Pro Tips: 5 Ways to Avoid Reel Disasters

Written by: Evan Jones

Fly line has a bad tendency to work itself into knots inside the reel. You can help avoid this by leaving some tippet outside the reel at the end of the day.

Many trout anglers view their reels primarily as line-storage devices, only occasionally testing the drag, and seeing the backing even less often. Given how rarely a fish might push your reel to the breaking point, it may be tempting to downplay maintenance or even ignore it entirely. Years could go by without an issue. But on those rare occasions when you do hook into a bigger, badder fish that actually tests your reel, the last thing you want to contend with is a malfunction during the fight. And that goes double for malfunctions that are easily preventable with a bit of routine maintenance and a few good habits. Here are five ways to help keep your reels spinning smoothly and reliably for years to come.

1. Don’t Reel All the Way In

When you’re done for the day, as you wind all your line back onto the reel before breaking down your fly rod, don’t reel in all the way. Stop retrieving when there’s about a foot of tippet still hanging outside the reel. This will prevent your line from wrapping underneath itself and causing a jam later on. Believe it or not, if the end of the leader is allowed to slap around loose (as it does when you reel in all the way), it can sometimes find its way under a lower wrap, creating a sort of half-hitch knot on the spool. You might not even notice the overlap at first, since it might not catch right away and allow line to be stripped out. But eventually the crossed-over line will work its way down toward the thinner running line or into the backing, and at some point your line will abruptly bind up and stop as it’s being stripped off, likely snapping your tippet in the process. It’s a terrible way to lose a fish.

As those last few feet of tippet start running through your fingers at the end of the day, be ready to stop reeling before the end goes on the spool.

2. Cast Out the Fly Line Before Reeling Up

The way you reel in fly line can influence how your line performs in the future. Most anglers know to use their line hand to keep tension on the line as they reel up, but it’s also important to cast it all the way out first. Laying out the line helps to undo any twists that were introduced while casting, which can be significant depending on the conditions. Twisted fly line tends to form tangles when stripped off the reel and allowed to go slack, which can really complicate casting and can also lead to lost fish if outgoing line becomes tangled in the rod guides.

3. Always Give a Gentle Rinse

Whether you’re fishing saltwater or fresh, it’s important to keep your reel clean and free from debris. While the task of washing a reel might seem simple enough, it’s actually possible to do harm with improperly applied water, even to reels with sealed drag systems that are supposedly impervious. A gentle rinse with warm water is all any reel should need. Using too much pressure in an effort to blast the reel clean can actually force dirt and debris farther into the spool, where it’s harder to reach. Soaking the reel in water for prolonged periods isn’t advisable either, even for sealed drag models, since it’s still possible for water to intrude, and there’s no discernible benefit over rinsing anyway. Loosen the drag knob all the way for maximum benefit, and be sure to leave the rinsed reel in a place where it can dry completely before putting it away.

Don’t power-wash your reel, but give a gentle rinse instead.

4. Backing Doesn’t Last Forever

Dacron backing is so ubiquitous and so reliable that it almost deserves to be taken for granted. Most of us don’t think twice about using the same backing as we replace fly line after fly line over the years, but we probably should. Just because backing problems are uncommon doesn’t mean they’re worth risking. Dacron is susceptible to rot in humid areas, particularly for reels put into cases while wet and/or stored in garages. It can also be damaged by UV light. Both of these can significantly weaken backing, especially at the fly line knot. If you’ve ever suffered the defeat of losing a fish to a broken backing knot, compounded by the sorrow of leaving an entire fly line trailing behind it, you know the incredible regret that can result from failing to monitor your backing. Once a year should be enough.

5. Leave the Case at Home

When fishing saltwater from a boat or kayak, it might be tempting to protect your reel from the elements by keeping it wrapped up in a soft case until you’re actually ready to cast. The problem is that your reel case will inevitably get wet, filling with the very same salt you were trying to avoid, which all goes right back onto your clean reel if you aren’t careful. It’s best just to let your reel endure the sun, salt and scratches like it was designed to do, and to leave your case safe and dry at home so it won’t contribute to problems like corrosion or backing rot.  

Evan Jones is the new assistant blog editor. He lives in Colorado now, but he spent a decade living on the water in Florida.

4 thoughts on “Pro Tips: 5 Ways to Avoid Reel Disasters”

  1. I think you left out the most important one—don’t overfill your reel by putting on too much backing. Fly reels aren’t level wind and will often jam when fighting a fish because the line jams due to uneven winding.

  2. Another lesson learned: I was once bonefishing in the Florida Keys and hooked a beauty. It ran through some coral and all of a sudden, the entire fly line and the bonefish were gone!
    Reeling in the backing, I quickly realized the cause. I had used one of those braided loops, like the finger-cuff trick on the fly line to backing connection. That works fine in tension, but as that joint went through the corral, the plastic tube must have worn off, and the braided loop went into compression, and no longer was able to hold the fly line.

    Moral: never use braided loops on the fly line to backing connection.

    PeterG – Batavia, Illinois

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