There’s no such thing as a “maintenance-free” fly reel. The fully-sealed drags of modern fly reels do an amazing job keeping saltwater, sand, and other contaminants out, but even these high-end fish-fighting tools need a bit of upkeep to stay running smooth. And in this article, I’m going to share with you 11 tips to make maintaining a fly fishing reel as easy as possible by building it into your regular fishing routine.
Why Should You Maintain Your Fly Fishing Reel?
Unless you’re fishing Tenkara, your rod and line won’t work very well without a properly sized fly fishing reel. And while your reel won’t see much action when chasing smaller fish, when you set your sights on bigger quarry, a reel with a smooth drag and plenty of backing becomes a critical link between you and the fish.
But for that drag to stay silky smooth, some proactive measures must be taken — especially if you fish in saltwater, silty or muddy rivers, or under other conditions that put your gear at risk. Spending a few minutes tending to your fly reel will help you avoid long-term damage that will crush your dreams when you least expect it.
Here are the three main areas that require maintenance on a fly reel:
- Frame/spool material — Corrosion from saltwater and rust from freshwater are the main offenders against a fly reel’s material. Depending on what a fly reel is made of, some are are more corrosion and rust-resistant than others.
- Drag — Both fly reels with disc and click-and-pawl drag mechanisms require cleaning and lubrication from time to time. Fly reels with sealed disc drags utilize waterproof gaskets to keep contaminants away from the internal components, but even these can benefit from regular, albeit infrequent, maintenance.
- Other moving parts — Compared to baitcasters or spinning reels, there are surprisingly few moving parts on a fly reel, but those that do exist benefit greatly from occasional lubrication. More on that later . . .
What is a Saltwater Fly Fishing Reel?
Saltwater fly fishing reels are those which are designed specifically for catching saltwater species in the ocean, whether offshore, nearshore, or inshore, from a boat, the flats, or the beach. Most saltwater-specific fly reels are made of CNC machined aluminum that is anodized to be corrosion resistant. Designed with larger-than-average drag systems that are also sealed to keep contaminants out, saltwater fly fishing reels have extra fish-stopping power to fight the bigger, stronger fish found in the salt.
Generally speaking, you won’t find saltwater fly reels available in sizes smaller than 7-weight, and for most saltwater species, you wouldn’t want to fish anything smaller anyway. However, some reel manufacturers, such as Hatch, produce smaller trout-sized fly fishing reels to the same specs as their larger saltwater reels, offering freshwater anglers the same advantages and durability.
The Best Way to Store Your Fly Fishing Reel
Salt and moisture are the two main assailants that will turn a good fly reel into a coffee grinder. Therefore, it’s critical that you make your reel as clean and dry as possible for long-term storage. So before you even think about stashing your reel away for the off season, take the time necessary to clean and lubricate your reel according to the tips below.
1. Practice Good Reel Handling While Fishing
What’s the easiest way to fix something? Don’t break it in the first place. Unless you really love shipping your fly reel off for warranty repairs or replacement, taking some precautions while fishing will help you avoid much of the damage that calls for more drastic maintenance and repair measures down the road.
Particularly if you’re fishing with reels on the lower end of the pricing spectrum which tend to be less durable, the following guidelines will keep your reel operational for longer:
- Don’t dunk your reel if you can help it (more on why later).
- Don’t bump it on rocks — you might crack the frame or scuff the finish which could lead to rust and corrosion.
- Don’t drag the reel through the sand.
- Don’t use your rod as a trekking pole at the expense of your reel.
- Don’t use it to thump your keepers for the day.
- Protect your reel from spray when riding in a fast boat (tip three explains why).
2. Rinse with Freshwater After Every Use
Consider this mandatory when fishing in saltwater and highly recommended when fishing in freshwater. It’s a good habit to develop and only takes a few extra minutes when you get home. Rinsing your reel off under a warm faucet will wash any grit and grime off the exterior of the reel, preventing it from traveling deeper into the reel’s interior.
Don’t overcomplicate this step. Not yet, anyway. Just turn on the tap and give the reel a quick rinse.
3. Don’t Pressure Wash Your Reel
Okay. I know you probably aren’t going to fire up your gas-powered pressure washer to clean your fly reel. But it’s important to know that even moderately-pressured water from a garden hose or sink sprayer could cause more harm than good.
Because instead of rinsing the dirt off the reel, pressured water could actually drive the grit into the reel.
Again, the kitchen faucet will suffice.
4. Deep Clean Your Reel Every Few Trips or After Fishing in Harsh Conditions
Depending on how frequently you fish and the type of water you fish in, plan on cleaning your reel with a bit more elbow grease every so often. And if you fish saltwater, the following fly reel cleaning procedure will help you get more fishing trips out of your favorite reel.
Remove the line and backing from the reel. Strip the line off into a bath of warm water with a few drops of soap. I know this article is about fly reel maintenance, but why not show your line a little love in the process?
- Remove the spool from the frame. Not sure how? Learn how in my other article, “How to Choose the Correct Size Fly Fishing Reel.”
- Let spool soak in warm soapy water. This step will dissolve any salt deposits on the reel and loosen any dirt that’s caked on. Use a mild detergent such as car washing soap or a few drops of dish soap. Try to let it soak for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Scrub spool with a toothbrush. After it’s had time to soak, take an old toothbrush and gently scrub the entire surface of the spool, getting into all the nooks and crannies.
- Rinse the spool with freshwater and dry thoroughly. Wash off all the soap and dirt under a sink faucet (remember, not too fast). Use a hand towel to dry off the spool, then let it sit out overnight to dry.
5. Never Soak the Reel Frame or Drag Housing for Extended Periods of Time
You may have noticed that I left out instructions for cleaning your reel’s frame (the part that holds the spool) in the deep cleaning procedure above. I did that on purpose because you must take special care not to inadvertently damage your reel by soaking it along with your spool.
Especially if your fly reel has an unsealed cork drag, prolonged soaking could result in water seeping into the drag housing, potentially carrying contaminants with it. If this happens, small particles of salt or sand can work their way in between the drag washers, compromising their performance.
You still need to clean the reel’s frame, however, so I recommend simply giving it a good scrub and a rinse with freshwater and a small amount of detergent if needed. Carefully rinse the frame under a faucet and allow plenty of time to dry.
6. Always Store Bone Dry
One of the biggest tips I can give that will keep your reel in shipshape is to never put it away wet. So whether you’re simply rinsing it off after a normal day of fishing or doing a full deep cleaning, lay the reel out on a towel in a well ventilated area and let it dry overnight if possible. If it’s a nice day, you can use the sun to help speed up the drying process.
To make sure it’s really, really dry, let the spool and frame dry overnight on one side, then flip them over and let them dry for another night.
7. Lubricate Your Reel Once Per Year
Get your hands on a jar of reel grease, such as Penn Precision Reel Grease, and a bottle of fishing reel oil like Quantum Hot Sauce or Loon Reel Lube. After the reel has been thoroughly cleaned and dried, the grease goes on the center spindle, the threads of screws and bolts, as well as springs and pawls, if your reel has click and pawl drag. The oil is used to lubricate all other moving parts like the handle.
Be generous with the amount of lubrication you use on your reel, but try to keep the grease and oil confined to the parts that need it. Taking the time to lubricate your reel will help guard the reel against water damage, just be sure to wipe away any excess that could counterproductively attract more dirt and grime.
8. Oil Cork Drag Washers with Proper Lubrications
Although cork drag washers are used less and less in modern fly reels, many anglers still prefer natural cork over synthetics for its smooth startup and consistent drag pressure. However, the performance attributes of cork come with the trade-off of less weather-resistance and additional routine maintenance.
Applying a few drops of lubricating oil to the cork drag washers will keep them from drying which could result in drag failure at the least opportune times. There are several different types of oil that can be used to lubricate cork drag washers, everything from standard reel oil to sewing machine oil to the longtime go-to, neatsfoot oil. When in doubt, follow the manufacturer’s recommendation on which oil to use.
Before you apply the lubrication, make sure the washers and interior of the drag housing are very clean. Use q-tips or a soft cloth to wipe away any grime, and don’t forget tip number 5: Never soak the drag for extended periods of time.
In most cases, cleaning and lubricating cork drag washers should be done at least once per year. But depending on factors such as your specific reel, how well the drag is sealed, how careful you are not to dunk it, how often you fish, and the condition of the water you fish, you’ll have to adjust your lubrication schedule accordingly.
9. Back Off Drag Pressure Before Storing Reel
To prolong the life of your reel’s drag mechanism, loosen the drag knob all the way anytime you aren’t actively fishing to allow the washers to decompress. This includes long-term storage in the offseason as well as travel time to and from the stream.
10. Remove Line and Backing for Longterm Fly Reel Storage
If you followed the deep cleaning procedure outlined in my fourth tip, your fly line and backing should already be off the reel. If your next step is putting up your reel for a few months until the fishing season opens again, leave the line off the reel and store it separately in loose coils.
Leaving your fly line on the spool has two main negative side effects:
- Salt, dirt, and moisture can get trapped inside the backing, leading to rust and corrosion.
- A fly line left tightly wound on the spool will have much more “memory” when you strip it off the spool, causing annoying line twists and tangles that rob casting performance.
Avoid these issues by removing the line altogether!
11. Keep Click and Pawl Reels Singing with Graphite Powder
If you enjoy fishing a click and pawl reel whether for nostalgic reasons or because you simply need a lightweight, minimalist reel for your smaller fly rods, dress the drag mechanism with either straight graphite powder (like what you’d use to fix a sticky door keyhole) or a graphite-impregnated lubricant like Tibor Graphite Lube.
Unlike typical oils or grease lubricants, graphite lubricants are extremely slippery while remaining dry. Add a touch of this special powder to the gear teeth, pawl, and springs of a click and pawl reel and you’ll enjoy noticeably smoother drag startup — always a good thing when dealing with a click and pawl.
Bonus Tip: Tighten the Drag to Rinse
In closing, I’d like to leave you with this little-known preventative maintenance measure to help further extend the life of your fly reel. Before you rinse off your reel in the sink, simply tighten the drag down all the way to reduce the chance of contaminants finding their way in between the drag washers where they’ll slowly degrade the washers. Just don’t forget to loosen it all the way once you’re done!