Bass Fishing

Make Your Baitcaster Fly!

Fishing Gear Tips

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 reels because I enjoy them. 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 could take 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.

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 benefited 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 to get into it over the winter. I want to see what parts and procedures deliver an absolute performance improvement. I then look at the time and costs involved and determine if I will ever do it again.


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. I don’t know what the fiber is and don’t care. Many 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.

Unpolished drag washers. (click to enlarge)

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 replacing the non-metallic washers with Carbontex washers. 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 and the original design function. I've decided this series of improvements are well worth the time, effort, and cost.

My drags are 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 acceptable performance.

Polished drag washers. (click to enlarge)

The metal washers were 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 to be done once. After that, 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.

There is quite a bit of conflicting information about what to use for cleaning.

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 suitable solvent 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, rinse in clean fluid, scrub with a toothbrush, hot water, 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. Many types of grease will provide acceptable performance. I’m happy with 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 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 frigid temperatures.

Keep in mind that more is not better when applying grease to drag washers. This 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 on 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 research and experimentation. Come up with products and procedures that give you the results you’re looking for.

Another note: some people are most interested in drag strength. If you’re one of those who lock 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. Do this simple experiment if you genuinely think you need twenty pounds of drag. Spool up with a line stronger than the 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 confusing information and misinformation about polishing internal reel components, which 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 ruined a reel was following one of those older articles and using home-made tools to buff some parts with sandpaper in an older Abu reel. Fortunately, it was one of my reels. I know there are people using sandpaper and getting good results. They are braver and more skilled than me.

Dremel tools and polishing compound. (click to enlarge)

I use a Dremel, felt wheels, fiber brushes, and ultra-fine polishing compound. This is what works for me. It may take longer, but there’s a minimal 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 contact 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 simply looking 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.

Just the ends of the spool shaft get polished. (click to enlarge)
These two parts of the clutch mechanism get polished. The small part slides on top of the larger. It’s easier to polish the entire small part than it is to do just the contact surfaces—Polish only the surface of the larger part that makes contact with the smaller. When you take the reel apart, you will see where to do the polishing. (click to enlarge)
The same two parts, after polishing. (click to enlarge)
The end of the pinion gear rides inside the inner pinion bearing and mates with the spool pin after polishing. (click to enlarge)
After polishing, the other end of the pinion gear the smaller diameter section, which rides inside the outer pinion bearing. When the four spots have been polished, push the thumb-bar down for casting and turn the crank to re-engage the spool to smooth buttery. Not necessary, but it’s nice. (click to enlarge)

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

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 will 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 many brushes. Those gear teeth just chewed them up. 

Gear Swaps:

A straightforward procedure, one I’ve performed several times with various brands. I went with a higher speed gear set in every case and consulted with the manufacturer to ensure the new gears would fit. I had three Quantum 600 series PTs with 5:1 gears in one case. 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 occasionally. I won’t get into which brands swap with which. If you want to do this, you’ll need to research. The information is out there; you just have to find it. 

Aftermarket 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 were 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 fit 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 aftermarket 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 aftermarket 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 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 done it. Calling any manufacturer for advice on this subject is an excellent way to waste your time. Been there, done that, refused the tee shirt. 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 posting a review as soon as possible. 

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. It seems to me the concept is high-grade fertilizer, but some people like how 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. I'm not interested if the upgrade or swap does not produce a performance improvement. 

Let’s talk about carbon fiber handles. These are expensive propositions. I don’t care for carbon fiber handles. Some people do like them. They offer a benefit in the form of weight reduction. This is the easiest place to start if you’re trying to shave off some weight. 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 like these. They just feel good in use. I’d have them on all my reels if they were five or six bucks apiece. 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 an excellent place to add some. Some of the after-market handles and knobs are very cool looking - expensive, but friendly, very nice. Not worth the price of admission to me, but maybe to you. Enthusiasm has many levels. 


Now for an issue that will create some dissent. There are a lot of talks, 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 more rigid and lighter, corrosion resistance is better, 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 the boundary dimensions of the rings. Some features 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. 

If you find a bargain from a different rating system, here’s a conversion chart for international (ISO) and German (DIN) standards.

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

A stock bearing and an ABEC 7 stainless steel bearing. Can you see the difference? Neither can I. (click to enlarge)

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 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 it likely is if it sounds too good to be true. 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 valid 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 needed 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 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 slight 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, the reduced effort will increase accuracy for most of us. Increased accuracy will put more fish in the boat throughout a fishing season than increased casting distance. The slight increase in accuracy is barely a good enough reason to put 7’s in most of my reels. 

Ceramic ABEC 7 bearings offered a slight improvement over stainless ABEC 7 bearings, which showed a slight improvement over stock. Ceramics were undoubtedly not enough improvement to justify the increased cost or 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: after a bit of searching, I found a speed reference that stated ABEC 1 rated bearings are suitable 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 a higher rated speed, but I have not found data to support the assumption. I’ve spent very little time looking for such information to tell you the truth. I have enough data 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. But, if you can remove some distance robbing bearing wobble from the cast's very brief peak speed portion, 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 exact dimensions, 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 improve the way the 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 before the upgrade. I can only tell the difference 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?  

Aftermarket Spools:

This one gets talked about quite a bit, but not many fishermen I know do it. I tried it once. I purchased an aftermarket 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 that would pitch lightweight baits better than with the stock spool. Nice, but to me, not worth the price. 

There was a downside to this “improvement”; I should have expected it but did not. The reel would not cast as far as it did before the swap. The lighter spool would start up more quickly than the stock version with less inertia. 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 a few Japanese firms are 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 lightweight spool is just the ticket. If you’re going to use the reel for anything other than pitching, consider the trade-off. That road isn’t downhill in both directions.  

Cleaning & Lubrication:

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

Reel parts soaking in a robust solution of Dawn and boiling water. (click to enlarge)

Let’s begin with cleaning. Most reel parts can be cleaned effectively with hot water, a toothbrush, and Dawn dish soap. I use Dawn or Simple Green cleaner. Any dish detergent will work just fine. There is no real reason to use harsh chemicals on most reel parts, like acetone, carb cleaner, brake cleaner, etc. Dish soap, toothbrush, and elbow grease will get the parts clean without risk to 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 a toothbrush. They need to be soaked in some type of solvent. You can quickly start an argument by saying “MY WAY” is the best and only way to clean bearings. 

I’ve used a wide variety of solvents: lighter fluid, carb cleaner, brake cleaner, acetone, and some others. They all work. We’ve all read 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? 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 that 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 an excellent tool for professionals who service 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. 

A reel, completely broken down, ready for cleaning. Note the shot glasses. One has two spool bearings, with side shields removed, soaking in lighter fluid. The other has all frame and handle bearings. (click to enlarge)

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 the fluid. It’s a case-by-case decision. Bearings with non-removable side shields will take longer. Bearings with heavier lube will take longer and require an extra charge, or two, of fluid.

When I’ve determined the bearings are clean, I hit them with a hairdryer 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. 

TSI 321, Ardent oil, Daiwa “red” oil, and Shimano drag grease. The brush, used to apply grease, is an electric shaver brush with the bristles trimmed short. Not pictured is 90wt gear oil. Unless specifically requested, these are all I use now. (click to enlarge)

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 occurs, this is the place. Some lubes are not compatible with others. Mix them up, and both lose 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 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 quickly 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. It is probably too late if it gets to the point you can feel the level-wind dragging. You’re going to be replacing parts soon. 

I used to grease all the frame bearings in my reels. Every bearing except the spool bearings got greased. I bought a unique 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 clean a greased bearing. 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. 

The metal clutch components are lubed using an almost dry brush, applying a highly light lube coating 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. Two parts should not get the 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. There is 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 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. You probably applied too much if they look like they’ve been lubed. You have applied too much if you can see oil drops and grease globs. 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? 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 get into an argument about which is best. Determine that for yourself. Once per year, lubrication is often not enough when using one of these low viscosity oils. 

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

So, how much should you use? The glib answer is how 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 used 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 gets in the way of high-speed rotation. In effect, the balls push a wave of oil in front of them while spinning. You can hear this if you are really in tune with your reels. 

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 needs replacement. Spinning them at speed for any 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 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 possible, 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. 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 correct 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 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 to 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 conclude 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 real improvements. 

The improvements I’ve discussed are all pretty simple things. Any person with reasonable manual skill 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 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 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. Most of the reels I use got light oil, and the less frequently used reels got heavier oil. 

Now they all get 321. I get a little better performance 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 the sand. Grit does not stick to it as quickly as it does to grease or heavy oil. If I get some grit or debris in the worm gear, I can rinse it 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 it has only recently made its way into the fishing community. 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. 

The manufacturer reports 301 to be harmful to some plastics, but they do not say which plastics. It is 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 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 an excellent clean bearing, you will 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 sit 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. I apply 321 with a small fine brush for all metal parts except the gears, 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. I feel I have to service a reel in the middle of the season when I’ve dropped one in the water or muck, or if I hear or feel something wrong. I am confident 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 they are working dirt-cheap for the prices these folks are asking. 

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