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Make Your Baitcaster Fly!

Make Your Baitcaster Fly! An in-depth article on reel maintenance, tuning and upgrading. Only from BassResource!

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The following is a series of observations based on my experiences with reel maintenance, tuning and upgrading. I do not do this professionally. I work on my own reels because I enjoy it. I started to do so a long time ago. I had to. When I got my first “real” reel, the deal was, I had to maintain it myself. If I wanted any more good equipment I had to demonstrate that I was capable of taking care of what I had.

 

I work on reels for a few other folks, but do not solicit business. I’m way too busy to take on any more than I currently have.

 

In any event, I’ve been doing this a long time; almost fifty years. In that time I have seen many changes. My first good reels were a Mitchell spinning reel and an Abu baitcaster. There were no upgrade parts available at that time. Choices for lubrication were limited. We simply used what was available, to make our reels last, and perform well.

 

I’m going to break the discussion out into separate areas. This is not intended to be a detailed how-to, but rather a report on what has been of benefit to me in terms of performance improvements. And I will mention some experiments, which proved to be a waste of time, effort, and funds. That is what this article is about; my trials and errors. I like to experiment, and have time over the winter to get into it. I want to see what parts and/or procedures deliver a real performance improvement. I then look at the time and costs involved and determine, for myself, if I will ever do it again.

 

DRAGS:

This is one thing that can be improved in almost every reel. Many reels have a drag stack composed of alternating stainless steel and fiber discs. Don’t know what the fiber is, and don’t care. A lot of reels have a single fiber disc and a pressure plate, with the other friction surface provided by the inside surface of the main gear. Depending on brand and model, you will find varying numbers of metal and fiber surfaces. I used the word fiber, but some of the non-metallic drag elements are ceramic, plastic, Shimano’s dartanium (whatever that is), teflon, nylon and carbon fiber, to name a few.

 

Whatever the drag material is, the performance of the drag can be improved by polishing the metal surfaces, using the proper grease in the proper amounts, and by replacing the non-metallic washers with Carbontex washers. Just cleaning and replacing the stock grease with “good” grease will improve performance. Replacing the non-metallic washers with Carbontex washers will improve performance. Polishing the metal surfaces of the drag stack will improve performance. Doing all three will ensure that your drag is functioning as well as the original design will allow. This is a series of improvements I’ve decided is well worth the time, effort, and cost.

 

My drags are set somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five percent of the line strength. My goal for my reels is to have the breakaway torque equal to the running torque. This is virtually impossible, but I get it very close. The best I’ve done is within two ounces. I settle for four ounces or less; finding that to be acceptable performance.

 

All of the metal washers get polished, using a Dremel tool, felt wheel and ultra fine polishing compound. I do NOT use sandpaper. I work on the washers until they look like a mirror. For some reels this also involves polishing the inside surface of the main drive gear. It takes a little time to get the drag functioning as smoothly as I prefer, but it only needs done once. Thereafter, a good cleaning is all that is necessary to maintain top performance.

 

There is no point in trying to polish the non-metallic washers. All you will accomplish by doing so is to make sure you have to order more washers. Just get them clean.

 

About cleaning; there is quite a bit if conflicting information out there about what to use.

When I ordered my first set of Carbontex drag washers, I read the instructions on the Smooth Drag website. They say acetone is not a good solvent to use for cleaning drag washers. It leaves a residue behind. I’ve read many recommendations that say to use acetone for cleaning because it does not leave a residue. Who to believe?

 

I’ve used acetone, carb cleaner, brake cleaner and lighter fluid (naphtha). Guess what? They all work just fine. I use lighter fluid the most because it is readily available and comes in a neat little spill-proof container. I soak the washers in it, rinse in clean fluid, scrub with a toothbrush, hot water and Simple Green, and air dry. This works for me. Use whatever you’re comfortable using, and develop a procedure that gives YOU the results you’re looking for. Whatever you use, you need gloves, eye protection and good ventilation. None of these chemicals are good for you when splashed in your eyes, inhaled or absorbed through the skin, so be careful.

 

Use good grease on the drag washers. There are many types of grease that will provide acceptable performance. The two I’m happy with are Shimano star drag grease and Cal’s drag grease. I can’t tell the difference between these two in use. I can tell that these are both better than some of the other greases I’ve tried, so I stick with them. If you routinely fish in extreme cold, you will want to find some other grease for your drags. These two greases will both become sticky when subjected to very cold temperatures.

 

Keep in mind that when applying grease to drag washers, more is not better. This actually applies to the entire reel regarding lubrication. If you grease the washers, assemble the drag stack and press it down, grease should not ooze out of the stack. If that happens, you have applied way too much. Take it back apart and get all the excess grease out of there. A thin film is all that’s required. You should be able to leave a fingerprint in the surface of the washer. That would be the correct amount. The correct amount for the two greases I use, that is. If you’re using different drag grease, you will need to experiment to determine what would be the proper amount.

 

Note: this is not intended to be a series of recommendations for specific products. I recommend that you do your own research and experimentation. Come up with products and procedures that give you results you’re looking for.

 

Another note: some people are most interested in drag strength. If you’re one of those who locks down your drag, or cranks it down with a pair of pliers(shudder), simply clean your drag washers and install them dry. Do not lube them. You will get the maximum drag the design will allow.

 

I don’t know why having twenty pounds of drag is so important to some. We’re fishing for bass, not bluefin tuna. If you truly think you need twenty pounds of drag, do this simple experiment. Spool up with line stronger than twenty pound test, tie the line to a twenty pound dumbbell, and try to lift the dumbbell off the ground with one hand on your rod and the other on the reel handle; just like you would when fighting a fish. Unless you have “Popeye” forearms, you’re not going to move it off the floor. Before doing this experiment, go outside. When your rod snaps you’re going to poke a hole in your ceiling, causing your significant other to call you “gloopy and a domeless wonderboy”. Twenty-five tommy points if you can identify the quote.

 

POLISHING OTHER PARTS:

A little online research will reveal a confusing amount of information, and misinformation, about polishing internal reel components; what is often referred to as super tuning. Some of these will recommend sandpaper for certain parts. I do not recommend sandpaper be used anywhere near a reel. The only time I truly ruined a reel was following one of those older articles, and used home-made tools to buff some parts with sandpaper in an older Abu reel. Fortunately, it was one of my own reels. I know there are people using sandpaper, and getting good results. They are braver, and apparently more skilled than me.

 

What I use is a Dremel, felt wheels, fiber brushes and ultra fine polishing compound. This is what works for me. It may take longer, but there’s very little margin for error using sandpaper.

 

What parts need to be polished? I’ll keep this simple. Don’t try to polish plastic or nylon parts. There’s no need to do so. Any metal parts that move and make contact with another part are candidates for polishing. Some examples are the ends of the spool shaft, the inner surface of the brake drum on a reel with centrifugal brakes, the tip of the level wind pawl, the inside of the pinion gear and the spool shaft on reels with a spool shaft that extends through the pinion gear, the end of the pinion gear that mates with the spool bearing retaining pin on reels with a spool shaft that does not extend through the spool, and any metal parts of the clutch mechanism.

 

My best advice about determining what to polish is to simply look at your reel’s innards. See which metal parts rotate or slide while in contact with another part. Then, take your time, and make “em shine.

 

 

Warning; when polishing a spool shaft, on reel with a shaft extending through the pinion gear, do NOT polish the area on the shaft where a spool bearings rides. A little light polishing in these areas will likely not hurt anything, but there is no benefit to be gained by doing so. Remove a little too much metal and the shaft will slop around inside the bearing. This will make the reel feel rougher, and wear out the gears and bearings prematurely.

 

I have an experiment running right now. I polished the gear teeth on one reel. I went through about a dozen fiber brushes and polishing compound to smooth out the gear teeth. I am not recommending this just yet. I’m going to use the reel all season, then tear it down to carefully inspect the teeth to see how they held up. I will tell you that the reel is noticeably smoother on the retrieve. Only time and use will tell if the improvement is lasting, or if it was truly worth the time and effort involved. I spent quite a bit of time on this little experiment, and used up a bunch of brushes. Those gear teeth just chewed them up.

 

GEAR SWAPS:

A very simple procedure; one I’ve performed several times, with a variety of brands. In every case I went with a higher speed gear set, and consulted with the manufacturer to make sure the new gears would fit. In one case I had three Quantum 600 series PTs that came with 5:1 gears. I had to get 6.3:1 gears because the 7.1:1 set would not fit in the case of that particular reel. I’ve bought Daiwa gears from Daiwa, Quantum gears from Quantum, etc. Before ordering a new gear set, consult the manufacturer. Make sure the new gears will fit in the reel case. When replacing a worn gear, make sure you get the set. Do not just replace one. It’s not a good idea to install a new drive gear and leave the old pinion gear; or vice versa.

 

Swapping gears from one brand to another doesn’t work often, but does occasionally. I won’t get into which brands swap with which. If you want to do this, you’ll need to do some research. The information is out there; you just have to find it.

 

AFTER MARKET HANDLES AND KNOBS:

Removing a stock handle and replacing it with a four-bearing handle is a nice upgrade; particularly for a reel used for moving baits. You will notice an immediate improvement in smoothness on the retrieve. Most of my reels have four ball bearing handles, and the rest will have them in the future. I have all Daiwa bait-casters, so I’ve mostly bought TDZ handles. They’re around $50 each. I also tried Ardent four-bearing handles. They’re a little cheaper, a little longer, a little uglier, and the nut cover needs modification to make it fit on the Daiwa nut. I’m not sold on those, basically due to the extra length. I prefer a shorter handle.

 

For other brands, you will have to shop around. Most after market handles are pricey. It’s up to you to determine if the benefits are worth the cost. For me, the $50 TDZ handles are worth the cost. Some of the available after market handles exceed $200. I haven’t tried any, and will not. The cost/benefit ratio is not favorable for me. It may be for you.

 

A little research will reveal some alternatives. BPS has several reels featuring four-bearing handles. Some of these will fit Daiwa reels. Ditto Pfleuger. There are probably some other brands with four-bearing handles that will bolt right on your reel without modification. The only way to know for sure is to speak with somebody who has actually done it. Calling any manufacturer for advice on this subject is a fine way to waste your time. Been there, done that, refused the tee shirt. That said, this can be the most cost effective way to upgrade your handles. Do the research first.

 

There are now two BassResource forum members marketing four-bearing handles. Liking the idea of buying American, I will be purchasing one of these, and will post a review as soon as I can.

 

Daiwa started the swept handle craziness. They’ve marketed this as a way to remove wobble from cranking by moving the knobs inward toward the reel’s center of gravity. I have reels with straight handles and reels with swept handles and can’t feel any difference. Seems to me the concept is high-grade fertilizer, but some people like the way it looks. Some even like the looks well enough to go to the cost and effort to convert their straight handled reel to swept handles. This is more than just replacing the handle. At the very least you will also have to replace, or modify, the drag star. I see no benefit to this, only expense. If the upgrade or swap does not produce an improvement in performance, I’m not interested.

 

Let’s talk about carbon fiber handles. These are an expensive proposition. I personally don’t care for carbon fiber handles. Some people do like them. They offer a benefit in the form of weight reduction. If you’re trying to shave off some weight, this is the easiest place to start. Those few grams of weight reduction do come at a high price. If it’s worth it to you, then by all means go for it. I have a reel with a carbon fiber handle, and an identical reel with the stock aluminum handle. The carbon fiber handle is lighter. It feels lighter when compared to the stock aluminum version. The difference is negligible when holding the two reels in my hands. When mounted on rods the weight difference is undetectable.

 

There are also some very nice looking import knobs to fit those carbon fiber handles. Some compressed cork, some aluminum, some titanium, and more. Very expensive for knobs, but again, some weight reduction. I have one reel with compressed cork knobs. I really like these. They just feel good in use. If they were five or six bucks apiece, I’d have them on all my reels. I’d probably go up to ten bucks apiece. But, the best price I’ve seen on these little jewels is twenty-two bucks each, plus shipping from Japan. Not worth it to me.

 

If you’re into bling, handles and knobs are a good place to add some. Some of the after market handles and knobs are very cool looking - expensive, but nice, nice, very nice. Not worth the price of admission to me, but may be to you. Enthusiasm has many levels.

 

BEARINGS:

Now for an issue which will create some dissent. There’s a lot of talk, interest and misinformation about ABEC rated bearings.  I’ve heard, on good authority, that ABEC 7 rated bearings are made from better materials; the races are hardened, the balls are rounder and harder; the cages are tougher and lighter, corrosion resistance is better, etc, etc, etc. Check out the chart I’ve copied, from an engineering site, detailing specifications for the various ABEC ratings. It’s all about dimensional tolerances for the inner and outer rings (races).

 

ABEC Tolerances

All tolerances are in .0001 inches abec 1 abec 3p abec 5p abec 7p abec 9p
INNER RING (Bore Diameter < 0.7087 inches)  
Bore Tolerance +0/-3 +0/-2 +0/-2 +0/-2 +0/-2
Radial Runout (Bore 0 - 0.3937") 3 2 1.5 1 0.5
Radial Runout (Bore 0.3937 - 0.7087") 4 3 1.5 1 0.5
Width Tolerance +0/-50 +0/-50 +0/-10 +0/-10 +0/-10
Width Variation - - 2 1 0.5
Reference Runout with Bore (max) - - 3 1 0.5
Groove Runout with Reference Side (max) - - 3 1 0.5
Bore 2 Point Out of Round (max) - - 1 1 0.5
Bore Taper (max) - - 1 1 0.5
   
OUTER RING (OUTER Diameter < 0.875 inches)  
Outer Diameter Tolerance +0/-3 +0/-3 +0/-2 +0/-2 +0/-1
Radial Runout (max) 6 4 2 1.5 0.5*
Width Tolerance +0/-50 +0/-50 +0/-10 +0/-10 +0/-10
Width Variation - - 2 1 0.5
Flange Width Tolerance Limits - +0/-20 +0/-20 +0/-20 -
Flange Diameter Tolerance Limits - +50/-20 +0/-10 +0/-10 -
Groove Runout with Reference Side (max) - - 3 2 0.5*
Outside Cylindrical Surface
 Runout with Reference Side (max)
- - 3 1.5 0.5

 

Note: runout (or running accuracy) is a measure of the degree of eccentricity (for radial runout) and squareness (for bore and O.D. with side face) of the bearing.

Bearing tolerance classes primarily control boundary dimensions of the rings. There are features that are critical to the bearings performance and life that are not controlled by the ABEC (or ISO) specifications. These include: internal clearance, surface finish or hardening, ball accuracy, materials, torque ratings, noise, cage type, cage tolerances and lubrication.

 

Here’s a conversion chart for international (ISO) and German (DIN) standards, just in case you find a bargain from a different rating system.

  • ABEC 1 = ISO 0 = DIN P0
  • ABEC 3 = ISO Class 6 = DIN P6
  • ABEC 5 = ISO Class 5 = DIN P5
  • ABEC 7 = ISO Class 4 = DIN P4
  • ABEC 9 = ISO Class 2 = DIN P2

Most stock reel bearings are unrated. The advantage higher rated bearings have is this: as you move up the scale, tolerances are tighter, and the bearing can spin faster with less wobble, or runout. That’s it, in a nutshell. Higher rated bearings are more stable at higher speeds. So there is no advantage to be gained by using these bearings in any other application than the spool. No other bearing in your reel spins fast enough to get any benefit from tighter tolerances.

 

The exception to this is when a stock bearing goes bad, which is a rare occurrence in a properly maintained reel. You can buy an ABEC 5 bearing, in most cases, for less than a factory replacement, so, why not? In some cases, you can find a 7 for less than factory stock. It makes sense in that case. The ABEC rated bearings, with their tighter tolerances, might last longer than stock bearings, if properly maintained. I said they might last longer. I haven’t had any installed long enough to prove it.

 

When purchasing ABEC rated bearings, deal with a known reputable vendor. If I take one of the ABEC 7 bearings out of a reel and lay it right next to a stock bearing, I can’t tell them apart. They are not marked. There are some scammers out there selling very low priced ABEC 7 bearings. At least they claim to be 7s. How do you know? You don’t, but if it sounds too good to be true, it likely is. Your best defense is to buy from a reputable vendor. Stay away from flea-bay.

 

My spool bearing upgrading experiences are with ABEC 7 bearings; stainless steel and ceramic hybrids. ABEC 9 bearings are now available. I have no experience with these, and I expect that statement to remain true indefinitely.

 

I bought one set of ceramic hybrid ABEC 7 bearings from Japan. With shipping, these two bearings were a little over $60. I cleaned, lubed and installed them. They lasted for one trip before I removed them. I couldn’t stand the sound. Noisy is an understatement. I believe my reels should be seen and not heard. Ceramic bearings are inherently noisy. I was told they need some time to break in. When I hear the words “break in” the first thought that crosses my mind is “wear out”. I will not be buying more of these bearings. Every reel I’ve heard, with ceramics installed, was noisy. That’s a big turn-off for me.

 

I now have stainless steel ABEC 7 spool bearings in most of my reels. They will improve casting performance; just nowhere near the “gee whiz, these things are amazing” reports we’ve all read and heard about. I’ve read reports of people claiming they got thirty-yard longer casts with upgraded bearings. I’m calling BS on that. Thirty feet is stretching the truth. You will see a small improvement that will cost you twenty to thirty bucks per reel. The primary benefit I see is I can get equal distances with a little less effort. In my case, and for most of us, reduced effort will result in an increase in accuracy. Over the course of a fishing season, increased accuracy will put more fish in the boat than increased casting distance. For me, the slight increase in accuracy is just barely a good enough reason to put 7’s in most of my reels.

 

Ceramic ABEC 7 bearings offered little improvement over stainless ABEC 7 bearings, which showed a little improvement over stock. Ceramics were certainly not enough improvement to justify the increased cost, or to offset the annoyance factor. However, if you wish to extract the highest level of casting performance from your reels, ceramic hybrid bearings are something you should consider. Simply be aware of the downsides: cost and noise.

 

You may also consider this: I found, after a bit of searching, a speed reference which stated ABEC 1 rated bearings are good for 32,000 rpm when greased and 38,000 rpm when oiled. This is not a spec for peak speeds. This is for sustained operation. I found this buried in an engineering handbook. It had made no mention of higher ratings. I would assume a 7 would have higher rated speed, but I have not found data to support the assumption. To tell you the truth, I’ve spent very little time looking for such information. I have data enough to make the following point.

 

What does 38,000 rpm translate to, when applied to a reel? Assume a one inch diameter spool, filled. Do the math. It comes out to a hair less than 166 feet/sec. Can you sling a crankbait at that speed? Beats me. It would be an interesting experiment.

 

In reality, spools would only hit or approach this speed momentarily. Casting reel spools are certainly not spinning at 38K rpm for an extended period of time. But, if you can remove some distance robbing bearing wobble from the very brief peak speed portion of the cast, why not go for it?

 

In some cases, it is possible to add bearings to a reel. If you find a bushing when you tear the reel down, get out your dial calipers and measure it. Bearing measurements are given as ID x OD x THICKNESS, typically in millimeters. If you can buy a bearing with the same dimensions, by all means put one in. Your reel will be a little smoother, and will probably last longer. Over time a steel bearing will keep things in much better alignment than a plastic bushing.

 

One useless case is the popular Daiwa level-wind bearing upgrade. This is purported to improve smoothness during the retrieve and to improve the way line lays on the spool. I did this to one of my Alphas, one of my Fuegos and one of my Zillions. The reels are not noticeably smoother and the line does not track onto the spool any better than it did before the upgrade. The only time I can tell the difference is when I tear down the reels for cleaning. In the case of these three reels, I have one more bearing to clean. That is the only difference. So, I’m out a few bucks for the bearings and required smaller bushings. Live and learn, right?

 

 

AFTER MARKET SPOOLS:

This one gets talked about quite a bit, but, not many fishermen I know actually do it. I tried it once. I purchased an after market spool from Japan. It was noticeably lighter than the stock spool. It was also around $150, shipped. What did I get for my cash and efforts? A reel which would pitch light weight baits a little better than it would with the stock spool. Nice, but to me, not really worth the price.

 

There was a down side to this “improvement”; one I should have expected, but did not. The reel would not cast as far as it did before the swap. The lighter spool, having less inertia, would start-up more easily than the stock version. That is what allowed the reel to pitch lighter weights better. The lighter spool, having less inertia, would also slow down more quickly. So, it was better for pitching light baits, and worse for distance casting. Again, not a huge difference either way, but a noticeable one.

 

I haven’t researched this, being uninterested in trying it again, so I don’t know of any domestic manufacturers of spools. I know there are a few Japanese firms making replacement spools, and all are expensive, at a hundred bucks and up. The current yen/$ exchange rate simply makes matters worse.

 

If you’re interested in improving a dedicated pitching reel, and the cost doesn’t concern you, a super light weight spool is just the ticket. If you’re going to use the reel for anything other than pitching, consider the trade off. That road ain’t downhill in both directions.

 

 

CLEANING & LUBRICATION:

There are no reels that would not benefit from a thorough cleaning, followed by a proper lubrication; brand new reels in particular. The questions are; how often to clean, and with what, and what kind of lube to use, and where to apply it. There will be no single “best” answer to any of these questions.

 

Let’s begin with cleaning. Most parts of a reel can be cleaned effectively with hot water, a toothbrush and Dawn dish soap. I use Dawn and/or Simple Green cleaner. Any dish detergent will work just fine. There is no real reason to use harsh chemicals, like acetone, carb cleaner, brake cleaner, etc, on most reel parts. Dish soap, toothbrush and elbow grease will get the parts clean without risk to either you or your reel’s components. Of course if you want to use any of these chemicals on the metal parts, you won’t do any damage, but you will be exposed to the fumes. Be careful when cleaning plastic parts with anything other than soap. I have melted some components in the past. Not a pretty sight.

Bearings cannot be cleaned with soap, water and toothbrush. They need to be soaked in some type of solvent. You can easily start an argument by saying “MY WAY” is the best, and only, way to clean bearings.

 

I’ve used a wide variety of solvents for this purpose; lighter fluid, carb cleaner, brake cleaner, acetone, and some others. They all work. We’ve all read somewhere that this particular solvent is the best because it does not leave a residue. Notice I did not say which solvent has this property. I don’t think there is a solvent that does not leave a little something behind. Don’t believe me? Well then, the next time you eat dinner take out all the plates, cups, glasses, forks, knives, etc, and spray or wipe them down with that miracle solvent which leaves no residue. Let it dry, and then serve your family dinner on that tableware. Sound like a good idea? Riiight.

 

Some recommend using an ultrasonic unit for bearing cleaning, saying this is the only way to do the job right. It’s not the only way, but it certainly does speed up the process. I picked up two US cleaners at an estate sale a few years ago. Sold one and kept the other. I used it for bearings for a while. It doesn’t get the bearings cleaner than a simple soaking. It just does it a lot quicker. This is a great tool for the professional who services hundreds of reels every year. Not necessary for us part-timers. Having a limited amount of bench space, I quit using it. The only time I get it out is when I get into a reel with greased bearings.

 

I keep it simple. I use shot glasses, two or three bearings in each, enough lighter fluid to cover the bearings and a little cling wrap over the top to keep the fumes under control. I keep the spool bearings separate from the rest. I also segregate the bearings with shields removed from the bearings with non-removable shields. If the bearing’s shields come off, I take them off. Removing the shields will speed up the process. I don’t have a set time for bearing soaking, nor do I have a set number of times to change fluid. It’s a case-by-case decision. Bearings with non-removable side shields will take longer. Bearings with heavier lube in them will take longer, and will require an extra change, or two, of fluid.

When I’ve determined the bearings are clean , I hit them with a hair dryer to warm them up, and allow them to air dry. I’ve already cleaned the rest of the parts while the bearings are soaking, and they are mostly dry, and ready for lubrication.

 

I’ve recently discovered that undiluted Simple Green is an effective bearing cleaning solvent. It smells a lot better than lighter fluid too.

 

You can start a different argument by saying “MY LUBE” is the best and only lube to use.

 

I’ve already mentioned what grease I use for drags. I use the same grease for gears. This avoids any potential problems with cross contamination. Drag washers are inside the main gear, in most reels, so if any cross contamination between lube types is going to occur, this is the place. Some lubes are not compatible with others. Mix them up, and both loose some or all of their lubricating properties. Which lubes are not compatible? Good question. The answer is left up to the student as a research project. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself). So, I use the same grease on the drive gears that I use on the drag washers. If it’s good enough for the drag, it is good enough for the gears. I’m happy with the results.

 

Regarding level-wind components, some folks use grease, some use oil, and some use a mixture of oil and grease. Tried it all, at one time or another. If you use grease, or very heavy oil, grit will stick to it, and cause some undue wear. If you use light oil it will wash out easily and cause undue wear. There is no secret solution to this problem. This part of the reel demands frequent attention, that’s all. Use whatever you’re comfortable using, and pay particular attention, looking for signs of contamination or loss of lube. If it gets to the point you can feel the level-wind dragging, it is probably too late. You’re going to be replacing parts soon.

 

I used to grease all the frame bearings in my reels. Basically, every bearing except the spool bearings got greased. I bought a special tool, made just for this particular task. Greasing the frame bearings gives a nice smooth feel to the retrieve. I stopped doing this because it takes a long time to get a greased bearing clean. It takes quite a while even with an ultrasonic unit. I use 90wt gear oil now. It’s almost as smooth, will last all year if necessary, and is much easier to get out of the bearings when performing maintenance.

 

All of the metal clutch components are lubed using an almost dry brush, applying an extremely light coating of lube on these parts. No need to lube the nylon parts. They don’t need it. If you like oil for these parts, then use oil. If you like grease, use grease. I don’t think it makes any real difference. Having said that, there are two parts that should not get grease. They are the posts the nylon yoke rides on. The yoke is what holds the pinion gear; the smaller of the two drive gears. A little of that sticky drag grease on the posts, and the yoke can hang up when you turn the handle to engage the spool. You really don’t want that to happen. Really. Nothing good will come of that.  Been there, done that, paid the price. It was ugly.

 

Once again, more is not better when lubing your reels. If they look like they’ve been lubed, you probably applied too much. If you can see oil drops and grease globs you have definitely applied too much. Clean it up and do it again.

 

Ask ten anglers what oil to use for spool bearings and you’ll get ten different answers. Most of them will also tell you that what they use is the best. Ask the same ten how much oil to apply, and they will all give you the same answer; one drop per bearing.

 

What oil should you use? Good question. To answer that I will need to ask more questions. First, are you one of those people who believe in servicing their reels once a year, every year? If so, then the lightest, low viscosity oils are not for you. These are oils such as Rocket Fuel, Hot Sauce, Ardent bearing oil, Daiwa Red oil, etc. I don’t intend to list them all, or to get into an argument about which is best. Determine that for yourself. In any event, once per year lubrication is nowhere near often enough when using one of these low viscosity oils.

 

Just how much is one drop? I did an experiment using every kind if reel oil I had on hand; putting one drop of each on a plastic plate. I ended up with about dozen drops of oil on the plate, each a different size; obviously a different amount of each. The smallest drop came from an Ardent bearing oiler, and the largest came from a little bottle of Daiwa red oil. The Daiwa drop was easily five times the size of the smallest drop. 

 

So, how much should you use? The glib answer is however much it takes to do the job. The better answer is to experiment with the oil you use to determine what is best. A little experimentation gave me the correct way to get the correct amount of the lube I use applied to the spool bearings. One good indicator will present itself when you remove the side plate. Is there oil slung all around the captive spool bearing? You applied too much. I can tell you, it is difficult to apply too little.

 

Applying too much oil to a spool bearing will reduce casting performance. Excess oil basically gets in the way of high-speed rotation. In effect, the balls are pushing a wave of oil in front of them while spinning. If you are really in tune with your reels, you can hear this.

 

Speaking of spinning, there’s no good reason to spin your bearings while they are dry. Give them a gentle rotation to test for cleanliness and noise. A little experience will give you the feel for how clean the bearing is, and if it is in need of replacement. Spinning them at speed for any length of time, while dry, is only causing premature wear. How long they spin, when running on their own; not installed in the reel, is no indication at all of how well they will perform when in the reel. So what if one spins for forty-five seconds and another spins for only five seconds? What matters is how the bearings perform in the reel, under load. So quit spinning the danged things. Get them as clean as you can, lube them properly and put them back in the reel.

 

The final piece of the maintenance puzzle is frequency. How often should you service your reels: once per year, never, after every trip? Again, there will be no “best” answer.

 

For a twenty dollar reel that you use three times per year, never would be a good answer. If you have two or three very high end reels, use them every trip and fish a lot, once per year will not be the right answer. Servicing every reel after every trip is just a bit too obsessive, even for me; and is not the correct answer.

 

My answer is to let the reel tell me when it’s ready. I know what my reels feel and sound like when they are at their best. At the first perceptible difference, the reel gets put away, and serviced at the first opportunity. I have a bunch of reels, and some get used a lot more than others. So, some get serviced more than others.

 

I will also rotate some reels. This spreads the usage out and can reduce the service interval for the reels that see the most time on the water. I recommend this practice for those of you who only service their reels once per year.

 

A COUPLE OF FINAL THOUGHTS:

Most manufacturers produce reels at a variety of price points. They need to cover the market, so they have a reel at a price anyone can afford. Trying to upgrade a reel from the bottom of the price spectrum is probably not the cost efficient approach. Sure, go ahead and do the drag washers as I’ve described, and give it a good cleaning and proper lube job. But think hard about doing much more than that.

 

Think about the costs involved, and you’ll likely come to the conclusion that you would be better served saving the money and stepping up the price spectrum a notch or two. The tolerances and fit of many of the lower priced reels are not what they need to be to make any realistic improvements.

 

The improvements I’ve discussed are all fairly simple things. Any person with reasonable manual dexterity and a little patience can do any of them. But, there is a learning curve. My advice: stick with simple maintenance at first. Learn how your reels come apart and, more importantly, go back together. Get your cleaning and lubing procedures down pat. Get the best performance you can out of your reel while it’s still in its stock form. Then you can start thinking about making improvements.

 

All of the above applies to reels used for freshwater fishing. I don’t fish in saltwater with any of my gear. I have no experience with saltwater tackle.

 

ANOTHER FINAL THOUGHT:

I said I wasn’t going to recommend any lubes. I changed my mind, and I’m going to do just that. I started using TSI 321 at the end of 2010. I used it all of last year, and after that experience I will continue to use it, and recommend it.

 

TSI 321 is a synthetic ester, not a petroleum product. Without getting too deep into the chemistry, the ester molecule has polarity. The short version is it bonds to metals and the molecules bond together. When applied to clean metal parts it forms a water-proof barrier. It does not wash out. It does not wear off. And it is very slick.

 

This is the best stuff I’ve ever used for spool bearings. It solves the trade off problem one has when deciding what oil to use. Do I use very light, low viscosity oil for best casting performance, knowing that I will need to clean and oil the bearings several times during the fishing season? Or, do I use heavier oil, knowing it last all year? Previously I did both. The reels I use most got light oil, and the less frequently used reels got heavier oil.

 

Now they all get 321. I get a little better performance I was getting from the light oils, and one application will last all season if necessary. I use 321 for all bearings. I like the extra measure of corrosion resistance and I know it will last all year. Problem solved.

 

I also use 321 for all level-wind components. It lasts all year, unless I drag the reel in sand. Grit does not stick to it as easily as it does to grease or heavy oil. If I get some grit or debris in the worm gear I can just rinse it out and let it dry. 321 will not wash out with water. Another problem partially solved.

 

TSI 321 is not the be-all and end-all of lubrication. It’s not much good for drag washers, and since I use one of two specific greases for drag washers, I use the same grease for the drive gears.

 

TSI 321 has been around for a while, but has only made its way into the fishing community recently. There seems to be a lot of misinformation about it already.

 

You can buy 321 or 301. I’ve heard it said that these are two different lubricants. Not true.

 

I’ve heard it said that 321 is too thick for bearings. Not true.

 

I’ve heard it said that 301 is only for bearings, and dries after application. Not true.

 

I’ve heard it said that you put it on and allow it to dry. Not true.

 

They are both the same synthetic ester lubricant. It is not a dry lube. Simply put, 301 is 321 blended with a solvent.

 

301 is reported by the manufacturer to be harmful to some plastics, but they do not say which plastics. It is actually the solvent in 301 that is harmful to plastics. 321 by itself is not harmful to plastics. They don’t say what the solvent in 301 actually is, so the only way to determine what plastics can be damaged by 301 is to drop a plastic part in the bottle, leave it to soak for a while and see what happens. Not something I’m all that interested in trying. After application the solvent evaporates very quickly, so I don’t know how much damage it could actually do in the short amount of time solvent is in contact with the part in question.

 

To lube using 301, apply a drop to each spool bearing, rotate it a few revolutions to spread it around, and let it dry. I should say, allow the solvent to evaporate. It will leave behind a very thin coating of 321 that will not be dry. Put the shields back in place. If you started with a nice clean bearing you will now have a very fast one.

 

When using 321, apply a drop to the spool bearing, rotate a few revolutions to spread it around and let it set for a bit. Blow out the excess lube. I use a can of compressed air. Do not make them spin like mad. Be gentle. A couple of puffs from a distance will do the trick. Put the shields back in place. You will get the same results; a very fast bearing.

 

For frame and handle bearings I do not blow out the excess. For all metal parts except the gears I apply 321 with a small fine brush, let it sit for a bit, and wipe off the excess.

 

I’m now comfortable fishing a reel for the entire season with no scheduled maintenance. The only time I feel I have to service a reel in the middle of the season is when I’ve dropped one in the water or muck, or if I hear or feel something wrong. I have complete confidence that TSI 321 will keep my reels well lubed all year.

 

ONE LAST FINAL THOUGHT: (I’m done this time, really)

For those of you who can’t, or don’t wish to do this type of work yourself, a realistic alternative is to utilize the services of a professional reel tech. Do a little research and you will find a good one, maybe even in your area. Ask for references. If you find a guy with a bunch of happy customers, you’ve found your man, or woman. Most will do any or all of the things I’ve talked about, for what I consider to be a ridiculously low price. I don’t know how some of them do it. I know how long it takes me, and for the prices these folks are asking, they are working dirt-cheap.

 

That’s all for now folks. See you on the water.

GK

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