How to Clean a Spinning Reel – Fishing Maintenance Tips

Once you’ve found a spinning reel that works flawlessly and reels in even the hardest fighting fish, you want to keep it forever.

Well, you might think forever is a long time, but if you maintain and clean your spinning reel regularly, you should be able to get decades of use out of it.

Spinning reels take a beating even in freshwater. 

With saltwater, your reel will require more maintenance due to the sand that you will encounter, as well as the corrosion that saltwater has on its metal components.

Cleaning regularly is important; knowing where, how, and what to clean is imperative.

Before we start to investigate what to do, let’s clarify what you shouldn’t do. 

You shouldn’t use WD40, gun cleaning solvent, or any other chemical that removes or reduces the effectiveness of grease in a reel assembly.

Hidden inside your reel are gears that move smoother with just light amounts of lubricant. 

A solvent-style cleaner will remove that lubricant, leaving the gears even more susceptible to the corrosive effects of water, both fresh and saltwater.

A rusty reel isn’t anyone’s friend.

How Do You Clean a Spinning Reel

Here are the steps you should take to properly clean a spinning reel; then we’ll elaborate on each one.

  • Wipe the outside of the reel with a damp cloth
  • Remove the spool from the reel shaft
  • Look for obvious dirt, sand, much, or salt residue
  • Oil the spool shaft
  • Remove the handle and clean inside the shaft as well as the shaft itself
  • Oil the handle insert
  • Check the bail roller
  • Reassemble all the parts
  • Check the action

Step 1. Wiping The Reel

Wiping the outside of the reel with a damp cloth is the first step, albeit a superficial one in reel maintenance. 

Any deposits of dirt, moss, salt, or even fish entrails can work their way inside a reel. It’s always good to start with the obvious and clean up the exterior.

Step 2. Remove The Spool

Removing the spool from the shaft should be an easy process. Just unscrew the cap on the top of the reel and lift the spool. Be careful if your spool is fully loaded with line. 

It’s easy at this point to get loose line spiraling around the greasy shaft of the spinning reel. 

This dirties the line, makes a mess of your hands and fishing clothes if you’re not careful, and can wrap around the shaft of the reel so tightly you’ll have to cut it off.

Once the spool is removed, carefully clean inside the spool where the shaft inserts with a Q-tip or a fine brush. 

Remove any residue you find, and oil it. Remove the exposed grease and oil on the reel shaft at the same time.

Step 3. Look For Residue On The Spool

With the reel removed, and the shaft exposed, work the reel mechanism by turning the handle. Carefully look for any remaining gunk as the shaft moves up and down with each successive crank

Step 4. Oil The Shaft

When you’re finished, oil the shaft again, and reassemble the spool to the reel shaft.

Step 5. Remove The Handle

A handle can be a gateway for salt and sand to enter the inner mechanism of a reel. The crank assembly has to mesh with the inner gears of the reel to apply power during a retrieve. 

A crankshaft must also move easily with little resistance.

The bearings that allow the handle to move the assembly are one of the main differences between an average reel and a high-end spinning reel.

Step 6. Oil The Handle Insert

Check the insert where the handle shaft attaches to the reel for telltale signs of wear, residue, or corrosion.

This process is best completed in a dark room with a bright, focused light beam aimed at the insert

Step 7. Check The Bail Roller

The bail roller is a key component of every spinning reel; it is the interface between line and reel.

The bail roller is often the most abused component of a spinning reel since the incoming line rolls over it on every cast.

Any reel used in saltwater must be cleaned after every fishing trip. 

No matter the composition of the metal on the bail roller, the salt will eventually win the battle. Clean it thoroughly and check for any signs of damage. 

In this step, a magnifying glass or loupe is a good idea. Inspecting the bail roller magnified will reveal any telltale damage you can’t pick up with the naked eye.

Also Read: Picking The Right Reel Size for You

Step 8. Reassembly

Your uncle, who fancies himself as a mechanic, and always has a can full of extra nuts and bolts when he finishes a project, isn’t the role model for the reassembly process. 

Carefully replace all the parts in the order they were removed.

You may be tempted to force a part into place, or worse yet, to hammer it back in, but resist the temptation. 

If it doesn’t fit back into place easily, have a little patience and work the various parts until they mesh seamlessly back into place.

Step 9 Work The Mechanism

Take a plug, attach it to your rod, then go outside and make a few practice casts in the yard.

It’s always better to discover a mishap in your cleaning process in the friendly confines of your own home rather than discovering your reel is making a grinding noise or not grabbing and wrapping the incoming line correctly when you’re out on the water.

Spinning Reel Maintenance Considerations:

While we have focused on cleaning and servicing the business end of the spinning reel, there are a few other areas that require attention as well.

Drag System

The drag system is your best friend when you tie into a big fish. There are various styles of drags constructed by the leading spinning reel manufacturers, but they all have one thing in common. 

They put the brakes on your line as a big fish takes off with your bait, giving you a fighting chance to tire the fish and eventually bring it into the net.

Brakes are a haven for tightly packed debris and salt residue. By their very nature, they’re designed to clamp down on fast spooling line as the fish fights to escape.

Drag clutches or pads can be difficult to clean, but the good news is that they rarely break down if properly maintained.

The first step is to remove the spool, just as described in the instructions above. There will be a series of drag washers under the spool, on the shaft. 

They may be stainless steel, composite, or even fiber, but they all must be examined.

Carefully remove the washers and clean each one. Check the small portion of the shaft under the washers for residue, and clean it as well.

If it’s a fiber or cloth washer, apply a little dab of drag grease to each one. Composite or metallic washers don’t usually require this step.

Reassemble all the components. Have a partner apply a little pressure to your line and check the drag action at various levels of resistance.

Each time you’re out on the water, on your very last cast, loosen the drag fully to release the tension. 

This makes it easier to clean and store the drag system, ensuring you won’t have problems with the drag the next time you go out on the water.

Fishing Line Maintenance Tip

Some anglers leave the same line on a reel for years, then are amazed when it snaps while fighting a big fish, or when the rod and reel won’t cast as far as they did when their fishing setup was brand new

Removing and replacing old line should be a regular ritual at the beginning of each fishing season.

Line, specifically, monofilament line is especially sensitive to the corrosive effects of UV light. 

The sun can break down the monofilament to such an extent that a 10-pound test-rated line performs as a four or six-pound test line after extended exposure to the sun.

Braided line is more durable, but it will lose its elasticity over time. 

There really isn’t a good way to clean either monofilament or braided line. The good news is that it’s not that expensive. 

So replace your line each spring, test the reel with the new line and enjoy many great days on the water.

See Also:

How To Oil a Fishing Reel


Reel maintenance doesn’t have to be “rocket surgery” as they say, but it does have to be done to ensure many years of solid performance in a reel you’ve found that fits you

Line comes and goes, as do rods, but a reel is something an angler can enjoy for a long time if they choose to take care of it.

Make sure you regularly clean your fishing reel and you will be good to go.

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Sean Ward

Sean Ward

Hey there, my name is Sean – OnTrack Fishing is my site. I’m based in the UK yet I’ve been fortunate enough to catch bass in the States, barramundi in Australia, trout here at home and carp on the Danube delta. If I’m not fishing, or talking about fishing, then….I’m probably asleep.


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