This warning is only required on products sold in California. However, since most companies distribute nationally and don't know where their their products will ultimatley end up, it's usually put on all products going anywhere in the US. If you don't see the warning on a rod or reel, it still doesn't mean it's lead free. It could be only marketed in a geographic region outside of California.
Lead is considered cancer-causing, and hence, you'll see this warning on fishing rods and reels because they almost always use lead paint (that's how you get that shiny look).
Now, instead of a specific warning about lead, most manufacturers will attempt to hide this fact by using the generic "cancer" warning allowed under Prop 65. The warning often goes something like this:
WARNING: This product containts chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.Scary message, but then most people just thing "oh heck, what doesn't cause cancer these days" and move on (I doubt most people would think that it's a lead warning). And if you do hunt around, you'll find something reassuring like this message from Shakespeare.
Interested in finding a lead-free alternative? Good luck. It's basically non-existent (if you find otherwise, please post a comment).
What is fairly astounding is that both Shakespeare and Zebco tried to sell "kids" fishing rod and reel combinations that had lead paint in them. There was a subsequent recall, and it appears that the children's new rod and reel combos are lead-free.
Now, there are really only two ways that I know of to get a lead-free fishing rod and reel: Buy the Zebco or Shakespeare children's fishing kits (these are the ones with colorful Batman and Robin, etc. -- real kiddie stuff); or buy the Jr. Fisherman Rod and Reel combination from Outdoor Adventure (only the 2007 models, not the earlier 2006 models). In fact, at this point, I would only recommend the Outdoor Adventure models as Zebco and Shakespeare both had the audacity to ship a "children's rod and reel" combination with lead in them (although they have apparently stopped doing this subsequent to the recall).
In order to be lead-free, also make sure to also use lead-free tackle (jigs, weights, etc.).
Good luck and good fishing.
UPDATE: We've heard that MountainBaby has lead-free fishing poles. Hope that helps. If you
Tampa Bay Conservation League