Fishing Gear Maintenance – Learn How to Get Your Gear Ready

Cleaning Your Fishing Gear

If you have been hiding in your man cave or workshop as winter kept trying to reemerge in the Carolinas, hopefully you used some of that time to do a little R&R on your fishing equipment. If not, it’s time to get it done ASAP as the good spring fishing could arrive at any time. All but a few lucky folks have had their NCAA Basketball brackets broken, so you can use that time wisely to prepare for some upcoming tug of wars.

Cleaning GearThis isn’t difficult to do if you have much in the way of mechanical inclinations. However, if you don’t understand the basics and don’t care for twisting screws, turning nuts, cleaning parts with a paintbrush, getting greasy fingers and such, take your reels off their rods and take them to your favorite tackle shop for spring maintenance. Even the shops that don’t actually do this in house, usually have someone who does it at home and picks up and delivers once or twice a week. Take them in quickly too! Many fishermen forget about this until the weather warms and a handful of them taking four to a dozen reels in each day quickly develops a backlog.

Many fishermen are lax on cleaning and servicing their reels and it will eventually cost them a nice fish. Bearings give up, drags get jerky or lock up all at the wrong time. Rod seats and guides might have developed small cracks and the time to find this is before a wall hanger fish grabs your favorite lure. It isn’t pretty when a lack of maintenance rears its ugly head with a big fish on the line. Speaking of big fish on the line, this is a good time to strip off old line and replace it with new line.

Let’s begin with a couple of paragraphs on how to properly wash and rinse a rod and reel. While some fishermen act as if this is totally unnecessary, most fishermen mean well when they wash their equipment, but don’t always do it right. This isn’t like washing your boat or car and high pressure doesn’t help – it sometimes even hurts by driving dirt or salt into the reel.

The proper way to wash and rinse a reel is with low water pressure and using a light spray. Wet it down well, wash it with a soft rag or cleaning mitt and then rinse it with water flow, not pressure. There are a variety of cleaners and many are good. Your favorite local tackle shop may have a preferred one and they may recommend a salt treatment.

Don’t use dishwashing detergent. It has grease cutters to help clean dirty pots and pans and can hurt some reel parts, plus mono and fluoro fishing lines and leaders. The grease cutters remove the oil from the line and make it stiff and brittle.

While proper washing and rinsing is important, reels will still need regular servicing. The average fisherman (fishes one or two weekends a month in season and maybe once a month on the fringe seasons) will probably be fine with a thorough inside cleaning and servicing once a year. Fishermen that use their equipment every week might also consider a second servicing and cleaning near the middle of their fishing year. Fishermen lucky enough to fish on a near daily basis or who subject their equipment to extreme stress should consider internal cleaning and servicing on a more frequent schedule. While extra cleanings and frequent lubrication may not be necessary for everyone, stretching too far between servicings is flirting with disaster and can damage a favorite reel.

Fishermen with good basic mechanical ability should be able to do their own reel cleaning and servicing. There are a few complex assemblies, but all reels come with an exploded parts list that is very helpful for taking reels apart and reassembling them—especially reassembling them.

The first thing to do is a thorough cleaning the exterior of the reel. Be sure there is no dust, dirt or salt that could get into the reel when opened.

NOTE: Do not use gas or strong solvents to clean reels.

Even on the exterior of the reel, there are fittings and plastic or rubber parts that can be irreparably damaged by harsh solvents and gas. Kerosene works very well as an all-purpose reel cleaner and solvent. It may take a little longer to remove a big blob of old grease, but kerosene is mild and can be used both inside and out of the reel.

Gear CleaningThe second step is to open the reel up. Take a good look first. A picture can help make sure all the parts are reassembled correctly. Regardless of the brand or type of reel, it is important to clean all the goo and gunk out of the reel to allow examining all the parts for wear or corrosion. A mild solvent, like kerosene, some elbow grease, and very fine grit emery cloth, or extra fine steel wool should allow cleaning the parts without scoring or scratching them. Disassemble the reel enough to expose the gears, shafts, bearings and drag system and clean them all thoroughly.

There are a few things that deserve special attention on each type of reel. Starting with spinning reels, the gears and drag washers are of the utmost importance. Most spinning reels have front drag systems, where the drag washers are enclosed in the spool and adjusted from the front.

The next most common drag system is a rear drag, where the drag is adjusted from the rear. In this system, the drag washers may be located in the spool or in the body of the reel. Bait runner type spinning reels use both front and rear drag systems. Other spinning reel components that often get overlooked and can result in debilitating problems, are the bearing under the line roller and the bail spring.

Most conventional or baitcasting reels, which utilize a star type drag adjuster, are fairly close in design and parts. Generally, the drag systems of conventional reels use several alternating fiber and metal drag washers. While there may be some corrosion on the metal drag washers, it usually cleans off rather easily. Unless there is bad corrosion or severe wear, clean the metal drag washers and replace the fiber ones. The cost of a set of the drag washers is very little compared to other fishing expenses. Don’t try to shortcut and save a few bucks. If there is any question about the drag washers, replace them.

Pay special attention to the springs in conventional reels. Most conventional reels have either one, or a pair of springs, that keep the anti-reverse mechanism working. There is also a freespool spring that disengages the spool from the drag mechanism for casting or otherwise letting line out with no resistance. All springs must be clean, at the proper tension, and free to function for the reel to cast and retrieve line.

Lever drag conventional reels have a few special needs. Take care when washing lever drag reels, as high pressure or washing the reel in freespool, can let water get around the edge of the spool and inside the reel. This can carry dust, dirt and salt. The sealing is better on newer reels, but some older lever drag reels occasionally experienced rust and pitting from this.

If the drive plate has any pitting or corrosion it can be replaced or cleaned and polished. Once the drive plate is cleaned, polish it with a very light (600 grit) emery cloth to help prevent the rust and/or pitting from reoccurring. Lever drag reels add a tensioning spring in the preset knob assembly that must be within tolerance to hold the drag preset and prevent it from changing.

Once the reel is thoroughly cleaned and any needed parts changed, it must be properly lubricated before being reassembled. All reel companies recommend specific greases for their reels and the technicians that service a lot of reels have their favorites. Check with them for recommendations.

An old standby for spinning and baitcasting reels is one of the lighter, white, waterproof, Teflon greases. These have the ability to cling well, lubricate, and protect the reel, without gooping it up. Some heavier lubricants actually cling to the shafts, bearings, and gears so well that they might actually hamper the reels casting ability, but work well for trolling reels. Waterproof grease is still the key, even in a sealed system, as sometimes water finds a way to intrude and it might carry dirt or salt.

Cleaning and servicing rods is much easier. The first step is removing the reel and then give the rod a thorough cleaning. Each technician has their favorite cleaner, but again don’t use dishwashing detergents. Roller type rods should have the rollers and bearings removed, cleaned, relubricated and reinstalled.

Now it’s time to check the rod, reel seat, guides, guide inserts, butts and clear coat for cracks. This can be done with cotton or cotton balls. It’s a little tedious and time consuming, but rub the cotton along and across every millimeter of the rod, reel seat, guides, guide inserts, guide wraps and butt. If there is even the slightest crack, it will pull a couple of strands from the cotton.

Once a crack is found, the proper repair or maintenance can be determined. Cracks or tears in the clear coat can often be buffed clean and patched. However, cracks in guides, guide inserts, reel seats or issues with guide wraps will require help from someone experienced with replacing them and with the proper equipment to continually rotate the rod to allow the clear coat to cure uniformly. This usually requires a trip to a custom rod builder that also does repairs or to the repair shop.

Rod CleaningProper cleaning and service of fishing equipment is a must or problems will surely develop. With regular and proper cleaning and servicing, reels will operate correctly and smoothly, plus last quite a while. This is a wintertime project many fishermen can do themselves with only basic mechanical ability. Checking rods is even easier. Avoiding periodic cleaning and basic maintenance is just asking for problems – and those problems usually occur when there is a trophy fish on the line. Don’t let mistreated fishing gear contribute to tales of “the big one that got away.”

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Capt. Jerry Dilsaver has been fishing since he was a child and writing about fishing, hunting and the outdoors since 1986. He is from Southport-Oak Island, N.C. and continues to live there in semi-retirement. His writing features this area prominently, but he has fished and written about the East Coast from Virginia to Florida, the Gulf Coast, California, Alaska and several of the Great Lakes in the U.S., plus several countries in Central America and several Caribbean Islands. He has been on staff at Carolina Adventure, North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman Magazines and his byline has appeared in several other magazines and newspapers.

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