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Tungsten vs. Lead for Panfish

by Jason Mitchell

In pursuit of big panfish, our travels take us across the Country.  We have explored big panfish patterns in reservoirs, natural lakes, farm ponds and beyond.  My billfold usually has fishing licenses from at least half a dozen states or more.  What always amazes me and in my opinion makes fishing exciting and fun is how we encounter different factors, different influences wherever we fish.  Lake type, predators and of course forage all dictate the fish movements and patterns but you can never assume anything with fishing. 


You will find a particular scenario that has a cause and effect influence on fish location and drive five miles down the road to the next lake and find a completely different set of rules.  Fish enough water and you stumble into some pretty good lessons… some which have a way of repeating. 


On today’s ice fishing scene, the merits or attributes of tungsten jigs has been a hot topic amongst anglers.  Tungsten jigs originated in European match fishing circles and quickly became popular in the States.  The allure of tungsten is that the metal is much heavier than lead so a jig that is the same size as it’s lead counterpart sinks much faster.  The extra weight of tungsten also enables ice anglers to use smaller profiles.  Tungsten is extremely popular right now with ice anglers but isn’t the end all.  There is still a time and place for lead jigs.  Know the different applications where each has a place.



Tungsten Craze


One big advantage of tungsten is that the added weight allows anglers to get away with heavier line.  Four pound test will feel like two pound test.  Tungsten also seems to impart more action on soft plastics when quivered in place because the drop is more abrupt for a more distinct action on any tentacle or tail.  Horizontal tungsten jigs tipped with a soft plastic have a larger footprint and move more water.  I personally believe fish can feel, see and find this presentation from further away than some other presentations.  When in search mode, the tungsten and soft plastic combination is tough to beat.  Love this option as well when breaking down basins when looking for suspended fish.  Another scenario when tungsten can really shine is breaking down through the canopy of tall and deep weed lines. 


At the end of the day however, tungsten just flat out shines for exploiting a good bite.  On a typical good bite, you are going to catch more fish through the day when you can reel up the fish quicker (four pound test) and get back down to the fish quicker.  Not that you have to use heavier line but that is one advantage that is afforded if you want it.


Case for Lead


Now of course tungsten isn’t the end all.  If there is a mistake many ice anglers are making right now that would be forgetting about the advantages of lead.  There are several situations where traditional lead gives the ice angler a distinct advantage and most of those situations occur with tough bites.  Perhaps the most reliable way to counter a tough bite is to decrease the profile of the presentation and make the presentation more subtle by moving less water or slowing the presentation down.  Vertical lead jigs in particular leave a much smaller footprint that more closely mimics a lot of the small invertebrates and large zooplankton.  There are other scenarios where the slower fall of lead can be enocorporated into the presentation where a slow fall can often trigger strikes.   Lead can also aid with some styles of bite detection.  


Remember above where we made the comment that tungsten can make four pound test feel like two pound test?  That comment was implied because the added weight of tungsten will take out any memory or coil that can develop in the heavier line, making the presentation feel more sensitive.  This strategy can work well when using a spring bobber or any bite detection where you can either watch for or feel a bite with the end of the rod.  When fish suck in the jig and coast forward, this style of bite detection is often optimum.


There are other situations however where fish will suck in and spit out the jig or suck in the jig and stay in one place sometimes slowly backing up.  This type of bite can be much more challenging and anglers often have to watch the line for indication of a strike instead of having a focus on the rod tip.  When the bite dictates that the angler watches the line, some coil in the line offers an advantage.  This is a prime situation where lead catches fish over tungsten because the added weight of tungsten can reduce your ability to watch for this type of bite.  The toughest bites often dictate lead jigs combined with one pound test.


Basically if the coil in the line gets bigger or less, you set the hook.  On the toughest bites, this is the only way you will able to catch fish.  For years, there were pockets of ice anglers that used the old four-pound and two-pound hi-vis Stren that was discontinued years ago.  In todays world, line has gotten more specialized for todays ice anglers targeting panfish.  The Clam Pro Tackle Frost Line features thread diameter monofilament in one through four pound test that features a high vis orange interval for better visibility when watching the line. 


These different extremes basically encompass the power fishing mindset where the angler fishes through water fast in an attempt to find fresh fish (horizontal tungsten profiles with soft plastics).  The other end of the spectrum is difficult fish that require some finesse and possibly live bait where strike indication is often accomplished by watching the line (vertical lead jigs with live bait and high-vis line).  The toughest question to answer when angling is when to leave fish to find fish.  The best anglers have that intuition and are also comfortable with both extremes of the presentation spectrum.  The debate between tungsten and lead is not which is better but rather when to use each.  Tungsten has brought many advantages but there will always be a place for lead.  New school versus old school.



Caption for Image:  The author Jason Mitchell discusses the advantages for jigs made of  both tungsten and lead in regards to icing panfish.