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Fishing Reel Maintenance Tips for Better Performance, Longer Life

Though most fishing reels are affordable, they still cost money; here's how to extend their life and perform the best

Some of my fishing buddies, like me, have invested a lot of money in the fishing reels they own. With few exceptions, though, these guys rarely treat their reels like the expensive, finely tuned pieces of equipment they are.

It’s not unusual to see their tackle banging around in the back of a pickup going down a dusty road or stored in a boat locker without being washed after a day fishing in saltwater. I often see reels spooled improperly, drags set incorrectly, and precious fishing days ruined because a reel wouldn’t cast right.

It’s really not difficult or time-consuming to give your reels the TLC they need to perform well every time you go fishing. Nor is it difficult to learn basic usage tips like how to properly replace line or adjust the brakes to stop backlashes.

Check out the following basic guidelines you can use whether you prefer chasing farm-pond panfish or saltwater marlins. By practicing these tips, your reels will stay in tip-top shape much longer, and you can be confident your tackle will handle anything a fish dishes out.

Basic Cleaning and Maintenance

After a day of fishing, rinse each of your reels with fresh water and allow to dry. Don’t use a spray nozzle to do this, however. High-pressure water can force sand, dirt and salt into the reel. Use light pressure straight from the hose.

Before rinsing, tighten down the drags, especially on spinning reels. This will help keep water from seeping inside. Hold spinning reels upside down with the drag toward the ground when rinsing, giving water even less of an opportunity to get inside the reel.

When each reel is dry, lightly lubricate easily accessible moving parts. This is especially important if the reel was used in saltwater or in dirty or muddy conditions. Do not use the reel until it is fully clean, as dirt and sand can cause damage.

Loosen Drag for Storage

Between fishing trips, store each reel with its drag loosened. If you leave the drag tightened, the drag washers are compressed and you could end up with a jerky or ineffective drag. Reduced pressure on the drag washers helps them last longer in better condition.

Proper Lubrication

Proper reel maintenance includes lubricating all moving parts such as bearings, spool spindles and gears. You should lubricate lightly, however, and do not use heavy oil or grease. These can gum up or leave a residue that can inhibit movement of the bearings and other close-tolerance parts. Fine, light lubricants such as Rem Oil or Blakemore’s Reel Magic Lubricant are excellent choices.

Despite advice you may get to the contrary, do not use WD-40 or Vaseline to lubricate any of your reel parts. These work well for many applications, but they’re not good for reels.

Most manufacturers recommend that you re-lubricate your reel on at least a monthly basis – more often with heavy use. At the very least, lubricate everything once during each season you’ll be fishing.

Degrease Stiff Reels

If you purchased a new fishing reel and found it a little stiff when casting, take it apart and see if you need to remove some of the grease on the gears. Old reels work better, too, if you clean out gummed-up grease and replace it with a fresh coating of light lubricant.


A solvent like Ardent Reel Kleen or isopropyl rubbing alcohol works great to loosen up all grease. A Q-Tip or soft cloth can be used for application.

Egg Carton Parts Holder

If you’re the handyman type who can dismantle your own reel for maintenance, here’s a tip you can use.

Save an empty egg carton or three and number each compartment. Then, when as you’re taking your reel apart, place each part in a separate compartment of the egg carton(s) as you go along, putting part 1 in compartment 1, part 2 in compartment 2 and so on. When reassembling the reel, you can pick up the parts in reverse order and get everything back together right.

Of course, it’s also a good idea to save and file the schematics that come with the reels you buy, and use them when you’re doing reel maintenance. That’s the best way to know what goes where.

Line Replacement

When should you replace old line with new? There’s no set answer to that question but certainly you’ll want to replace it after any long, taxing encounter with a hard-fighting fish, which can compromise the properties of the line.

I also replace mine after extended fishing time in waters with lots of rocks, snags and other debris that can cause nicks and abrasions. And, of course, it’s time for more line whenever the amount on the spool gets too small due to changing lures, losing baits to snags, cutting off line because of “twisties” and so forth.

Outside of situations like those, just keep an eye on your line and change it out when it fades, frays or doesn’t feel as supple as it was when new. Like maintaining a reel, keeping good-quality fishing line on your reels is key to your success. Tatty line might land a panfish or small bass without problem only to break when you set the hook in that fish of a lifetime.

If you’ll be stowing your rods and reels for a couple of months – in winter, for example – strip the line and leave it off until just prior to your first trip of the new season. That way you’ll know you are starting with fresh line when you begin again.

Fill Your Reel Just Right

When using a baitcasting reel, filling the spool to 90 percent capacity is recommended. This optimizes casting performance. Too much line is likely to increase the chance of backlash, while not enough limits casting distance.

For spinning reels, a good rule of thumb is to fill the spool until there’s at least 1/8 inch of room from the line to the edge of the spool lip. That will let you use the most line capacity without causing line to spring off the spool and form tangles.

The 1/8-inch rule applies to spincast reels, too, but you’ll have to remove the reel’s front cover so you can check the amount of line on the spool.

Proper Brake Adjustment Equals Fewer Backlashes

You’ll make more accurate casts with fewer backlashes if you adjust your baitcasting reel’s mechanical brake according to the weight of the lure you’re casting.

Look for the brake adjustment knob on the side-plate beneath the handle. With the lure attached to your line, depress the free-spool button while lightly thumbing the line. When the brake knob is properly adjusted, the lure should descend slowly to the ground and stop without any spool overrun. If the lure falls too quickly or slowly, adjust the brake knob to compensate.

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