Whether you spend $50 or $500 on a reel, you expect it to last a long time and, especially, perform flawlessly when fighting that fish of a lifetime. Every reel should work well right out of the box; each day on the water takes its toll on tackle, however, and anglers must do their part to keep the gear they use in top condition.
Don't get lazy at the end of the day: A simple freshwater rinse after each trip prevents salt buildup that can cause cancer in reels. The key word here is "rinse." Avoid soaping up with dish detergent or similar grease-cutting products that will attack a reel's lubrication.
If you trailer your boat and stop by the carwash for a cleanup on the way home, resist the temptation to blast reels with a high-pressure spray. Hard-hitting water can force salt inside a reel's frame, doing more harm than good.
Rinse and Rub
"Rinse reels carefully, and then dry them thoroughly with a towel," says Dan Thorburn, product support specialist for Shimano. "Using a towel keeps salt residue from accumulating on the surface of the reel as water evaporates. Carefully inspect metal-framed reels while drying them. Any scratches in the finish should be treated to prevent corrosion from spreading."
Although a common practice, it's not a good idea to spray WD-40 on reels. "WD-40 is a penetrating oil that gets inside the reel and breaks down grease, which leads to premature failure of gears and drag washers," Thorburn says. "If you use WD-40, spray it on a rag and wipe the exterior of the reel. The same goes for any other corrosion inhibitor: Spray a rag and wipe the reel. We clean composite frames this way with CorrosionX. It leaves graphite reels looking brand new."
"Aftermarket cleaners work very well, but we recommend using Penn X-1R Rod & Reel Cleaner after every fishing trip," says Tom Blecker, service department manager at Penn. "Just a light spray and quick wipe-down can prevent corrosion on reels for many years."
Once you've rinsed, dried and corrosion-protected your reels, back off drags before storing them. "This gives the drag system a chance to breathe and keeps unnecessary pressure off internal parts," Blecker says. Thorburn adds that leaving the drag set tightly for an extended time can force grease away from drag washers and cause them to stick.
How do you know when a reel needs service? "It's basically common sense - you can tell when something is wrong," Blecker says. "You might notice a jerky drag or a rough feel when turning the handle. A ball bearing that's going bad usually makes noise before it throws in the towel."
Serious anglers perform routine gear checkups and preventive maintenance to avoid breakdowns in the heat of battle. The more often you fish, the more frequently you should inspect your tackle. Turn the handle to feel the drive train's smoothness, and listen for any grating or squealing that could indicate worn gears or failing bearings. No matter what kind of reels you have - baitcasting, spinning, conventional or fly - you should regularly inspect gears, pinions and bearings for signs of wear. "Also, check the drag's smoothness and range," Blecker says. "After several full seasons of use, most reels begin to lose drag range. Replacing the drag washers solves this problem.
"When looking over baitcasters and star-drag reels, keep an eye on the levelwind system to assure proper line lay on the spool. If line bunches up on one side, both the worm and pawl should be replaced as a set," Blecker says.
Thorburn suggests lubricating the levelwind system with a few drops of oil and removing the spool to tend to tight spots that a proper rinse may not reach. "Use cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol to clean the spool, raceway, brake case and pinion-support bearing," he says. "Put a drop of oil on the pinion-support bearing. It's the first bearing to see the elements."
A spinning reel's line roller deserves scrutiny because it endures nearly constant contact with salt water during retrieves. "It's essential to keep this part clean and well lubricated. Noise from the line roller means it's not spinning freely, which will result in line twist," Thorburn says.
The checklist for offshore spinning reels covers the usual items (gears, bearings, line roller), "but pay special attention to the drag because it takes a lot of hard use," says Eros Cattaneo of Bluefin USA and Alutecnos.
Signs of trouble in lever-drag reels include a sticky drag or one that won't hold its settings, a hard-to-turn handle, difficulty shifting gears (in two-speed reels) and faulty free-spool operation.
Blecker strongly recommends performing thorough annual maintenance on lever drags, especially if the reels see use in tournaments. "First and foremost, the drag system must be checked and set properly. This could mean the difference in winning a tournament and finishing as an also-ran," he says. "Even though an offshore reel has large parts and relatively simple mechanics, I urge you to have a qualified service technician work on your Internationals - or any other lever drags for that matter. It's better to let a professional shoulder the responsibility of keeping reels in top condition to bring a tournament-winning fish or catch of a lifetime to the boat."
Grease or Oil?
Blecker says anglers can't go wrong by applying some type of lubrication to any moving part. Cattaneo says Alutecnos reels should receive grease on the main gear and shaft, and oil on the bearings, springs and clicker.
Grease inside a reel can trap salt crystals and dirt, so always remove old lube from parts - using products like Penn X-1R Rod & Reel Cleaner, WD-40, rubbing alcohol or dish detergent - before giving them a fresh coat. Blecker says WD-40 leaves a film, so after degreasing with it, wash the parts in dish detergent. "Taking off the old grease lets you examine bare metal and see if the parts are wearing. This inspection is especially important on gears," he says.
It's possible to overlubricate, although Blecker says, "Excess grease creates some resistance in the gears and makes a reel feel sluggish, but it's better to err on the side of too much grease than not enough."
Instead of stopping by an automotive or hardware store, buy specialized lubricants at the tackle shop. Each manufacturer suggests using proprietary grease and oil when servicing its reels, and for good reason. "There are many different recipes on the market that mainly differ in viscosity. We recommend Penn X-1R lubricants for all Penn reels," Blecker says. "The grease is a heavy-duty, marine-grade formula developed for use on high-friction metal parts like gears. It works well on all saltwater reels, from lightweight graphite spinners up to International lever drags."
Reels deserve TLC. "The saltwater environment and the fish we catch punish our tackle," Thorburn says. "Thirty minutes of maintenance after each trip will ensure years of use from reels."
For detailed instructions on reel maintenance, visit http://fish.shimano.com and type "reel maintenance" in search box.