Sunday, August 1, 2021

Zen and the Art of Fly Reel Maintenance
By Zach Matthews

If you’ve been fly fishing for more than a month, you’ve probably heard these rules of thumb regarding saltwater fly reel maintenance. Rinse in fresh water after use; keep reels in cases when not fishing, so you don’t drop them and bend their spools, right?

While a garden hose is a decent starting point to reel maintenance, there’s more to it than just washing off some dirt.

Saltwater fly reels come in two formats: sealed disk drags, requiring some maintenance, and cork drags, requiring a little more. Cork drags are almost all found on draw-bar reels, which are used for big-game fishing. The most notable examples are made by Tibor and Abel—all pricey, high-performance models. Sealed disk drags are found on everything else. Nautilus, Orvis, Sage, Ross, Lamson and other companies use sealed disk drags. If you don’t know what kind of drag your reel has, it’s probably a sealed system.

Saltwater fly reels come in two formats: sealed disk drags, requiring some maintenance, and cork drags, requiring a little more. Cork drags are almost all found on draw-bar reels, which are used for big-game fishing. The most notable examples are made by Tibor and Abel—all pricey, high-performance models. Sealed disk drags are found on everything else. Nautilus, Orvis, Sage, Ross, Lamson and other companies use sealed disk drags. If you don’t know what kind of drag your reel has, it’s probably a sealed system.

With a draw-bar reel, tension is increased by twisting the tension nut (the big adjustable drag handle), thus pulling the spool-side of the reel tighter against the brake surface, which is mounted on the frame side. A one-way clutch mechanism allows the spool to turn freely in one direction, but it drags against the brake surface in the other, thus creating fish-slowing drag. By increasing the tension, you draw or pull the cork drag surface under greater pressure, increasing drag. Cork-based draw-bar reels have two very large braking surfaces, making them great at slowing fish, but difficult to fully seal. Often, the cork is visible when you dismount the spool.

Sealed drags, meanwhile, are usually of the stacked-washer design, in which multiple small washer-shaped brake surfaces are “stacked” in a horizontal column inside the large arbor, thereby allowing the drag washers to be fully protected from the elements. Stacked washers achieve braking by having multiple small surfaces sliding against each other, instead of one single set of brake pads. These washers are usually alternating layers of pancaked metal and Delrin (a type of slippery plastic). Since they are inorganic, they don’t require lubrication once the system is sealed at the factory. (Some reel manufacturers, most notably Lamson, cram a larger drag area into a smaller arbor space using sophisticated 3-D architecture instead of stacked washers, but the core principle of metal sliding against Delrin is still in force).

Both drag types have their proponents. For protecting the lightest tippet for a given species (think line-class record fishing), cork has a slight advantage due to its lower start up inertia. Due to its organic nature and lateral flexibility, the cork drag surface builds up to maximum braking power over a short period of time, as the cork compresses sideways instead of fully engaging at max power the second the tippet comes taut. That can protect the tippet on a hot fish. The tradeoff with cork drag reels, however, is they are a bit less foolproof—and the value of cork has become almost academic, now that synthetic sealed drags have become nearly equivalent in terms of their startup inertia.

What happens if water or sand gets between the drag surfaces of an unsealed reel? Drag failure! Getting water inside an unsealed drag can cause the brake surfaces to hydroplane just like tires on wet asphalt. Sand, meanwhile, can chew up not just the drag surface but also the spindle, the locking gears that hold the spool on, and even the drag engagement clutch. Suddenly losing drag pressure on a hot tarpon or permit can cause catastrophic reel failure. At best, you’ll have a nasty backlash and snarled line to pick out. At worst, the reel may free-spool as the fish steals line, endangering the guts of the reel altogether.

That means you should never, ever dunk a cork-based fly reel. For that matter, dunking any reel in saltwater is a bad idea. The best way to ruin a drag is to allow salt to encrust its internal parts, oxidizing the aluminum and rusting any steel gears or spindles the reel may have. A particularly vulnerable point is where the reel foot meets the frame; that ninety-degree angle has a tendency to hold onto saltwater, and it’s not uncommon to see even very well-anodized aluminum reels begin to oxidize at that juncture. (Oxidation is to aluminum as rust is to steel. The only difference is that aluminum oxide is white, while ferrous oxide (rust) is orange brown. Both are bad).

To offset the risks of rust, you do have to rinse the reel in fresh water after use, and you should do so at the end of every fishing day, whether the reel got wet or not. Salt spray is nearly as corrosive as a full dunk in the saltwater, so don’t assume a reel that rode around on a rod rack all day is good to go. If a reel got sloshed, it’s okay to mix in some mild dish soap—just run it through enough clean water afterward to stop the suds.

When cleaning a cork drag, rinse the reel under running water with the drag tightened, in order to make sure nothing gets between the cork drag and its brake plate. For sealed drags, full immersion is okay, but be sure to dry out the reel so the backing doesn’t mildew and weaken. It’s not a good idea to apply any kind of heat to a fly reel (even from a hair dryer) as there are plastic parts in every model. If you need to dry a reel quickly, try setting it on a hot car dashboard in the sun for a few hours instead. Sealed drags require no lubrication once they leave the factory, but a cork drag should be checked and, if necessary, oiled according to manufacturer instructions once a season.

For storage, all fly reel drags should always be backed off. This prevents a cork surface from setting in a compressed position, and keeps the cupped washers stacked inside sealed drags from losing their spring tension. Forgetting to back off the drag is one of the only reasons to send a sealed-drag fly reel to the factory for maintenance. I made that mistake not long ago, flattening the spring washers and thus rendering one of my reels in need of professional repair. Most reel manufacturers perform lubrication and repair for a few bucks, but there is no need to send a reel in unless something is acting up. It’s okay to leave the drag set on a multi-day fishing trip, but dial it back once the trip is over so the reel doesn’t sit with the drag locked down for months.

There are a limited number of ways to kill a fly reel, but they bear mentioning. Aside from rust, the next most likely is excess heat— campfires and house fires can slag a reel. There is also crush damage. My cousin once flattened a nice Ross reel, like a penny left on the train tracks, in an unfortunate car-backing incident. That was a rare death for a reel, but far more common is the dreaded spool dent. Dropping a reel on concrete or a flat surface is a quick way to knock the edge of the spool out of true, causing a grinding “tsk tsk tsk” noise as you wind the reel. (This, naturally, is the reel chastising you for having butterfingers). On a cheap reel, you may hear this noise even if the spool is still true—in that case you are likely bearing down too hard and flexing the central spindle the spool turns on. A dented reel can be very gingerly repaired with padded pliers, but only to a certain point. Once the aluminum cracks, you’re probably looking for a new spool or, worse, a new reel. That’s why reels come with a padded case.

The last way to kill a reel is to leave it on top of your car. A surprising number of anglers have ended up donating their fancy gear to the roadkill gods, and a friend of mine even managed to return his to Poseidon by driving straight from the boat launch over a bridge. I place my reels in a specific place when they are taken off a rod. Get in the habit and your reels are safe. But the safest thing to do is leave the reel firmly affixed to the rod and simply hang them both on the wall at home between fishing trips (assuming you have the space inside your vehicle to keep everything assembled). You can build a very nice garage fly rod and reel rack for about $20 worth of dowel rods and one-by-four boards. An added bonus of storing the reel on a rod rack is air circulation—you never have to be concerned about mildew on your backing.

One last tip: never wind the tippet end all the way onto the reel. Instead, leave six inches or so sticking out. This prevents the line from “binding down” or getting a loop stacked under itself. I once fought a permit with only 60 feet of fly line because the reel I borrowed had been carelessly free-spun by someone who didn’t know better. (I landed the fish, all thanks to some crack boat management by my guide).

In sum, common sense goes a long way. You want to avoid rust, crush and fire, which means a little preventative maintenance and forethought goes a long way. And for God’s sake, please don’t grind your reels into the floor of a driftboat. That non-stick walking surface on the boat might as well be 80-grit sandpaper. They say chicks dig scars, but the anodization on your reel also protects from rust and failure . . . so go easy on the “paint job” okay?