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How to Clean a Fishing Reel

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on June 11, 2021. In

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No one likes to realize that their fishing reel has gotten dirty. Taking it apart to get it clean can be intimidating. This is especially true if you’re not handy when it comes to fishing gear. If you’re worried about getting your fishing reel clean, we’ve got you covered.

Reel Cleaning Basics

If you want to keep your fishing reel well-maintained, then do a thorough cleaning. We recommend cleaning your fishing reel after every 5 to 10 fishing trips. That’s only if you’re doing freshwater fishing. If you’re hitting the salt water for a fishing trip, then you really should be cleaning it every time you get finished. Saltwater fishing, as you know, wreaks havoc on metal parts.

Tools for Cleaning Fishing Reels

You need the right tools in order to ensure a properly clean reel.

  • A pair of screwdrivers. You are probably going to want to have a standard and a Phillips head to manage this job. You’ll likely need some small screwdrivers as well, depending on how your reel is put together.
  • An old toothbrush or small brush for scrubbing.
  • A toothpick for getting into even smaller areas.
  • A pair of tweezers to help you pick out any tiny bits that are stuck.
  • A wrench.
  • Some cotton swabs.
  • A quality cleaning solution, like a boat cleaner. Why a boat cleaner? Because these are designed to handle grease, oil, dirt, and things like fish blood. Basically, everything you’re going to have on a fishing reel.
  • A container to hold all of the parts.
  • A clean, dry rag
  • Reel oil

Do not use harsh solvent to try to clean your fishing reel. You never want to use anything like gasoline or lighter fluid. If that sounds crazy to you, just know that people have tried it in the past. Solvents destroy plastic parts and remove protective coating, so that’s a problem.

Soaking A Fishing Reel

Some people recommend soaking for the cleaning process. The idea is that it promotes deep cleaning. We’re going to not recommend that here. The more you soak a fishing reel, the greater the chance is going to get into your gear system. Even a high-quality fishing reel can only stand up to excess moisture and abuse. Eventually this is going to wear it out.

Cleaning Your Reel Prep

We’ll try to explain this as clearly as we can here. If you are unsure about the process, you may want to look up some videos on YouTube. Sometimes it helps if you can actually see the process laid out before you. There’s no harm in going to a repair shop, either.

  • Have a notebook handy. Write down the order in which you take things apart. There are a lot of small bits and pieces involved in how a fishing reel works. It can get confusing if you’ve never done it before.
  • Another good option that some people have used in the past is sticky notes. Take off a part and put it on the sticky note with a number. That way everything stays in order and you’re less likely to get confused. You’ll also notice if something has gone missing so you can look for it.
  • Make sure you have a reliable pair of tweezers. When you get into the inner workings of your reel, there are some very delicate parts. Your fingers could potentially damage these unintentionally. Tweezers will allow you to have greater control. Though it doesn’t seem obvious at first, body oils and sweat from your hands can wear down these delicate parts. If you have an expensive reel, it’s worth taking care of.

Taking Apart Your Fishing Rod and Reel

It’s time to start cleaning your reel. Obviously, the first thing you want to do is remove the reel from the rod. Taking the reel apart after that requires patience and a steady hand.

  • Start the process by removing the line from the spool or securing the line with some masking tape. That will prevent it from getting tangled up later.
  • If you have a spincast reel you’re going to need to take it apart. Feed some of the line out and then secure it.
  • Remove the reel cover and take off the spinner head and spool. This is what you need a small wrench for.
  • With the spinner head spool out of the way you can remove the center shaft. Then take out the crank handle, washers, clutch ring, and crank bearing. These are the parts that you need to take care of with your tweezers. Take them out one at a time as you come to them, put them on some paper towels or your Post-it notes and label them in order. There’s going to be a good number of little, delicate parts in here. You don’t want to lose any or forget where they go.
  • With everything taken apart you can now use your toothbrush to clean things. Use your cleaning solution and scrub out the inside of the reel assembly. Once the larger parts are done you can gently clean the smaller parts with the same brush.
  • Use your clean rag or wipe everything down afterwards. Take a moment to hold them up with the tweezers and look over every side to make sure they’re clean all over.
  • You need to lubricate the parts before you reassemble everything. Make sure you’ve got a proper reel oil or reel grease to prevent corrosion. You want to grease up the crank here and the shaft to start with. That you can hit the pick up arms, the washers, the center shaft, the bushings and so on.
  • Use some reel oil on the handle knobs, the ball bearings, the kick lever, the clutch ring, and the spool release. Make sure everything is moving the way you want it to.
  • Follow your numbered directions to put everything back together. Just go in the opposite direction that you took it apart.

Cleaning a Spinning Reel

Spinning reels are generally the easiest ones to clean. Taking them apart involves less work than spincast reels. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to be careful and keep track of all the parts, however.

  • You’re going to want to thoroughly clean the reel with freshwater. We said we weren’t going to recommend soaking your reel. But a spin casting reel may do well with a quick soak if you’re a saltwater fisherman. It’s a good way to get rid of all the excess salt that you may overlook otherwise.
  • As always, you want to secure your line and place with some take before you get started.
  • Start by removing the spool and giving it a good once over with your toothbrush once you have it removed.
  • Use your tweezers to take out the spool bushings and the washers. Then you can remove the handle knobs, the pick up pin and pick up arm.
  • After that you can work on the crankshaft. Remove the gears, the center shaft, and the clutch screw. The last thing you’re going to want to take out is the ball bearings along with the roller wheel. Remember to make a note of everything as you remove it. Number it’s in order so you know how to put it back.
  • Use the toothbrush to clean each individual part with some of your cleaning solution. Use a soft cloth to dry them off when they’re finished but be gentle. You don’t want to accidentally bend or break anything.
  • Once it’s all clean you can oil the pick up pin, the arms, the handle knobs, the spool release and the ball bearings. Don’t over oil the ball bearings, they don’t need to be dripping wet or anything.
  • Use some grease on the main shaft and the rest of the crank system. The roller wheel and pick up arm as well as the bushings and washers can use a bit of grease as well.
  • Use a cotton swab or a Q-tip to remove grease. You don’t want it to collect dust and dirt and create greasy mud in there.
  • Follow your written directions and put everything back together. Just go in the reverse order of how you took it apart. Like we said, spinning fishing reels are a bit easier to work with then spin casting reels or baitcasting reels.

Cleaning a Baitcasting Reel

A baitcasting reel can be difficult to clean. Be careful to secure the line properly. Also make sure you’re tracking all those small parts.

  • You need to loosen the drag knob. You can remove the drag system including the spool at this point.
  • Use some clean water and your toothbrush to clean the reel. Clear as much of the inside of the spool as you can.
  • Remove the track tension knob. You can now take out the spool shaft as well as other parts. Go for the stabilizer bar, pinion gear, shaft guard and gear. You can also take out the release slider, bushings, handle knobs and spool release. Use the tweezers to take these parts one by one. Label and number them, and put them on your Post-it notes or make note of it in your notebook.
  • Clean each piece gently with your toothbrush. Use your cleaning solution as well. Remember, gentle is the key here.
  • Finish cleaning the inside of the reel as best you can. And then use a clean cloth to dry everything off.
  • Once it’s clean you need to lubricate everything again. You can oil the spool shaft and handle knobs. make sure you get the ball bearings in the stabilizer bar as well. Be careful to not over oil things, they don’t need to be swimming in it.
  • You can then lubricate the pinion yoke and the main gear as well as the shaft guard and gear. You can use cotton swabs or Q-tips to clean up any excess.
  • You should be able to put everything back together now. Just follow your written directions.

Keep Your Fishing Line Clean

If your saltwater fisherman especially, make sure you give your line and spool a rinse down. Clean the entire reel after every use. Saltwater use will eventually damage any reel. Don’t let that saltwater air dry. It will greatly extend the life of your rod and reel if you clean it properly.

Your best bet is to do a proper cleaning every time you come back from fishing in the ocean. You want to clean your reel completely. If that’s not an option then you have to at least give it a rinse down. We honestly don’t recommend only doing that, but it’s better than nothing. If for some reason you’re in a time crunch and can’t do a full clean, do your best to get the salt water off. We know that a lot of anglers don’t always do a full clean each sign, but it is the best thing for your reel.

Don’t Over Lubricate Your Reel

Lubrication will prevent rust so you need to apply grease. When using oil especially, you can end up using too much lubrication. A little oil will do. Reel oil is fairly light. It’s able to spread around and do its job without needing a ton applied. In fact, if you use too much, it can start to hinder performance. It will also get clogged up more easily as the real gets dirty again. Eventually it could cause more damage than if you have not used this much.

Always make sure you have something on hand to clean away the excess as you’re applying it.

Keep it Organized

This is the most important part of cleaning any fishing reel. The steps we’ve outlined are fairly simple when you read them. Just a handful of things to do. But if you don’t keep track of when you took all the pieces out and where they go, the job can get overwhelming. Label everything and number it. Keep track of where it was and you can put it back easily.

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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