even five years ago you weren’t seeing that. Having the right rod and reel can make you a better angler because presentation is more precise. Fish get finicky under the ice. During a tough bite, you need precise movement. The right rod makes the lure move just right.”
Roach calls it the “slinky effect.” “Soft tips negatively impact bait control and hook-setting power with tungsten jigs, which, because they’re smaller, require small hooks,” he says. “Yes, they fall faster, but the hooks have to be smaller and fish are missed because anglers don’t have a rod with the right power and action. Underwater cameras show you how that bait moves in relation to rod-tip manipulation. Little, incremental movements are possible with the right rod, whereas you need to make exaggerated rod movements with a noodle. It’s a more direct connection to the bait, especially with small tungsten lures. It gives you control over the small heavies, because the tip can support the added weight and precipitous fall of tungsten. So many rods sag in the tip with tungsten jigs.”
When hole-hopping, he monitors how wind affects presentation. “I often use an underwater camera and it’s amazing how wind movement on the rod can move your bait,” he says. “It’s critical to have the bait hold perfectly still sometimes. Being able to control that without the tip moving is important. With a Tungsten Tamer, you’re in control of the bait and not the wind.”
Svir says much the same thing about spring bobbers. “You can’t jig hard with tungsten under a spring bobber,” he says. “But sometimes it’s more important to soften action with a spring bobber. The trigger is different each day. If they’re only hitting on the fall, we’re looking at fall rate. It can change rapidly from day-to-day. And again, pounding bottom soft with lead or hard with tungsten can make a difference.”
Pat O’Grady, founder of PK Lures, says there is a difference in the quality of tungsten used by various manufacturers. “Tungsten is pricey,” he says. “Prices were too high years ago, but we have the money now and we’re using the purest stuff available to make our new Rattling Predator Spoons. They’re itsy bitsy. A 1/16-ounce Tungsten Predator is half the size of the 1/8-ounce Predator Spoon, which is made with steel.
“Tungsten gets you down faster and perch are 20 feet deep or more a lot of times,” he says. “Our new spoons drop fast and the feel is incredible. We catch both walleyes and perch with it. I use the regular Predator, too, when fishing shallower or when I’m looking for a slower drop. We’re in the process of making a 1/8-ounce tungsten spoon, too.”
One positive when tackling up for tungsten is that less tackle is required. “I use a rod holder attached to a bucket for deadsticking,” Matan says. “Deadsticking is an increasingly important tactic. I’ve been doing it more and more. Most of the time you have a gold hook or a lead Ratfinkee with a crappie minnow working against it. But tungsten eliminates terminal tackle, like weight on the line. And it stays horizontal. The new tungsten Custom Jigs & Spins Wolfinkee is my go-to lure for deadsticking when a jig is required. You can have three rods where I fish, so I set a couple deadsticks or tip-downs almost every day unless the bite is unusually hot. Usually it’s one or the other—an active jigging day or a deadstick day.
“People have been after us for a tungsten Ratfinkee for years,” he says. “The Wolfinkee has that same horizontal, plastic body but it’s denser. The #10 Wolfinkee is 1/40 ounce, the same weight as a #8 Ratfinkee. The #6 is good for walleyes and you don’t have to use a welding rod to get down 40 or 50 feet. I fish it with a jiggle, pause, and slow lift.”
Flatter or elongated designs like the Lindy Tungsten Toad may not glide like a flat leadhead, but can be easier to pick up on sonar. Because tungsten jigs are smaller, flatter heads, like the VMC Mongo Jig, when fishing deeper than 10 feet, show up better on a sonar screen.
Ice flies are all the rage, according to Roach and Svir. The hackle on an ice fly like the VMC Tungsten Fly Jig or HT Enterprises Tungsten Marmooska Fly traps air bubbles, adds movement to the fly at rest, and generally “smokes panfish when other designs get ignored,” Svir says.
“I use a lot of different Northland Tungsten Mooska Jigs,” Roach says. “They have ultra-sharp hooks. You can fish them horizontal or at a 45-degree angle. Tungsten tackle is more technical. Micro jigs are important when the bite slows down.”
As these three anglers note, lead has advantages over tungsten at times.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw has been writing for In-Fisherman publications for over three decades.