Quick and Easy Spinning Reel Drag Maintenance

If you’ve never greased the felt drag washers in your spinning reel, or you don’t even know what they are, you’re not alone.

Quick and Easy Spinning Reel Drag Maintenance

Every year, my routine for getting my fishing gear in shape is usually the same. I’ll go through my tackle box and organize the lures in a way that makes sense, even though they’ll usually be out of order before the end of my first trip. I generally spool new line on my reels as well, depending on how bad of shape it’s in and how much extra line I have laying around from the year before or from off-season sales I couldn’t pass up.

That’s pretty much it. I follow the same routine for my open water tackle and spinning combos in the spring as I do getting my ice fishing tackle and combos ready in the fall. Except this year I’ll be adding one more step, and I think you should, too. Maintaining the drag system on a spinning reel can mean the difference between landing the fish of a lifetime and telling a story of the one that got away.

Reel maintenance is likely neglected by most average anglers. Unless the reel gets dunked in dirty water or exposed to a dusty backroad on its way to a honey hole and develops that awful grinding feeling when reeling, most anglers, myself included, probably take their reel’s performance for granted. Here’s a simple and important step you can to make sure your drag works properly when you hook into a fish.

Before diving into tearing your reel apart, it’s a good idea to check with the reel manufacturer to see if your particular reel has drag washers that should be greased, or if there is a particular grease they recommend. Some reels have felt washers and others have carbon fiber washers. The two are not treated the same way. This article focuses on maintaining reels with felt washers that are meant to be greased. If you’re still unsure, you should be able to tell the washer material by looking at them, and if they’re caked in old grease, there’s a good chance they need a good cleaning and greasing.

This is going to involve some grease and oil, so you’ll want to lay a towel down over your workspace. The first step is to unscrew the front drag adjustment knob. Then you can remove the spool from the rest of the reel. This process is easier if the spool is empty or the line is cut and taped, but if you’re doing this mid-season and want to leave your line on, a piece of tape on the spool will keep the line from unraveling and creating a mess. 

Once the spool is removed, you should see a clip holding a metal washer in the center of the spool. Using a needle nose pliers or small screwdriver, carefully remove this clip. I can’t stress this enough, be careful not to lose this clip. Covering the spool with the towel while you remove the clip can save you the hassle of having to a hunt down a wayward clip. With the clip removed, you can flip the spool upside down and remove the drag washers. They may come out with a gentle tap of the upside-down spool, or you may need to dig them out with the screwdriver or a pick.

Keep track of the order of the washers so you can replace them in the correct order. One or more of the washers may have indexing tabs that will only allow them to be installed one way, or they may all be identical. You should have one or more metal washers with one or more felt washers in between. The type and number of washers depends on the quality of the reel. 

With the washers removed, wipe the old grease off the metal washers and lubricate them with a small dab of grease. There are a number of greases out there designed specifically for this purpose, including Shimano Drag Grease and Cal’s Universal Reel & Star Drag Grease. In this case, I used Penn Precision Reel Grease. Wipe the old grease off of the felt washers and work in another small dab of grease into the fibers. You don’t need a lot, in fact, excess grease will only attract and hold more contaminants, potentially shortening the life of your reel. 

Before reassembling the drag system, clean out the inner parts of the spool with a cotton swab and wipe off any excess grease. Then, reinstall the drag washers in the same order they came out. Once the washers are in, you can put the clip back (you didn’t lose the clip, did you?) Now you can screw the drag adjustment knob back on and set your drag to the desired tension. Remember to test the drag by pulling on the line past the tip of the rod, not directly in front of the reel.

Bonus Tip!

Storing your reels with the drag on a heavy setting can compress the felt washers and shorten their lifespan. Backing the drag off a couple spins past where you normally have it set for fishing will relieve some of the pressure on those crucial components. Just don’t forget to reset the drag before your first big fish of the year.


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