Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Fashionable Feathers and Unfashionable Lead Tackle

We were about to record my weekly broadcast on WTIP Radio in Grand Marais when I noticed producer Kelly had chicken feathers dangling from her ears. Actually, they were feathers of the finest sort–long, slim hackle feathers perfectly suited for fly tying. To a fly-fisherman like me, Kelly was wearing the raw material for a couple of dozen Royal Coachmen.

She told me the feather earrings were a gift from a coworker and took one off to show me. The earring had about five, high quality saddle hackles. Such feathers grow on roosters bred and raised for fly tying. Natural hackles come in solid or barred patterns and are dyed various colors. It’s not surprising women discovered their fashion potential. Kelly was unaware her feathered accoutrements had another use. She also didn’t know feather fashions caused a minor crisis for fly tyers. During the past couple of years, a fashion rage called feather extensions swept across the country, causing an unprecedented run on fly-tyer’s feather supplies. Fly-fishing shops suddenly found they had a new customer–hackle-seeking hairdressers.

In fly-fishing history, 2011 will be remembered as the year of the Great Hackle Shortage. The small handful of hackle producers supplying the fly tying market were overwhelmed by the fashion demand. It wasn’t long before fly tiers were feeling the pinch. They groused about the hackle shortage on fly-fishing websites like a bunch of grumpy old men.

This year, hackles remain hard to come by, but this is mostly because hackle suppliers are recovering from their fling with high fashion. Mike Rolek at The Fly Angler in Blaine told me it had been months since someone stopped in the shop looking for fashion feathers. He thinks the feather fashion wave has crested and receded. Soon grumpy old fly tiers will again have the pretty feathers to themselves. Call it heresy, but this old fly fisherman thinks the feathers looked better on Kelly than they do on a fly. On a somewhat related note, I received an email from a grumpy old angler who wishes another kind for fishing tackle would become more fashionable–non lead sinkers and jigs. Duluth conservationist Dave Zentner is upset with the so-called Sportsman’s Heritage Act recently passed by the U.S. House. The bill has a provision to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from banning lead ammunition and fishing tackle. Zentner doesn’t think this lead-friendly legislation serves the best interests of sportsmen.

The issue of lead in ammo and tackle is easily explained. On land, reseachers find birds of prey ingest lead bullet fragments when they feed on gutpiles left behind by hunters and slowly die from lead poisoning. In the water, loons and other birds ingest lead jigs and sinkers with the same lethal consequences. The federal government banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1991 after researchers discovered ducks were ingesting spent shot while feeding. Resolving the lead issues hasn’t been easy. Even though most hunters and anglers say they don’t want to unintentionally poison birds with lead, they’ve been slow to change to non lead substitututes. The ammunition and tackle industries have resisted regulation and change as well. The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group, has twice petitioned the EPA to ban lead ammunition and fishing tackle. Both times, the agency denied the petition by saying such a ban was outside its purview. The Sportsmen’s Heritage Act provision is the industry’s legislative pushback to the Center’s petition.

Last summer, I attended a two-hour seminar on the lead poisoning issue during the Outdoor Writers of America conference in Utah. There I learned research with California condors in Arizona and golden eagles near Jackson Hole, Wyoming found a strong correlation between feeding on gutpiles left by hunters and elevated lead levels in the birds’ blood. In Arizona, when hunters learn their lead fragments are killing condors, the majority of them to voluntarily switch to nonlethal copper bullets.

If knowlegeable hunters will switch to nonlethal products, why is Zentner so grumpy about the lead issue? Perhaps because hunters’ voluntary effort to protect Arizona’s condors is an exception. He notes that he switched to non lead fishing tackle about 20 years ago. Nevertheless, he still has trouble finding non lead tackle at sporting goods stores. Often, he says clerks aren’t very knowlegeable about the alternative products and may suggest he use lead instead. He thinks better marketing could lead anglers and hunters to use non lead products.

He has a point. In my experience, at the forefront of the effort to eliminate lead in tackle and ammo are finger-wagging environmentalists who self-righteously scold the hunting and fishing community. We really need to hear from more straight-talking sportsmen like Zentner, who says in his email, “I want to be dammed sure I am not the reason a bird like a trumpeter swan’s life ends way too soon.” Think about it anglers. Do you?

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