Why Anglers Should Consider Tungsten Jigs and Weights

Tungsten jigs, weights, and fly components are becoming increasingly popular among anglers. Here we talk about the pros and cons of tungsten so you can decide if it's right for you!

A man holding a payara fish.

This fly tied with tungsten eyes got down deep to catch this little payara. Photo by Steven Merch

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With the possible exception of dry fly fishing, using weight on the end of a line is as fundamental to fishing as using a hook. Be it worm weights, bullet weights, pinch-on sinkers, jig heads, beads, pyramid sinkers, or a host of other styles and sizes, we anglers use a lot of weights. Traditionally, lead has been the weight of choice because it’s cheap, easy to work with, and readily available. But, there are some downsides to lead.

Tungsten: The New Kid on the Block

Recently, we have seen a shift away from lead to another metal—tungsten—for our fishing needs. The shift is especially true with competitive bass anglers, ice anglers, and fly anglers specializing in nymphing. Before discussing why this is happening and why you should try tungsten, what exactly is tungsten?

Tungsten: The Metal

Tungsten and lead flies.

Tungsten products on the right, lead on the left. Is tungsten right for you? Photo by Steven Merchant

Tungsten is an elemental heavy metal that was discovered in the 18th century by a Swedish chemist, who named it tung-sen, which means "heavy stone.” It is extremely dense, hard, and heavy. Tungsten is also known as wolfram, which explains why its symbol in the periodic table is W. It is most commonly used to harden steel and to make lamp filaments.

Tungsten is mined from the earth, typically from underground mines. Most of today's tungsten comes from China, but it is also mined in Canada, U.S., and Russia. In its raw ore form, it is very abundant.

Why the Switch?

So why are anglers making the switch to tungsten? The simple answer is that it helps them catch more fish! And why is that, you ask? It has to do with the unique characteristics of the metal. So let's take a look.

Weight

Tungsten is 30% heavier than lead. That means a 3/8-ounce jig head made from tungsten will be smaller than the lead jig head. A one-ounce tungsten bullet weight is only half the size of its lead counterpart. The smaller profile tungsten jig will hang up in cover less, be affected by current less, and drop through the water more quickly. This characteristic is why tungsten ice jigs are extremely popular with ice anglers. During winter under the ice, fish, especially panfish which are popular to fish for through the ice in the north, prey on smaller food items. Small tungsten tear drop jigs better mimic these small prey items, yet have enough weight to sink to the bottom of the lake quickly.

Density and Hardness

Tungsten is much denser and harder than lead. This is what makes the tungsten terminal tackle really shine. In addition, vibrations, or sounds, move more quickly through denser materials. For the angler, this translates into feel, and we all know how important feel and sensitivity are. The more the angler feels, the more information they are getting about what is going on. It translates to feeling more bites and hits, which means the angler can react to the hits with a hook set and catch more fish. It is the same reason why braided line has become so widely used—it has better feel!

Tungsten is amazing. You can easily feel the difference in the actual structure of the lake or river bottom as you drag your bullet weight across it on the retrieve. Move from sand and wood to rock—you can feel it clearly when using tungsten. Rock produces a clear and definite “tick” that it almost seems you can hear. Sand on the other hand produces a soft, almost fluid-like feel and wood is a soft “thump”. It takes some time, but the angler will learn these differences.

The same is true with a subtle walleye take on your jig head or a trout taking a Czech nymph or jig fly. The difference in feel, as opposed to lead, is remarkable. I like to say, "The feel sells the deal"!

Sound

Speaking of sound, when tungsten hits rocks and gravel, it makes an audible clicking sound that lead doesn't. This clicking is similar to the noises that shrimp and crayfish make, and the noise attracts fish from a significant distance.

One More Reason to Switch

A lead fly in a bass's mouth. There is a hand holding the mouth of the bass open.

This bass really sucked in the fly, and if lost, could have been a problem for an unsuspecting loon. Photo by Steven Merchant

Another reason why some anglers are switching to tungsten is that tungsten has a much less negative impact on the environment when compared to lead. I like to think that most anglers are conservationists and good stewards of our environment. We care about the waters we love to fish in. We certainly do not want to harm them.

Lead toxicity has been known for millennia. There are good reasons why it has been removed from paint, gasoline, and water pipes. While not benign as once thought, tungsten is considered non-toxic. Lead especially impacts waterbirds and birds of prey like bald eagles which is why hunters cannot use it anywhere for hunting waterfowl. That has been true for decades. Numerous states within the breeding range of loons, primarily in the NE United States, don't allow the use of lead weights and jigs because ingested lead weights kill loons. Yellowstone National Park, an extremely popular fly fishing destination, does not allow using lead weights and flies.

What's the Downside?

The only significant downside to using tungsten terminal tackle is that it costs more than lead. Due to its extremely high melting point, which is one of the highest of any metal, tungsten weights and jigs are more difficult and expensive to manufacture. They cannot be made at home or in a garage. A significant financial investment is needed to make tungsten weights and jigs. And perhaps another downside is its availability. You can't just walk into any tackle shop and find the selection of tungsten tackle like you can for lead. It takes a bit more effort to find it.

So, Who Should Make the Switch?

A smallmouth bass being held up in a boat by a mans hand.

Here is a nice smallmouth bass taken on the classic jig and plastic, but this one is tungsten. Photo by Steven Merchant

Let's face it. Fishing is important to us. Most of us would like to catch more fish. Switching your terminal tackle to tungsten will up your game. Yes, it will cost more, but it's not like buying a new reel, braided line, or bass boat! You get it. Most of us are more than willing to spend the extra dollar to catch more fish. And while we are at it, we eliminate lead, thus conserving the places we love. For more on tungsten and other tackle considerations, reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated!

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Written By
I'm a retired wildlife biologist with a passion for catching and helping conserve wild fish in wild places. I've been fishing since I was six years old, and still get really excited about it. I like helping others get into the fish and their habitats. ​ I bought my first fly rod when I was 12, from...

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