Reel clean freak

The one sure thing about fly fishing is this, it’s a never-ending learning curve. There are things we learn before the fact, maybe something as simple as a retrieve tip that will lead to the prized catch on your next trip. Perhaps we learn something after the fact like discovering totally avoidable, irreversible corrosion damage to our expensive saltwater fly reels. In my case the later happened a few years back so let me help you avoid that same kind of “Oh no!” moment.

Rubbing salt into the wound

IMG_1231Over the past few decades saltwater fly fishing has seen refinements in gear that allows us to catch bigger fish and give more confidence in tackle used. Some advancements in the reel side of the technology has been sealed drags, better anodising techniques, machined aluminium and the almost universal use of ultra thin and strong braided lines for backing. In most cases braid has replaced thicker and cheaper dacron or micron.

During fights the backing can move in and out of the water. This, coupled with exposure to salt air and water, can lead to the salt ‘wicking’ through the backing and sitting between the reel arbour and the braid. In many cases this salt-based build up can remain in place for extended periods of time.

Reels with ports in the spool can allow residual salt to be easily washed away however it’s the tightness with which braid must be wound onto spools that can lead to salt being trapped in the braid. This salt becomes difficult to remove with a general wash or soak. Trapped salt can cause corrosion of the spool and absolutely no reel on the market is immune from this corrosion – no matter how good you think it is or how much you paid.

The first signs that something is wrong will often be a small ‘crystalline’ deposit on the braid, usually located around the ports on the spool. It resembles salt but it is in-fact the result of electrolysis taking place between the reel metal and the braided backing. One thing’s for sure it won’t get better, not without intervention in the form of cleaning and maintenance. Other corrosion hot spots are the area behind the reel handle and the counter balance. It’s worth taking a close look around the reel foot where stainless steel screws are often used to hold it all together. These differing metals can cause electrolysis in combination with the salt exposure.

Regular maintenance will help

IMG_1249The first solution to corrosion is to have a regular maintenance schedule for your reels. Heavily used gear should be washed daily with a mild detergent or salt removal product. Many modern reels have spools that contain no bearings or mechanical parts that can be affected by water. I favour these style of spools as the reel can be rinsed in mild soapy water with the drag securely done up. The reel drag can then be backed off and the housing left to dry whilst the spool can be left in mild soapy water to get a thorough soaking. It’s then a matter of drying the spool and line thoroughly before packing it away.

Non-sealed reels should be rinsed with drags tightened. Once rinsed, drags are then backed off and the reel and spool separated to dry. Ensure the reel and spool are dried upside down so water cannot run back into the spindles or bearings. Never leave entire reels soaking in water, this is a recipe for problems no matter how sealed you think they are.

All moving parts such as springs and washers usually require regular grease – check manufacturers recommendations as they differ from reel to reel.

An anti corrosive spray or lubricant such as Inox or silicone spray can be used to protect your reel but I never spray it on the reel. Good as they are products such as this may affect the line or greased areas over time. Instead spray a rag and wipe the reel housing to coat it with a protective layer of your chosen lubricating agent.

Get it all off

The hundreds of metres of backing that causes salt to wick up against your reel needs to be removed at least once a year. There are many methods to do this but an easy method is to use a drill and old monofilament spool or drum to spin the backing off. I know of people using garden hose reels to quicken the job. Whatever your chosen method the backing needs to be removed, washed aired and then dried.

Before spooling any fly reel with backing always perform the following tasks. Firstly place a protective coating on the spool to extend its protection from salt. By far the easiest and best method for this is to coat the spool with a standard carnuba car wax. A light coating with a sponge is perfect. Be careful when adding your backing that you really wrap it around the reel arbour and pull it up super tight, ensure the wax does not create slippage of the backing under high drag settings before spooling up. I usually add a small bed of backing first and then coat this as well so as to avoid salt reaching the spool arbour.

The other two main corrosion points are the reel foot and the handle/counter balance. These areas can be improved by removing the stainless screws (if the reel has them) and coating them with a product called Duralac. This coating is designed to prevent electrolysis that’s often prevalent in boats when differing metals are used like stainless screws in aluminium hulls. I am not sure why reel manufacturers don’t use this product during manufacture – it would be wise if they did.

The bottom line is this – a small amount of preventative maintenance will go a long way in extending the life of your precious gear.


Finally, be aware of the location you store your reels. Sweaty or often damp boat lockers that heat up in the sun will see moisture get into places you never thought possible. I prefer well-ventilated dry storage areas.

Many reels come with a pouch or cover to protect them and I often see anglers employ these pouches straight after a days’ fishing. This means over time the reel pouch interior lining is getting salt build up. The trick here is to either wash the reels first and then use the pouch or wash and dry the pouch when you clean the reel after each trip. Be conscious of areas of boats where rods are stored. Windward sides of vessels can get very wet and simply moving your gear to the other side can save a heavy soaking.

There’s nothing tougher than the saltwater environment

All saltwater environments are tough on gear and there is absolutely no such thing as a maintenance-free reel. Most reels need a return visit to the manufacturer at some stage to get a maintenance check. All reels have moving parts and moving parts wear out. We all know that the most likely time for reels to fail will be when we hook that fish of a lifetime – it’s far better to avoid the heartbreak with some regular checks and maintenance.

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