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How to Clean and Lube a Fly Fishing Reel

How to Clean and Lube a Fly Fishing Reel

  • Ariel Green
Fly fishing reels can be expensive pieces of equipment, as such, it's important that we keep them clean and maintained properly. Regular cleaning and maintenance will ensure that your fly reel treats you well for many years to come! Nothing is worse than using a dirty, gritty fly reel!
In this guide, I will walk you through the cleaning and maintenance process of an Echo Ion fly fishing reel. We will also be lubricating all the necessary moving parts. This process will be almost identical on most modern fly fishing reels that use a sealed disc-drag system. The steps to disassemble your fly fishing reel may differ slightly from these but the overall premise is the same.
Keep an eye out for our next maintenance guide, where we cover the cleaning and lubrication of fly fishing reel's equipped with click and pawl drag systems.
Questions we will answer in this article include:
  • How do I clean my fly fishing reel?
  • How do I lubricate or oil my fly fishing reel?
  • Can I use WD-40 on a fly fishing reel?
  • How do I care for my fly fishing reel in order to prolong its life?
  • And other great tips!
Let's get started.
What will I Need?
The construction of fly fishing reels can vary slightly between manufacturers, but this list of items should cover disassembly and maintenance of about 95% of modern reels on the market today. For many reels, you won't even need a screwdriver.
  • Screwdriver (s)
  • Bucket or Sink
  • Mild Soap or Detergent
  • Rubber and Plastic Safe Grease
  • Toothbrush
  • Q-Tips or Cotton Swabs
  • Water
Optional Items:
  • You may also want to use a small tray or container to keep track of small parts
  • If you feel that you might forget how to put the reel back together, try taking photos along the way. That way you can refer back to them when it comes times to reassemble!

1. Taking Apart your Fly Fishing Reel Disassembly

It's important to pay attention while disassembling your fly reel. We want to be able to use it again once we are finished! Keep track of the order in which parts are removed. It typically makes sense to re-install them in reverse order.
Pro Tip:
Layout small parts on a sheet of paper, and then label them for quick and easy reassembly!
Fly Fishing Reel Disassembly Organization
If you are having trouble with the disassembly of your fly fishing reel, refer to the included user documentation. You can also check online, where I was able to find an exploded diagram for my fishing reel.
Step 1:
Start by removing the arbor from the frame of the reel. The arbor is the spinning cylinder that holds the fly line and backing. It is also sometimes called a spool.
This is typically accomplished by removing a fastener from the center of the spool called a spool retainer. In the case of this Echo Ion, it's a plastic finger screw cap. On other fly reels, it can be a button, clip or small lever. Refer to your instruction manual if you need help with disassembly.
Fly Fishing Reel Disassembly
Image: Here you can see the thumb screw I removed
Step 2:
Now that you have removed the screw, the spool should slide off the frame of the reel. If it's been a while since you have done this, it may take a little bit of force.
You can set the spool off to the side now. Apart from giving it a quick dunk into soapy water and rinsing clean, there isn't anything we need to focus on there.
Disassembled Fly Fishing Reel
Image: Fly reel frame (pictured left). Fly reel arbor/spool (pictured right).
Step 3:
If your fly reel has an O-ring like the red one in the photo above, now is a good time to remove it and set it aside. If it's gritty, give it a quick rinse with clean water. I have found that its best not to use soap or detergents on o-rings as this can cause them to become dry and brittle.
A small screwdriver, dental pick or even a fishing hook works well for prying off o-rings.
Step 4:
You should see a fastener in the middle of the main reel shaft, in this case, it's a Phillips head screw, but it may be slightly different on your fly reel. Remove this screw and be careful to keep any washers with it.
The plastic spindle should now slide off the metal shaft, exposing a one-way bearing. Set the plastic spindle aside for cleaning later.
Disassembled Fly Fishing Reel
Carefully slide the bearing assembly off the main shaft and set it aside. This will be where we apply our grease later on.
Here are some detailed photos showing the one-way bearing assembly that we will be cleaning and greasing.
Fly Fishing Reel Bearing ShaftFly Fishing Reel Bearing
Your fly reel is now fully disassembled and we are ready to move onto the next step. The drag system on modern disc-drag fly fishing reels is not designed to be user serviceable.

2. Cleaning your fly fishing Reel

After I have the fly reel completely disassembled, I like to give everything a thorough cleaning. This is a back-up reel for me and I have only used it a few times this year. As you can see, it doesn't take much time for dirt and grime to build up making cleaning a necessary step!
Not only is a gritty reel a drag to use (no pun intended), the small particles will act like sandpaper, grinding away at your reel and its moving parts. This can cause drag systems and seals to fail, among a handful of other components.
Dirty Fly Fishing Reel Bearing
Image: Look at all that grime
Step 1:
Fill a small bucket with warm water and add a little bit of mild detergent. You can also do this in your sink, but be careful not to lose any small parts down the drain!
You only need a small amount of soap for this. Regular dish detergent will work fine, stay away from commercial degreasers and harsh chemicals as these can cause plastics and rubber to become brittle.
Fly Fishing Reel Cleaning
Step 2:
With a toothbrush for cotton swap, gently wipe away any old grease and dirt from all of the disassembled reel parts.
This includes the one-way roller bearing that should be already packed with old grease. You will want to give extra attention to this bearing ensuring that all of the dirt and lubricant is removed.
I find that using an old electric toothbrush works well for this as the vibrations help loosen dirt and old grease from between the tiny roller bearings.
Step 3:
It's now time to dry everything off. This may seem like an elementary step, but its critical that we have dry surfaces to apply our lubrication. If we apply lubrication to wet parts, this will only seal in moisture and cause oxidization or rust.
We're now finished cleaning our fly reel. Once everything is completely dry, we can move onto the next steps.

3. Oiling / Lubricating your Fly Fishing Reel

Like anything with moving parts, fly reel components need to be lubricated in order to reduce friction and prevent wear.

A well-lubricated fly reel also just feels better to use!
But before you go slapping axle grease all over your fly reel, there are a few things to consider:
  • O rings and other plastic components will degrade when exposed to petroleum-based products
  • WD-40 is a solvent, not a lubricant. Keep it away from your fly reel
Silicone-based lubricants, lithium-based lubricants, and graphite based lubricants all work well for fly fishing reel bearings and parts. If possible, stay away from those in aerosol containers. These contain harsh propellants that can degrade your plastic and o-rings.
You want something with a grease-like consistency so it can be packed into the bearing. You don't want to use a multi-purpose or 3-in-1 oil for this. Some argue that heavy grease picks up dirt more than oil but I haven't found this to be true. Both are sticky and both attract dirt, which is why we perform regular maintenance.
There are two main parts that we want to lubricate on our fly fishing reels.
These parts include the main shaft and the one-way bearing assembly.
Step 1:
Apply a light coating of grease onto the main shaft of the fly reel. A little bit goes a long way here, I like to just apply it with my finger, but you can also use a small cotton swab.
Fly Fishing Reel Lubrication
Step 2:
Apply a liberal coating of grease onto the bearing assembly. You will notice that there are many nooks and crannies between all of the tiny roller bearings.
The goal here is to make sure a sufficient amount of grease is packed into these cracks. Just applying a little bit onto the outside of the rollers won't give you ideal lubrication.
Fly Fishing Reel Lube
This process is sometimes called packing a bearing and helps keep moisture and debris from getting into the bearing assembly. As you can see above, I like to squeeze as much grease into the bearing as possible, and then wipe off the excess from the exterior.

4. Putting Everything Back Together 

Now that everything is squeaky clean and has a fresh coat of lube, its time to put your fly reel back together.
If you have stayed organized up to this point, re-assembly should be a breeze. You might be able to complete re-assembly of the fly reel on your own, but in case you don't quite feel comfortable, here are the steps:
Step 1:
Slide the bearing assembly back onto the lubricated metal shaft. You will notice that some grease will ooze out of the bearing assembly. If it didn't, you probably don't have enough grease!
Wipe off any excess grease that has come out of the bearing.
Step 2:
Take the plastic spindle assembly and slide it back over the main assembly. Your fly reel may not have a separate spindle, so in this case, slide the spool (arbor) back over the main shaft.
Step 3:
Replace the spindle retention screw that we removed earlier. Again, your fly reel may not have a separate spindle in which case you would skip this step.
Step 4:
Slide the spool back onto the spindle assembly, and replace the o-ring and spool retainer. It's crucial to not forget the o-ring as this will help keep out moisture and debris. Your fly reel may not have an o-ring, and that's okay.
We're all done!
Now is a good time to inspect your fly line and backing as well. I typically replace mine every season.

5. Ongoing Fly Reel Care and Preventative Maintenance

There are some additional habit's we can form in order to extend the life of our fly reel's even more. Even when performing regular cleaning and lubrication of your fishing reel, anglers can benefit from following these simple tips:
  • Always store your fly reel dry
  • Always rinse off your fly reel with clean, fresh water before storing
  • Never place your fly reel into mud or sand; a rock, grass, log, your shoulder, or even into the water all work much better
  • Try adding a layer of Carnauba wax between your spool and backing for an extra layer of defense against moisture and corrosion
Fish On!
I like to complete these fly reel maintenance steps once a season, but depending on how you treat your equipment, you may find a couple of times per year is best. If you are one of those folks who is always laying their reel into the bank, once a year will almost certainly not be enough.
You will instantly see and feel the benefits that a clean, well-maintained fly fishing reel brings. It can be difficult to spot or feel the degrade in our equipment over time, as we slowly adjust to the changes. But after returning to a freshly cleaned and lubricated fly reel, you will certainly feel the difference!
Thanks so much for reading, I hope this guide helped shed some light on cleaning and maintaining your fly fishing reel.
Tight Lines,
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