The catching of fish with fly rod and reel has changed very little over the past millennium. Although we try and complicate the matter, at its most basic form it simply manifests the tying of a fly to line or leader and presenting the imitation with the hopes of fooling the pursued quarry into taking the offering.
Such cannot be said when regarding today's equipment. Technological advancements in rods, reels and lines continue to evolve. New fly rod technology has fly fishers casting the lightest and most responsive fly rods ever built in a myriad of lengths and sections. Fly lines sink, float, are offered in a variety of specialized tapers and even come with interchangeable tips allowing the user a variety of sinking and floating line combinations. The latest in leaders and tippets now disappear underwater. And who would of thought that one-day waders would not only be waterproof, but also breathable.
Today's fly fishing consumers have an incredible array of product diversity to chose from. Products developed with the goal of ultimately elevating the fly fishing experience. Yet given the popularity of our sport and the pressure our resources are subsequently under, are all technological advancements good for the overall health and welfare of our sport and those finite resources fly fishers revere and depend on? Seldom do we ponder this question, yet given the times and the long-term environmental impact some products have we should explore these issues.
Yellowstone Park, our nations first park, has always been faced with difficult issues and decisions when it comes to resource and wildlife management. Anglers were affected by a recent fishing regulation change that banned the use of lead shot, jigs or flies tied with lead when fishing within the Park's boundaries. This regulation change came in effect after a number of studies showed it was necessary to protect waterfowl and raptors from exposure to these deadly products.
This was viewed by most in the fishing community as an inconvenience, but given the number and quality of Yellowstone's legendary trout waters, these changes were accepted as a minor inconvenience that anglers tolerated with little objection. Instead, anglers should have taken a closer look at the research behind the decision. For those that have, the statistics are dramatic.
In addition to Yellowstone Park other countries and states have banned the use of fishing lead shot. Canada banned the use of fishing lead in all its parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Most recently New Hampshire has eliminated the use of fishing lead to eliminate loon mortality as a direct result of its use. The lethal effects and exposure of fishing lead shot among waterfowl and raptors is significant. Enough so that the use of lead on all our fisheries should be eliminated, especially since its use is no longer necessary.
In a 1994 study it was determined that anglers purchase an estimated 2700 tons of lead sinkers and shot annually. Lead shot, especially that which is frequently used by fly fishers, most closely resembles the size of seeds and grain that water fowl feed upon. Because of its small size, shot lead is difficult to handle. Often times a number of pieces are accidentally dropped while attempting to attach a single small sinker to leader or fishing line. Accidental spillage while fumbling with awkward containers that inadequately dispense small shot or from bags that grow old or may tear over time. Snags in trees and on the bottom also result in the additional loss of these toxic metals and create an additional opportunity for waterfowl ingestion.
The illnesses associated with lead poisoning influences waterfowl in a variety of ways: paralysis, loss of appetite and ensuing weight loss, massive tissue and organ destruction, and anemia. One single lead shot can and most often is lethal to any member of the waterfowl family once ingested. It's a death that often times goes undetected, since many of these birds seek protection in isolated areas hoping to avoid predations, which is most common during their incapacitated state.
Lead poisoning as a result of fishing tackle has been documented in 25 species of birds. 50% of all recorded Loon deaths in the New England states occurs as a result of the ingestion of fishing lead products of one kind or another. Of the 2700 tons of lead purchased annually 1350 tons consists of lead sinkers that are of the size that is most lethal and accessible to waterfowl and most commonly used by fly fishers.
There is another family of birds that lead fishing shot impacts, raptors. Waterfowl and fish are a primary source of food for several members of this diverse group of predators, primarily eagles and osprey. These large winged hunters are exposed to lead shot as a secondary source in waterfowl and primary source in fish. Waterfowl that die containing lead shot or become ill as a result of consumed lead products are easy prey for big and small raptors. Those that are fish eaters encounter lead shot, weighted flies and jigs in fish that are left behind after an angler breaks a fish off. Lead products that are ingested by these birds are also lethal. Although these birds aren't exposed to lead shot to the same degree as waterfowl, nor as appreciably impacted upon its ingestion, by using safe fishing alternatives the potential for exposure can be significantly reduced.
Over the past several years some excellent and viable substitutes to lead fishing products has become available. Tin and most recently tungsten in shot, wire or bead form are effective and safe alternatives. Almost all fly fishing retailers offer these products in addition and hopefully one day in place of lead. These alternatives when ingested by waterfowl or raptors will not harm these birds thus eliminating their needless death or illness.
On another front, significant technological breakthroughs in leaders, line and tippet material have given anglers product options that are super strong, yet supple, more durable and even invisible when seen underwater by fish an all other creatures for that matter. The latest introduction into the terminal tackle arena is Fluorocarbon leaders, line and tippets. Advocates of these new products profess that its invisible properties and toughness give it tremendous advantages over monofilament lines. Although these products enable anglers to be more successful, which at this juncture is debatable, fluorocarbons long-term environmental implications are worth considering before tying any on.
Both the invisible nature and durability of fluorocarbon material pose concerns that the fly fishing community need be aware of. Of the two, the indestructible nature of this product has the most significant implications. Unlike monofilament, fluorocarbon lines are virtually inert; meaning little if anything will alter this products state. What the angling community uses and loses does not break down under exposure to ultra violet rays or water since fluorocarbon lines do not absorb water. Although there is no known biodegradable timetable for these products when intentionally or accidentally discarded within a natural environment, researchers have stated that it far surpasses monofilaments longevity by 100's to 1000's of years. On the flip side, monofilament lines degrade by 40% when exposed to just 100 hrs. of ultra violet rays and even more rapidly when exposed to water since monofilaments do absorb water.
Every piece of fluorocarbon line, leader or tippet clipped, deposited in a landfill, discarded along or in any body of water or accidentally broken off while fishing will remain for our children, there children and their children's children to confront. Fly fishers have bitched for years about the volumes of abandoned monofilament line left streamside and along the Worlds fisheries. Given the shelf life of fluorocarbon products, the problem will only escalate.
Not only is it visually unappealing, but discarded fishing line and leaders, monofilament or fluorocarbon, are indiscriminate killers as well. Waterfowl, birds, raptors, and mammals are all victims of careless disposal and incidental loss of fishing line. Our oceans are no exception. Recently an article appeared in a Sarasota paper naming discarded or broken off monofilament fishing line as being one of the leading causes of infant dolphin deaths. Again, fluorocarbon products because of their indestructible nature will increase such incidences and compound the problem over hundreds of years.
Fly fishers that use fluorocarbon fishing line aren't considering the long-term environmental implications of this product. Those that are aware speculate that the small pieces that are often lost during a day or season of fishing aren't significant enough to have any long-term impact. Such may be the case today, but who's to say hundreds of years from now and is the risk worth the few extra fish one may possible catch by using fluorocarbon? And least we forget, we aren't the only anglers using this product. Although it is true that fly fishers clip, break off or discard much smaller quantities than those using conventional equipment, what we deem as acceptable is also viewed and used by the rest of the angling community.
Like lead shot alternatives, there is also a very viable option to fluorocarbon fishing line, monofilament. Although it isn't the latest that technology has to offer, anglers have been using it for decades and using it rather successfully. Although monofilament lines, leaders and tippets do have similar environmental problems, its shelf life significantly reduces the long term impacts that fluorocarbon lines possess.
Bottom line, what is the catching of one or several more fish per outing worth? In the crazy world we live in we fish to get away. We escape to the World's rivers, oceans and stillwaters to seek solace from the burden that life bears. Considering today's options we can choose to help ensure that the experience we have a stream are protected and preserved. As fly fishers we have long taken the role as leader when it comes to environmental and ethical standards we'll tolerate regarding our resources. Given the times and the pressure our resource now endure it's even more imperative we continue the course, even if it means the catching of a few less fish.
Being in the fly fishing specialty business, we feel that it is our responsibility to help protect and preserve the incredible natural resources we are fortunate to fish and derive our living from. We do so with our time, money and our business philosophy. As we educate ourselves we also educate our customers so that they have the opportunity to make decisions that one day may make a difference in the quality of their fly fishing experience. Regarding the products above, we have never carried fluorocarbon lines, leader or tippets and don't recommend their use. Since reading the studies on lead and its impact on waterfowl and raptors, we no longer sell lead sinkers, wire or shot. Although it has cost us revenues in the short run, we feel it's a small price to pay to ensure the future of our resources and business is healthy.