There is nothing worse than the feeling you get when you have driven cross country to stay in Yellow Stone National Park for a week of awesome fly fishing, to find your fly fishing reel has seized up.
Instead of spending the evening enjoying a lovely dinner and planning your first fishing day, you’re hopelessly rushing around gathering everything you need to try and fix your fly reel in time for the morning.
All you can think is ‘why didn’t I look after my fly reel properly, then I wouldn’t be in this mess’.
One way to avoid this is to always carry a spare fly fishing gear, but if you don’t look after that one either, you’re going to experience the same issues.
In this article...
Fly reel maintenance has a lot more to it than just giving your fly fishing reel a rinse in fresh water after you’re done fishing for the day. Many of the best fly fishing books have included chapters on the importance of maintaining your gear.
In fact, rinsing it with too much pressure can even damage some drag systems.
So, what’s the best way to maintain your fly reels to keep them going forever?
Join me as we go through everything from regular fly reel maintenance and long-term storage to how you treat your fly reel while fishing with it…
Why bother maintaining your fly fishing reels?
Protecting Your Investment
Fly reels are by no means cheap and can cost anywhere between $100 and $2000.
Even if they were $10 each, you probably still wouldn’t want to keep buying them simply because you haven’t looked after them properly.
Ensure Your Fly Reels Are Ready For Action
Working as a fishing guide, you see things most anglers don’t encounter.
I have had multiple guests that arrive with the same reel that hasn’t been touched since I put it in their bag before they flew home the year before.
Quite often the leader hasn’t even been cut off and the whole fly reel is caked in salt and dirt. That’s how many steelhead setups lose their efficiency because of improper maintenance.
Fly reels like this will usually have seized up and won’t work at all, often leading to the owner having to beg, borrow, rent, or buy a new reel from the shop, just so they can actually fish on a trip they had booked a year in advance.
Don’t Lose The Fish Of Your Dreams
A fly fishing reel that hasn’t been well maintained won’t necessarily show you its weak points until it’s too late.
It can look fine on the surface and a few tests of the drag might give it the ‘OK’ to be on the water.
Now you’re on the flats looking for that prized fish, say a 1 meter long Giant Trevally in Seychelles, when the stars align and you hook one.
You’re about as happy as you have ever been and you’re turning up the drag to try and slow it down when your fly reel seizes or the drag system explodes.
Utter disappointment doesn’t even begin to describe how you feel, and all you can say to yourself is ‘I wish I did proper fly reel maintenance’.
What parts of a fly fishing reel need maintaining?
Fly fishing reels have much fewer moving parts than a spinning or baitcaster reel, making maintenance quite easy.
When looking after your fly fishing reel there are 4 main parts to pay attention to.
The Spool & Frame
Keeping the fishing reel frame and spool clean of dirt, saltwater and rust is key to having a smooth working fly reel, whether you have a large arbor or small arbor reel.
The fishing reel frame and spool often have the largest surface area of any parts of a fly reel and it’s where dirt and rust are likely to settle first.
The Drag System
There are a few different drag systems out there including click and pawl, sealed, and cork drag.
No matter what kind of drag you have, it needs cleaning and lubricating now and then to ensure that it works smoothly when you need it.
Sealed drags require less attention than others as they have waterproofing that stops any dirt or saltwater from getting inside, but they still need some attention. The best saltwater fly reels will have sealed drags but it will still pay to take care of them.
Other Moving Parts
Other important parts that require a few minutes of attention are the reel release, the inner arbor, the handle, the foot, the spindle, and the shaft.
If all of these are looked after properly then you are certain to have a fully functioning fly reel.
What will you need to maintain your fly fishing reels?
Now that we know what parts to pay attention to, let’s look at what tools, equipment, lubricants, and cleaning agents you’ll need to have ready before you start your maintenance.
- Screwdrivers for undoing any mechanisms.
- Check they fit the screws in your reel first
- Reel grease that is safe to use on plastic and rubber
- Mild detergent or soap, like dish soap you use in the kitchen
- Q-tips for getting into nooks and crannies
- A toothbrush for scrubbing away tough dirt
- Warm and cold water for cleaning
- A bucket or sink to clean the reel in
This is quite a generic list and doesn’t include special lubricants or reel oil for different drags like cork or sealed systems, and you should consult the reel manufacturer on which is best to use.
How do you maintain a fly fishing reel?
Be kind to your fly reel when using it
Fly reel care starts, as with any fishing gear, by treating it well while you’re fishing with it.
The more care you take when using it the less work you’re going to need to do to extend the life of your reel.
You don’t have to fix something that isn’t broken, so don’t break it.
Here are some simple tips on how to make sure you keep your reel safe out on the fishing grounds.
- Do not submerge your reel at all if you can help it, and if you have to, in order to land a fish, for example, try and ensure it’s for as little time as possible.
- Submerging your reel can drive dirty and moisture into the inner workings which should be avoided at all costs.
- Be careful how you put your fly fishing rod and reel down and try not to drop it. Scuff marks in the frame or spool, even if it’s aluminum, remove a protective coating and give corrosion a nice place to fester.
- Don’t put your fly fishing reel down on any sand, dirt, or dust.
- Small particles like this will quickly get in between the frame and spool causing scratches, and can even work their way into the drag.
- Make sure no high pressured boat spray is hitting your reel as it can drive dirt further inside.
If you can manage to follow all of these instructions then you’ll have a lot less work to do in the next steps.
Don’t wash your fly reels with high water pressure
While you might think that a bit of pressure might help clean your reel more effectively, it does the opposite.
And we’re not just talking about a pressure washer here, even a fully opened tap can cause some damage.
The problem with high pressure is that it’s likely to drive the water and any dirt it picks up, deeper into every bit of your reel, a thing you don’t want as no toothbrush is going to get into the inner workings.
Tighten your drag before you rinse
By tightening your drag all the way down before a quick rinse, you’re squeezing the mechanism which will stop any water or dirt from worming its way into the washers and stop them degrading.
Remember to loosen the drag after you have finished rinsing.
Rinse your fly reels and rods with freshwater after every use
This is the simplest, easiest, and most effective way of maintaining your fly reel and pole.
It should be done no matter where you have been fishing whether it’s in saltwater, freshwater, or just practicing casting on the grass at home.
By giving your fly reel a quick rinse with freshwater, you’re removing any dirt, salt, and saltwater that’s sitting on the outside, and thus preventing it from ever getting to the inner parts.
Clean your fly reels deeply after use in heavy conditions or a few weeks of use
Every now and then, after using your reel for extended periods of time, you’re going to want to open up your reel and give it a serious clean.
How often you need to do this comes down to how often you fish and what conditions you fish in.
As a general rule, deep clean your reels after about 14-21 days of use in freshwater, and 7 days in saltwater or harsh conditions. Deep cleaning your reel will ensure it lasts as long as possible, particularly if you fish in saltwater a lot.
Here’s how you do it:
- To start, take your reel, remove all your fly line and backing off your reel and place it into some warm water in order to give it a clean too. Then remove all the backing, the best way to do this is to wind it onto another reel or spool so you avoid any tangles.
- Once the line and backing are removed you can take the reel, remove the spool and begin cleaning.
- Get some warm water, add a few drops of dish soap to it, and let your spool soak in the warm soapy water for about half an hour. This will dissolve any salt and loosen any dirt on it.
- While it’s soaking, take the frame and a soft cloth and wipe off any dirty patches. You can use a drop of soapy water on any tough dirt that won’t come off and Q-tips to get into any hard-to-reach places.
- Once the spool has been soaking for 30 minutes, remove it and gently scrub it with a tooth brush, ensuring you can into every little bit of it.
- Rinse the spool and frame with freshwater, with almost zero pressure. Shake the frame off to dry, and use a soft towel to dry the spool.
- Now leave them both and let them dry overnight. Once fully dried, put them back together, and wind your fly line and backing back on.
Never soak the frame or drag on your fly reel
Soaking your frame and or drag for extended periods of time can end up in the water carrying small particles such as grit and sand into the drag washers or the one-way roller bearing, which will stop it from working properly.
Lubricate Your Reel
You should lubricate your fly reel at least every fishing season, and up to 3 or 4 times a year if you’re using your fly fishing reels heavily in saltwater.
By lubricating all the right parts of your fly reel, you’ll keep everything running smoothly and protect it from any water damage.
Do not start lubricating your reel until you have followed all the thorough cleaning instructions above. Once your fly reel is deep cleaned and dried, here is how to lubricate it.
To lubricate your fly reel you’ll need some lubricants and I’d recommend getting some Penn Precision reel grease and some Loon Outdoors Reel Lube which is a reel oil, and don’t ever use any old grease.
Using any old grease or WD40 will damage one or more pieces of your reel like the rubber O-rings.
- Using a Q-tip or your finger, gently apply some grease to the main shaft, the roller bearing, and the bearing assembly. If the names of these parts are confusing you, look at the exploded part diagram that came with your reel as every bit is labeled there.
- Make sure to get grease into all the notches and cracks, not just around the outside.
- Then wipe off any extra grease from the exterior as it’ll collect dirt otherwise.
- Now take the oil and put a few drops on any screws, the spindle, the release mechanism, and the handle.
- Once complete, wipe any excess lube away and put your reel back together.
To help you visualize the procedure, here’s a quick vid on how to put oil on a fly reel.
Oil your cork drag washers if you have them
Nowadays a lot of reels have carbon or Teflon washers, but you can’t beat cork’s performance and a lot of fly fishermen perfect it as it’s a lot smoother with less start-up inertia.
The only downside of cork is that it needs lubrication because if the washers dry out, the drag will stop working.
You should lubricate cork washers at least once a year and more often if you fish a lot and in saltwater.
To lubricate them you should use the same oil I recommend above, Lune Reel Lube, and ensure the cork is clean using a soft cloth or Q-tip to wipe away any dirt, then using a toothbrush and rubbing alcohol.
Once clean, add 2-4 drops of the oil.
You should consult your fly reel manufacturer’s tips before doing this as each one recommends something different. Abel for example recommends using neatsfoot oil while Tibor asks for Tibor Graphite Lube.
Use Graphite Lubricants on click and pawl fly fishing reels
If you own an old fly fishing reel of your grandpas then it’s probably a click and pawl fly fishing reel.
These reels have no drag and rely on a gear and a spring-loaded clicker to make the noise you hear when the spool moves.
The best lubricant for this kind of fly fishing reel is graphite-based.
Why use Graphite Lubricants?
You can use straight graphite powder or an oil version like the Tibor Graphite Lube instead of grease when lubing them up.
The reason graphite lubricants are so great is that they’re super-slippery while remaining dry which ensures that the click and pawl system is as smooth as butter.
You should apply it to the springs, pawl, and gear teeth of the fly reel.
How to store your fly fishing reel properly
The final part of maintaining your fly fishing reel is storing it properly.
There are two types of storage: short-term and long-term storage
Short term fly reel storage
When storing your fly fishing reel for a day or a week or two there are only two things to remember.
The fly reel should be completely dry and the drag should be turned to the minimum.
To dry your fly fishing reel out completely, wipe it down with a towel after cleaning or rinsing, and leave it out in a ventilated area and/or in the sun for a day or two.
Be sure to leave it drying on both sides so all the moisture comes out as this will stop any corrosion latching on.
Turning your drag pressure to zero is easy, just twist the knob.
The reason you do this is so the washers decompress and aren’t under any pressure extending their life.
Your drag pressure should be set to zero all the time, even when walking to your fishing spot until you start fishing.
Long term fly reel storage
If you’re storing your fly fishing reel for more than a month you should follow the deep cleaning tip section of the article and the short-term storage tips above, not forgetting to remove all the fly line and backing from the spool of the fly fishing reel.
Removing all the fly line and backing does two things to help your fly fishing reel.
- No salt, dirt, or moisture will be able to work its way from the backing on to the spool and cause corrosion
- Your line will have less memory when stored in loose coils off the fly reel, increasing its life and reducing the chances of the line coiling up while you’re casting.
Maintenance Tips From The Manufacturer
Every manufacturer has its own specific set of rules for cleaning and maintaining its reels and I have included some of the major ones below.
Most of them follow the same cleaning and lubricating tips I have mentioned above but there are some subtle differences worth noting.
Orvis Fly Fishing Reel Maintenance
Every Orvis fly fishing reel follows the same guidelines mentioned in the article in regards to cleaning, lubricating, the drag, and putting your reel away for the winter.
But, not every fly fishing reel they make requires all of the steps mentioned in the article due to differences in design and materials like aluminum.
If you own an Orvis fly fishing reel, click here to find its manual and in order to see their advice on how to extend the life of your Orvis fly fishing reel.
Reel Maintenance For A Sage Fly Reel
Sage doesn’t have a manual for each reel like Orvis does, just some posts on their website, and their advice is not very detailed.
They don’t even let you know to remove the backing and line when storing the reel for a long time but they do mention the bare minimum like cleaning and reducing the drag to zero.
If I was you, I’d refer back to every bit in the article rather than following Sage’s minimal advice.
Click here to read Sage’s reel maintenance advice.
TFO Fly Fishing Reel Maintenance
TFO mentions the same cleaning routine featured above but different advice when it comes to lubrication.
They recommend using Cal’s 2 Speed grease to protect the O-rings and to only lubricate the threads on the drawbar, all bearings, and the spindle where it contacts the bearings within the spool, nothing else.
They also suggest that there is no need to lubricate the drag if it’s carbon fiber, but a light coating of Cal’s 2 Speed grease will be beneficial.
Maintenance on a Ross Fly Reel
Every model of a Ross reel comes with its own manual and its own special advice for maintaining the specific reel mode.
The advice is similar to what I have mentioned but in order to get it right and protect parts like the O-rings, I recommend referring back to the reel’s manual.
For example, if you look back at the manual on some models, no lubrication is recommended whatsoever, not even the spindle.
Maintaining your reel properly will not only save you money but a lot of heartaches when fishing too.
They’ll most likely never malfunction, you’ll always land your dream catch, and they will always be ready for the impromptu fishing trip of a lifetime.