It’s a brisk Saturday morning, and you’re probably looking for a nice indoor project that will make you feel warm and fuzzy.

I’ve got one for you.

It’s quick. It’s simple. And you could do yourself (and some critters) a world of good.

Find your tackle box or ice-fishing pack basket (if you’re like me, and you tend to have outdoor gear scattered all over creation, this might be the toughest part of the entire job).

Got it? Good. Now look inside.

Remove all your lead-based sinkers.

Project over (except for finding a safe way to dispose of your lead, which we’ll get to in a bit).

Easy, wasn’t it?

Why is it, then, that many of us (myself included, I’m sad to admit) are still carrying several boxes of toxic sinkers with us every time we hop into a boat or head out onto our favorite frozen pond?

Not too long ago, I had a conversation that made me ask that question, and several others.

Brad Allen, the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife biologist who serves as the state’s bird group leader, was helping his colleague, biologist Danielle D’Auria, as they carried a large plastic bag to a cellar freezer at DIF&W headquarters.

I happened to be in the building, and I asked what I thought was a simple question.

What kind of critter do you have in the sack?

It was a loon, they told me, one of several that they collect each year, after shore dwellers who’ve found the dead birds notify the biologists.

In many cases, lead is the culprit. Lead, in the form of sinkers.

Lead that all of us could reduce, should we just do one simple thing: Stop using it.

Earlier this week I caught up with D’Auria, who answered more of my loon questions. She and Allen had briefed me on the matter a couple of months back, but with ice-fishing season looming, I thought it made good sense to share their expertise now.

You may think you know exactly what D’Auria is going to say. You may think you’ve heard it before.

And I doubt you’re right.

Let’s start with this gem, which I’ve heard from other anglers, and which I more or less believed myself, before I talked with D’Auria and Allen.

One sinker won’t hurt anything, let alone a big, sturdy bird like a loon. And even if it does, it won’t do anything to the bird for years … and by that time, it’ll probably have died of old age.


One sinker is all it takes. One sinker can (and does) kill. And you ought to be alarmed to learn how quickly the process can be.

“I’ve heard that it can take as little as five to 10 days, and it’s generally thought to be a few weeks that it might take a loon to actually die, from the day that it ingests the lead sinker,” D’Auria said.

Notice she said, “the lead sinker.” Not “the lead sinkers.”

One sinker. One bird. Dead.

Call me ignorant if you please, but that news shocked me when I first heard it.

I knew lead was harmful. I knew it could kill. But I wasn’t entirely sure how long it would take for a bird to succumb, or how much exposure it would take.

A quick survey of some angling buddies, including some who spend 50 or more days on the water each year, showed me that I wasn’t as out of touch as I thought.

Either that, or everyone I chose to speak to was equally out of touch.

Each of the anglers was equally shocked.

D’Auria said that loons pick up small stones and gravel (and sinkers), which helps their gizzard grind food. When a sinker is included in that grit, the bird quickly begins to suffer the effects.

“First what happens is the digestive juices within the loon’s gizzard start to break down [the lead],” D’Auria said. “It’s a very acidic environment.”

That lead goes into the bloodstream, and in short order, the loon may become dizzy or disoriented.

“[That] ends up causing them to have trouble finding food or being able to catch their food,” D’Auria said. “So instead of being able to go after some more agile fish that they normally would go after they might settle for something like a crayfish or other things that aren’t as quick to retreat.”

If those foods were at the top of the menu, loons would eat them all the time. As it is, loons become less picky, and begin eating less nutritious and less desirable foods.

Eventually, the lead poisoning progresses, she said, and the digestive system begins to shut down. They become weak … weaker … then they die.

Still, many of us carry lead. Maine joined a few other states back in 2002 when a law made it illegal to buy or sell lead-based sinkers that weighed one-half ounce or less.

Yes, it became illegal to buy or sell the sinkers.

But it was not, and is not, illegal to use the sinkers that we already had.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Great Britain banned lead sinkers in 1987. Vermont and a few other states have instituted partial or full bans here in the U.S.

If you’ve done much fishing, you probably know that things get lost in tackle boxes. You buy a few doodads or gizmos (or a few dozen sinkers) and that’s where they stay.

For years … and years … and years.

When I asked my fishing pals about their own tackle boxes, I learned that none of them could say they had become lead-free, either.

Most of us don’t even use the lead. We’re just fishermen (and, by nature, packrats) and haven’t gotten around to disposing of the old sinkers.

But if we’re in a pinch, and we’re looking to get the line down to a fish that just tore off our terminal tackle, would we … could we … reach for the closest sinker at hand?

Of course we could.

The lead that already exists on the bottom of lakes is still a problem. And the lead that we continue to add, year after year after year, will exacerbate the risk for loons and other birds.

Over the past 20 years, D’Auria said the DIF&W has collected 196 adult loons that died in the wild. Of those, about 30 percent were found to have died of lead poisoning.

“It’s quite a high percentage,” she said. “And that’s just the ones we find.”

Since the 2002 law took effect, there’s not been much difference, she said.

“We haven’t necessarily seen any visible impact from that. We’re still receiving loons, we’re still sending dead loons [to the Tufts University lab where necropsies are performed],” she said. “We’re still having some die of lead poisoning.”

That’s unfortunate.

All of us can help by simply performing the task listed a the beginning of this column.

All of your major retailers sell lead-free sinkers that are just as effective.

And D’Auria said there are plenty of safe ways to get rid of the lead you no longer use.

“Give it to a hazardous household material collection site,” she said. “Some places that take scrap metal will even take [the sinkers] and recycle them.”

She also said some soil and water conservation associations are planning spring tackle exchange programs, during which anglers can trade in their lead for nontoxic sinkers.

And if you want more information about what you can do, go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site at

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...