Tungsten vs. Lead for Ice Fishing: Does it Matter?

The tungsten ice jig craze is here to stay.  For many, there is no going back to lead if catching buckets of panfish is the goal.  So, what is it about tungsten that revolutionized ice fishing and made lead jigs obsolete?  

If we are going to start off this discussion right, we should probably agree that the only physical difference between tungsten and lead is density.  You can cast it in the same shape and paint them the same color but a tungsten jig is heavier than a lead jig of the same size.  

How does this simple weight difference equate to an entire community of panfish anglers devoted to the tungsten jig?  And more importantly, what do the lead diehards have to say about the matter? 

Well, I wanted to find out what makes tungsten so great and whether or not lead still has a place in my ice fishing arsenal.  Let’s dive deep into the debate and sort out fact from fiction.  

The real benefits of tungsten

Sometimes it is hard to decipher what is a marketing ploy from reality.  The question on many anglers minds: do tungsten jigs actually catch more fish than lead or is it just good marketing to sell pricey little jigs?

So, what are the real benefits of tungsten that ice anglers around the world are proclaiming?  Keep reading and maybe you will be convinced that tungsten is a worthy addition to your tackle box.

Weights compared

Lead has long be the standard fishing weight because it is heavy for its small size. 

However, tungsten is even denser.  In fact, a tungsten weight is 1.74 times heavier than a lead weight of the same size.

That’s great and all, but does it matter?   

Importance of jig density

Amazingly the increased density of tungsten means more than just a heavy jig.  It can really boost your catch rate in a big way.

Scale down to catch more

In the world of ice fishing, size matters.  That is, smaller is often better.  Especially for panfish.  Finesse fishing is the most productive way of pulling out big fish during a tough bite.  

Put enough anglers on the ice and fish get finicky.  They spend more time analyzing the lure or bait and their strikes are less aggressive and more like gentle love taps.  At that point, having more subtle presentations is key.

With tungsten, you can scale down the jig size without sacrificing weight or going to ultralight lines.  

When lead was king, scaling down for finesse meant using 1 or 2 pound test line to maintain control over the jig’s action.  Sensitivity is also lost with lighter lead jigs since the weight does not pull the line tight and transmit the feel of a bite. 

Tungsten solved the problem of scaling down.  A tiny tungsten jig is significantly heavier and line weight becomes less important.  When speed matters, it’s nice to have stronger line to quickly yard up a fish so you can get back down and catch the next one.     

Fish faster for bigger panfish

The higher density of tungsten really shines when schools of fish are on the move and not holding to structure.  Scenarios like this demand fast fishing to pull out as many big fish before they move on or get spooked.

Because tungsten is heavier, you can drop it faster.  Getting the jig to the bottom and in their face quickly tends to trigger more reaction bites from the dominant fish in the school.  

The heft of tungsten means you can yank up that fish and drop it back down at blinding speeds all before the other fish know what’s going on.  By the time they figure it out, you have a full stringer on the ice.

In-line reels pair up nicely with tungsten as anglers seek to improve the drop speed of their jig presentations.  

Without a doubt, faster fishing means more and bigger fish.  

Punch through slush and pound the ground

The popularity of ice fishing is growing and with it more competitive events are cropping up.  The pros who regularly partake in tournaments know that stealth and speed is essential to claiming their victory.

You don’t have to fish competitively to benefit from the pros advice.  Slush in the hole blocks excessive light that often spooks clear water fish.  The trick is fishing through the slush.  A tungsten jig solves that problem.  Its weight punches through the slush without any additional help.  Now you can maintain stealth tactics while fishing fast.

Once you’re down on the bottom, tungsten provides yet another desirable trait.  The high density of the metal is great for pounding the bottom to stir up silt and draw fish in.  Unlike lead that adsorbs impacts with the bottom, tungsten emits a sharp ping that can send fish into a feeding frenzy. 

I like to quickly tap the bottom a few times when the bite slows.  More often than not, it brings the school back for another round.

Tungsten for other game fish

It won’t be long and tungsten will be integrated into more than just ice fishing.  Manufacturers are beginning to see the benefits for other open water game fish.  

Bass anglers are already taking note of improved sensitivity of tungsten weights.  The ability to discern bottom structure from bites is notched up compared to lead.  

Tungsten jigs on open water fish like walleye are making waves since smaller profiles mean better handling in windy conditions.  It also bumps up the structure and strike sensitivity. 

Forbidden lead 

As the environmental concerns of lead become more prominent, we are starting to see more states transitioning to lead free fisheries.  This is most often in an effort to protect birds, like loons, that have an affinity for eating lost weights and jigs.  

Tungsten is the perfect alternative in these waters.  Tungsten lures and jigs are a much more environmentally friendly option. 

Why lead is not dead

Lead has always been a big part of fishing.  It certainly still has its place and you would be wise to know in which situations lead may actually be better than tungsten.

A time for slowing down

Certain scenarios are perfect for using lead.  One such occasion is when you need a slower presentation.  When fish are not responding to the frantic or erratic movements of small tungsten jigs, it’s time to switch it up.

Lead flutters and falls nice and slow.  Crappie are notorious for feeding up and a slow decent gives them time to rise to the bait.   

Sometimes you may get on a bite where fish are striking on the fall.  That may be the best time to switch to lead.  A slow fall is also a good way to pick up fish suspended a bit higher in the water column.

More profile options

Adapting to a tough bite sometimes requires fine tuning your jig shape.  Where tungsten is limited to just a few shapes, lead comes in a wide range of profile options.  

Try flat bottom lead jigs when you want a gliding movement.  Need to mimic natural prey better?  Tie on a slender, tear drop style jig to better match the shape of aquatic invertebrates.  

With lead, you have so many more options at your disposal.  Due to manufacturing constraints, tungsten jig shapes are mostly limited to a few similar profiles.

Don’t choose sides, use both

The debate over which metal is better does not need to end with you picking sides.  The prepared angler knows that there is a time for both.  

For panfish, I recommend keeping a selection of tungsten jigs, 1/16 oz and under, for the times that require scaling down.  Keep a few bigger tungsten jigs when you need to go deep or get aggressive with jigging.  

However, you should also have a good selection of lead jigs.  There is always a time when they come in handy and having both available means you can dial in the bite when it gets tricky. 

Other common questions

How much do tungsten jigs cost

Yep, tungsten is not cheap.  Switching from lead to tungsten does cause a bigger dent in the wallet.  Although, I would argue the cost is worth it.  You are out to catch fish after all and tungsten jigs will go a long way in helping you achieve that task.

On average, a tungsten jig costs between $3 and $6.  Unpainted jigs are available in bulk for less than a dollar a piece.   

Can you make your own tungsten ice jigs

A great way to save money on jigs is to mold your own by melting the raw metal and casting it in a form.  With lead, this is possible because of the relatively low melting point of 621°F.  

Tungsten, unfortunately, has a melting point of over 6000°F.  Far to hot for an average angler to forge their own jigs.  

As I mentioned earlier, you can purchase unpainted jigs and do your own custom paint job to save a little money.

Who invented the tungsten ice jig

It is hard to say who first used a tungsten jig for ice fishing.  Most sources indicate that they originated in Russia where some of the most dedicated ice anglers in the world first learned of the metal’s unique applications.  

The use of tungsten then spread through Europe and gained popularity in America just within the last decade.

Conclusion

The best way to decide if tungsten can improve fishing success is to try it out yourself.  Get a few sizes in a couple colors and see if you can tell the difference from lead.  I am willing to bet that tungsten will impress you and become a staple in your ice fishing tool kit.