Hunting Unleaded

I live in Ground Zero for lead bans. First, California banned much – but not all – hunting with lead in the California condor range, which is about a fifth of the state, effective in 2008.

Then two years ago, the Legislature banned lead ammo for all hunting statewide, effective in 2019. That ban is being phased in, starting with a ban this year on state property.

My dove hunting spot is on state property. And guess what? I don’t care.

I stopped hunting with lead in 2010, with just one exception: I slung lead at quail in New Zealand earlier this summer. While non-toxic shot is available there for 12 gauge in duck loads, the selection is limited to none for other gauges and smaller shot.

I fired maybe six or seven shots, and killed one lone quail with lead while I was there. Man, that was a gorgeous shot: right to left crossing, a good 40 yards out and down below the edge of a little cliff. My host, who had razzed me for some sad misses on ducks, showered me with praise. Validation tasted sweet, with no metallic taint of either steel or lead.

I cut ties to lead five years ago after watching a video of lead-poisoned bald eagles. I know not how they came to be lead-poisoned – lead shot, lead bullet fragments, lead sinkers, lead weights used to balance tires or some industrial source. I know only that they were wracked with tremors that would make you cry if it was your mother who was so afflicted.

Me, I’m a softie, so it didn’t matter that it was a bird that’d happily shred my face if it were in better shape. I don’t like suffering. So if I can take one step that minimizes the risk of poisoning animals that I don’t intend to kill and eat, I’m gonna do it.

Perhaps I’m an outlier. Personally, I would never ask you to make the same choices I’ve made if you don’t feel the same way. It’s totally fair to demand that policy-makers to prove that ingested lead ammo is making a dent in wildlife populations, rather than just individuals. (It’s not, with the exception of condors, though even that’s a subject of much debate.)

But I’ve gotta say, my transition has not been difficult. For my first few unleaded years, I hunted doves with remnants of the last case of Hevi-Steel 6s that my local hook and bullet store had before Hevi-Steel went out of stock for a while. It worked great.

After I’d used my last box of that, I found Federal had some excellent steel 7s that I’ve been using ever since. I love ‘em. And they’re available now in 12, 20, 28 and .410.

I know lead-ammo bans piss off some hunters, and some see the bans as gun grabs, or backdoor efforts to ban hunting.

I do not doubt for a second that some hunting guns might spend the rest of their lives on shelves because of lead bans. But are you going to let something like this make you stop hunting? I mean, it’s the dove opener and you’re so angry that you’re going to stay home instead of buy a couple boxes of non-toxic shells at Wally World … really?

Things change. People who love hunting adapt. People who don’t stay home. I know what kind of hunter I am. What kind are you?

Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at


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