Off-Season Tackle Maintenance

By Brian Gordon, Last updated: 9/30/2019

BlackTip modular tackle bag

Soft tackle bags, like this one from BlackTip, keep gear organized and ready.

Unless you are one of the fortunate few who enjoys fishing at any time of year, there comes a time when you will need to lay up your gear and count the days until you next wet a line. Now is the time to ensure that your rods, reels, lines and lures are in top condition and ready for action in the spring. This is especially important for those who fish infrequently—who might not get a second chance should they lose a fish due to a dull hook, stuck drag, or a frayed line.

Organized anglers catch more fish!

Come Spring, when the action gets thick, the last thing you want is to waste time fumbling around for whatever jig, lure, or bait is the hot ticket of the day. To avoid this, prepare now by organizing your gear. Depending on the quantity of tackle and the type of fishing you enjoy, this can be as simple as a single tackle box, or something more complex, such as a soft tackle bag—part of a modular system that accepts various plastic storage cases, each devoted to lures and terminal tackle for specific fishing situations. If you fish in both fresh- and saltwater, we suggest separate storage systems for each.

The standard should be, “a place for every piece of tackle, and every piece of tackle in its place.” On your next fishing trip, fast access to terminal tackle will help you to quickly switch lures and keep your line in the water so you will catch more fish.

Hone your hooks!

Bear Paw brand honing and sharpening stones for hooks and knives

Honing stones and sharpeners ensure that hooks are ready for the bite.

As part of organizing your gear, go over all your terminal tackle, making sure that your hooks are sharp and that jigs, lures, leaders, and other gear are clean and in their proper place. Next year, don’t be the angler that gets skunked due to a dull hook!

Reel Care

Now is also the time to assure that your reels are clean, correctly lubricated, and in perfect working order the next time you make a cast. During the off-season, many anglers choose to have their reels professionally serviced. If this is you, bear in mind that manufacturers like Shimano receive upwards of 2,000 reels a week for service, so don’t delay, as waiting too long could put your reels at the end of the line when winter breaks.

If you are mechanically inclined and choose to self-service your reels, make sure you have read the owner’s manual and are properly prepared with the right tools and supplies—along with an exploded assembly diagram which the owner’s manual should contain. Tools and supplies commonly needed for reel maintenance include small Phillips head and flathead screwdrivers, a box wrench (for some reels) cotton swabs, isopropyl rubbing alcohol, a toothbrush, paper towels and rags. You will also need oil and grease that is appropriate for fishing reels. These items can be purchased separately or in a kit, such as the Reel Cleaning Kit by Ardent.

Basic Reel Maintenance

Basic reel maintenance is what you should do at a minimum at the end of the season and preferably after every time you go fishing. This includes lightly rinsing the reel’s exterior with freshwater to remove any traces of salt (if you fish in saltwater) or debris and drying the reel with a clean cotton cloth. Be gentle when rinsing, as a forceful spray can, on some reels, cause water to enter interior spaces and corrode gears and other parts. Do not use WD-40® or degreasers, as these products can work their way into interior reel spaces with negative results.

Conventional Reel Maintenance

Ardent reel cleaning kit

Reel Cleaning Kit by Ardent.

For conventional reels, remove the side plate. Take out the spool and then use a cotton swab to clean out the races. You can also use the cotton swab (with some of the fuzz removed to decrease the diameter) to swab out the recessed area where the pinion gear lives. This cleaning is normally done with the swab dry, but if a large amount of grease and grime are encountered, a small amount of rubbing alcohol can be used. Due to close tolerances, excessive oiling or greasing of races or bearings can actually slow many reels down. For this level of maintenance, the only lubrication normally needed is a single drop of reel oil on each bearing and a drop of oil swabbed around each race.

Spinning Reel Maintenance

For spinning reels, remove the spool assembly by turning the drag knob counter clockwise. If your reel has a rear drag, there will most likely be a push button or drag tension knob at the rear of the reel that you will need to remove. Inspect and clean the line roller assembly. Use a cotton swab to “feel” if the line roller bearing or bushing needs to be replaced. (A rusted or worn bearing will be most noticeable during line retrieval.) Do not use WD-40® or any degreaser, as these products can degrade grease and cause premature wear and tear on the internal parts. Inspect the spool assembly for damage. Pay special attention to the spool lip, as damaged or chipped spool lips cause premature wear on fishing line. Oil the drive gear bearing(s). Bearings are visible with the handle assembly removed. Some reels also have an additional drive gear bearing on the right hand side. Lightly oil the line roller assembly. Regular oiling (at the end of the year and after every fishing trip or two) will greatly increase the life expectancy of the line roller bearing. Oil the bail arm assembly to assure smooth and consistent bail operation. NOTE: These instructions are adapted from an instructional PDF supplied online by Shimano.

Reel Storage and Line Care

Calcutta reel storage case that holds six reels

This Reel Storage Case by Calcutta holds up to six reels.

Common practice for many anglers is to store reels in a soft zippered case, which is great for protecting reels against dings and scratches. However, never store a reel wet in its case, since trapped moisture will have no way to escape—which can lead to corrosion. A good idea is to leave the case open so that moisture, if present, can dissipate.

Reels should be stored with the line removed. This is especially important for reels fished in saltwater, as salt can collect and degrade the line. If you have recently changed your line, such that it is still fresh, considering wrapping it on to a coffee can or other large object. This is common practice with fly lines, but can be used with monofilament as well. In the new fishing year, after replacing the line back on to the reel, it will be less likely to have “taken a set” which appears as pronounced spiral loops that can cause resistance and backlashes during a cast. If you choose to discard your line, be sure to recycle it, which you can do at any West Marine store.

Rod Care

Fishing rods should be cleaned after every fishing trip and of course at season’s end. Washing your rods with lukewarm, soapy water, rinsing them clean and drying with a soft cloth is the order of the day. Next closely inspect the line guides, looking for any that are loose, cracked or nicked. To detect problems that can damage your line, try passing a small ball of cotton through each guide, which will tend to catch on any small nicks or burrs. Replace any damaged guides. Ferrules can be lightly greased with a commercial preparation, or easier yet, with a bit of nose grease, which most of us have plenty of! Never store a rod wet in its case, as this can lead to condensed moisture degrading the rod’s finish. Instead, store rods in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area in their sheaths. If your rods have cork grips, you can clean them with a solvent such as isopropyl alcohol or with lacquer thinner, either of which work well for removing the main source of discoloration, which is the oil from your hands.