Are Fishing Isotopes Radioactive? Are They Safe?

Fishing at night is a magical experience. Without help, however, fishing at night poses a major challenge in the form of being able to see what you are doing and, as importantly, see when a fish takes your bait. One answer is the fishing isotope and alternatives that help an angler see all three.

Fishing isotopes, or “beta lights,” aid in lowlight fishing by providing illumination to rod tips, floats, and fish bite indicators. While there is some safety debate, if used properly, fishing isotopes pose no danger. A glowstick is one alternative that’s just as effective but not as long-lasting.

There is little doubt that fishing isotopes help with fishing at dawn, dusk, or at night. Each helps the angler see their rod tips, floats, or bite indicators in the dark, which increases the likelihood of sensing a bite and landing a fish. Below, the drawbacks are outlined in detail.

Are Fishing Isotopes Radioactive?

Fishing isotopes are technically radioactive, however, that radioactivity exists in such a small dosage that it hardly has any lasting impact as long as they’re handled properly. The name is largely misleading, as it leads people to erroneously assume that they’re highly radioactive.

When many people hear the word “Isotope,” their first thought is of the television cartoon “The Simpsons” and the Springfield Isotopes, the minor league baseball team that plays in the home city of Homer, Marge, Lisa, and Bart. The word is associated almost exclusively with nuclear power, which can be misleading when the topic is fishing isotopes.

Confusing things is the fact that there are also many fishing products that either borrow from the name or produce the same result but have nothing to do with isotopes. If a customer is not careful, they may purchase something they think is a legitimate isotope and end up with something that just uses the word as a descriptor. So, what is a fishing isotope exactly?

General Description

A fishing isotope is a piece of equipment you can affix to the tip of your rod, a float, or a bite indicator that illuminates in the dark. It lets you “see,” for instance, what is going on with your bait by indicating via movement when a fish is examining the presentation or taking in the bait.

The word isotope is misleading. There was, once, a product that had an actual isotope that glowed in the dark. It was encased in a glass housing, was about 2 inches long, and a half-inch thick. There was a powder in the glass housing with the isotope that interacted with the isotope and glowed, making it useful to help anglers figure out what was happening with their bait.

Ultimately, fishing isotope manufacturers revamped their operations or stopped making the isotopes altogether because of public perception, real risk, and costs. No manufacturer wanted to be “that” company with a product that posed a danger to its customers or could damage the environment.

How It Works

In most glowsticks, a radioactive isotope (usually hydrogen) is used to create visible light. When it is introduced to phosphor material, phosphorescence occurs and radioluminescence is created. It requires no external energy to activate.

As a fishing aid, the original fishing isotopes were very effective and, if cared for properly, had a very long life. It was not unusual to have one last over 15 years, although it started to fade around 10 years in. The isotope was technically “radioactive,” although in such a small dose if handled properly when the glass casing broke, there was little danger to anyone.


The real issue was cleanup. Disposing of broken or used-up isotopes safely was problematic. Glass isotopes that broke meant that someone would have to handle a small amount of radioactive matter, plus the chemicals that helped to produce the isotopes glow. In addition, the glass tended to shatter, which meant cleanup was challenging.

Because of this and the possibility of an exposed isotope making someone sick, isotopes are closely regulated and/or banned in the USA.


The largest issue with the old fishing isotopes was cost. The materials used, manufacturing, and transport of the product made them prohibitively expensive for most anglers. In many cases, an isotope can cost more than $10 for one unit. The tradeoff for paying so much was that it would last for years while other illumination equipment deteriorated quicker.

Isotope Summary

Isotopes produce significant light compared to other lighting equipment while taking up a very small space. They allow for easy identification of bites when used on rods, bite indicators, and bobbins. They also last an exceptionally long time if taken care of, justifying their cost over the long term.

The other side is that they do possess a radioactive component that can pose a minimal health risk if a person is exposed to it. That exposure is possible because isotopes are glass-encased and shatter easily. Real isotopes are also expensive and outfitting an entire carp or catfishing kit with them would be a significant cost (comparatively.)

Another downside to isotopes is that they are a nightmare to dispose of. When they break their internal components are difficult to clean up and run the risk of humans being exposed. While the amount of radiation is minimal, many believe it could make a person sick if handled improperly. In addition to the materials in the isotope, there is the glass which can shatter.

Fishing Glowsticks

A similar product that is readily available in the USA is the fishing glowstick. A glowstick is also known as a light stick, chemical light, and light rod.

There are a few fundamental differences between a traditional isotope and a glowstick, including them being much less of a risk to the environment, more stable and self-contained, slightly less bright, not as long-lasting, and less expensive. Add to that the availability in the USA and why glowsticks are more popular becomes obvious.

What Are Glowsticks?

The chemical composition of glowsticks can vary, but usually, it entails a translucent plastic tubing that contains isolated chemicals that are either contained in brittle plastic tubing inside the casing or are separated by a sheath of brittle plastic that is part of the casing itself. When the plastic is broken, the chemicals combine and create a short-term, chemiluminescence light.

The light created has a variety of characteristics, including varying colors, only being usable once, not being able to be turned off, and having a variable amount of time that the light can be used for. When the light has diminished or has been exterminated, the plastic casing is thrown away.

Glowsticks have a few advantages over isotopes, including being much less expensive, more environmentally benign, no glass being involved, and nontoxic chemicals.

Glowsticks have many different applications, including at concerts, as traffic signals and indicators, mining markers, a light source for camping, and marine signals. They can also be used by military, police, emergency, and fire personnel as markers. Most relevant, they can be affixed to fishing rods, bobbins, bite indicators, and bait to provide light in the dark.

Widely Available

Another benefit glowsticks and glowstick technology have over traditional fishing isotopes is that in the USA, at least, glowsticks and glowstick technology are readily available. You can purchase iterations of glowsticks for fishing in most tackle shops, big-box store fishing departments, and sporting goods store fishing departments.

Are Fishing Isotopes Safe?

If handled properly, traditional fishing isotopes are very safe. However, if the casing is damaged, then there’s a risk of poisonous substances inside getting out, potentially posing a small radiation threat and a chemical threat if it touches the skin. The glass, if broken, could pose a risk too.

If the topic is the traditional fishing isotope, the answer regarding safety is that it depends on what state the isotope and its casing are in. When used properly, fishing isotopes are very safe and can provide a light source for rods, bite indicators, and bobbins for years.

When the casing is compromised, the chemicals and substances inside are poisonous, although, a singular exposure to any either will not affect the majority of people.

There is a possibility that when several are compromised, the combined mass can pose a slim radiation threat and a fairly substantial chemical threat if exposed to the skin. If ingested in any form, poison control should be consulted regarding what to do.

The other risk is the glass casing. While thin, fragile and limited in quantity, shattered casings can pose a risk. Most people will not cut themselves, but glass shards can end up penetrating the skin or become embedded under nails. The risk then is from the chemicals as well as the usual risks of infection of any skin puncture from items used in a fishing pose.

How Long Do Fishing Isotopes Last?

Fishing isotopes tend to last years when properly cared for and stored correctly. Fishing isotopes will start to fade after 8 to 10 years, but there are accounts of them lasting over 20 years. It is more likely if an isotope is cared for properly, that it will break before it runs out of light.

Isotope Care

To get the most out of a fishing isotope, it should only be used in a capacity that does not expose it to being dropped or crushed. Additionally, when the angler is done using one, it should be returned to its original storage packaging, or stored in a cushioned environment where it can remain motionless and secure.

Final Thoughts

Fishing isotopes are very lightly radioactive in that a small radioactive substance is used. There’s minimal danger from using fishing isotopes as long as they’re used properly. However, if they break, there’s a great challenge in disposal because of these substances. Glowsticks work as alternatives.