I know, I know: about this time of year, all you really want to do is wet a line and hook a fish-any fish for that matter-for it has been months since you last felt connected to those finned critters that bring us all together in this column every issue.
However, like any craftsman, I beg you to look to your tools before beginning yet another season of jerking perch, lipping bass, bagging walleye and boating trout. Tackle maintenance is a great ice breaker (sorry...) and a constructive way to get a jump on the season. And believe me, this is the best time of the year to do it because you have incentive. The fishing season is upon many of us, and for the rest it's just around the next warm front or two, and if you hit the water with ailing tackle, you run the risk of losing fish. So on those days when Mother Nature or whomever is performing the pre-launch maintenance on your pontoon or deck boat prevents you form actually angling, you should be doing the next best thing: making sure your tackle is up to the task once you actually can wet a line.
By far the most complicated-and therefore apt to malfunction-article of tackle in any angler's rig is the fishing reel. Tools that are so precise that they were first built by watchmakers for crying out loud, have no place in the hands of brutes like us anglers. However, modern day fishing reels are examples of American (and yes, Asian) ingenuity that combine fine craftsmanship with rugged construction. At least those reels that retail for more than $20 anyway.
But even these reel modern marvels require some routine maintenance to keep them performing at their peak, which is just where you want them when you are sure you have hooked the trout of a lifetime or the first slab crappie of the season.
I learned my first reel lesson the hard way, when living on Big Pine Key and working as the outdoor reporter for The Keynoter newspaper in Marathon, down in the Florida Keys. I actually was rebuilding a pontoon boat from the logs up, a pair of which I had found abandoned in the South Florida scrub. Meanwhile, I was getting experience fishing in the salt, a medium that was quickly destroying the freshwater reels that had migrated south with me in my post-college move from the Midwest.
By the time someone told me how important it was to rinse all tackle with fresh water after use in the brine, my reels had expired and I had begun to save money to buy new ones. When I finally bought my first pair of quality Daiwa spinning reels, I wanted to do everything right-and thought I had for the first year of use-after which they started to clatter lightly and offer a disturbing sensation of metal on metal.
I mentioned the problem at the local tackle shop and the guy behind the counter said they sounded like the factory grease had passed its prime and suggested I place the reels in hot water to help soak the old lube out and replace it. Figuring that if hot was good, boiling had to be better, I poached those reels in pot of chuckling water to the point that the plastic side plates softened, distorted and lost all their color-let alone the gold accents-turning a putty grey! The old grease was gone, but so were the good looks that made my first set of real fishing reels so appealing-to me personally and in the photos I hoped they would appear in from time to time.
I also learned another-albeit slower-way to eliminate all the benefits of the grease in a fishing reel by practically soaking it's innards with repeated power-showers of WD-40. The stuff is great for many purposes, but it desiccates grease, nixing all the lubricating properties, making WD-40 a poor choice as a primary reel lube.
There's a right way to remove the old grease from a reel and get it re-lubed for the fishing season. For starters, give the reel a gentle freshwater rinse, dry with a towel, and then remove the side plate. Both spinning and bait-casting reels offer these handy access ports that allow you to inspect the guts of the reel. With spin-casting reels, you usually remove the front cover and spool to get to the inner gears.
To remove the old lube, use a rag or cotton swab to remove as much of the gunk as possible, being careful not to leave any cotton filaments behind. Rub a bit of the old lube between your fingers; if it's gritty, you will want to remove as much of the old lube as you can, for it has collected sand or dirt that will damage the gears. Reel cleaner solutions such as Reel Saver spray will help break down the old grease and make it much easier to remove, but you can do a decent job the hard way if you take your time. Just remember where any of the gears you may remove go when it's time to reassemble the reel (I take digital photos of every contraption with more that three working parts at various steps along the way whenever I disassemble anything. The photos are invaluable references for me to consult when it's time to put it all back together)
If the old grease looks and feels ok, it's not as important to get every bit of the old stuff out before putting new lube in. Then, following the directions offered with whichever reel lubricant you choose-and there are more than a dozen-sparingly add the new grease to the reel's innards. This is not a case where more is better. All it takes is a dab on the gear set to keep things flowing smoothly. Make sure you don't get any grease into the one-way clutch on a spinning reel, which may cause its anti-reverse function to slip.
But do put a drop of oil on the bail roller and at each side where the rotor arms meet the bail on spinning reels. You can get to the former by finding the screw that holds the roller together, taking it apart while making sure you remember which way the washers are seated, and lubing with light oil.
You also want to lightly lubricate the shaft of a spinning reel, with grease or oil, after replacing the side plate and rotating the handle to expose as much of the shaft as possible and then reeling it a few turns to allow the lube to spread along its length. With a bait-casting reel, use oil-not grease-to lubricate the underside of the shaft and reeling a bit to distribute the oil. You can use oil or grease on a spincaster's shaft.
When in doubt about how to lubricate a particular reel, or put it back together after you've applied the grease and oil, go to the reel manufacturer's website. There, you will likely find detailed directions and schematics help you complete the task.
The benefits of a properly lubricated reel with become apparent the first time you attempt to land a fish-if only in your mind.