Fishing Reel Maintenance

Story and Photos By Steve Chaconas

Basic bearing maintenance will keep your fishing reels running smoothly.

Fishing reel side bearing removalEven my old, reliable 1992 Shimano Chronarch will enjoy enhanced performance after the bearings are cleaned.

Bait-casting fishing-reel performance is based on bearings. Some bearings affect the ease and distance of casting. Others provide a smooth retrieve. Removing, cleaning, and re-oiling your reel's bearings will keep your old favorite reeling in the years. Given how much you've already invested in purchasing a reel, it's worth the time to get your bearings straight. Find your reel schematic. Manufacturers provide these free of charge online, often referring to them as "exploded diagrams," perhaps because soon after taking a reel apart, it resembles the site of an explosion. With patience and organization, you won't need to call a bomb squad to service your fishing reel.

Generally, in bait-casting reels, there are three bearings carrying the spool shaft. Dirty bearings create erratic spool revolutions, resulting in a bird's nest or backlash. One bearing is located on each end of the spool shaft. The third is on the shaft near the spool, providing stability. Other bearings are on the bottom of the drive-gear shaft and at the end of the worm gear. Sometimes there are two on each of these, making for a smoother retrieve. Add four in the handle for a total of 11 bearings.

Maintenance toolsA few basic tools, plus a pair of special spool-pin pliers (shown) will give you access to the inner workings of your reel.

Spool capsLay the parts out in the order they came off.

Bearings should be removed for cleaning and oiling. Before starting, magnify the schematic on a copier. A white towel over your workspace will allow even aging eyes to see parts that might get away. The towel should catch them before they fall or bounce far. Use a cellphone to take photos of every stage of disassembly. This will aid your memory and help make sense of a schematic. Use a tackle box with dividers to place parts in the slots in the order they're removed, going from left to right. Then you can reverse the order for the assembly stage. Turn up the lights, clean your glasses, and you're ready.

The main spool bearings might be as far as you have to go for improved casting performance. Many reels also have a third bearing pinned to the spool shaft, which often require special tactics for removal. (See below.)

Remove the side plate opposite the reel handle. The bearing will be secured in a recessed cavity with a very thin pentagonal wire clip. Locate the open end and insert either a straight pin or a very small flat-head screwdriver into the gap between the clip and the recessed cavity.

Keep your thumb over the clip to prevent it from flying away! Slowly remove it and place it in the tackle box. Gently tap the cover from the opposite side, and the bearing should fall out. If not, I've constructed a bearing-pulling tool from an old-fashioned sewing T-pin. Bend the tip 1/8 inch or less and insert into the bearing opening; gradually work it under and around until the bearing pops out.

Remove the line spool. Place an elastic band around the spool to secure the line. On the side of the reel with the handle, remove the spool adjustment cap. Reels vary here, but for the most part, there's another clip and a bearing to remove. Take care when removing the pentagonal retainer clip. Remove the second bearing. If you don't have a vise, a small punch, and a steady hand, just add a small amount of oil to the spool-shaft bearing. Alternatively, use spool-pin pliers, a special tool available at tackle shops to remove the securing pin and then the bearing.

  • Soaking bearings in WD40A baby-food jar will hold your bearings while they soak in solvent.

    Plano boxUse the compartments of a tackle box to keep you organized.

Soak these bearings in WD-40 for an hour to loosen and remove rust. Baby-food jars are perfect for soaking parts. Wash bearings in lighter fluid to remove WD-40. Take them out every five minutes or so. Insert tweezers into the opening of the bearing to allow them to spin, and return to the lighter fluid. After a 15-minute rinse, remove and spin. Allow lighter fluid to evaporate for about 15 minutes. Wipe bearings with a clean cloth.

Apply a pinhead-size oil drop to bearings in the bearing race cover. Don't overdo it. Too much oil interferes with bearing performance. A small drop of quality high-speed oil — Quantum's Hot Sauce, Boca Bearings' Lightning Lube, or Ardent Reels' Reel Butter — will do. The race cover has a very small gap for oil to enter. Spin it to allow oil to enter bearings. Add a small drop of oil on the spool shaft ends. Clean bearing housing areas with a reel cleaner, using Q-Tips and pipe cleaners for hard-to-reach areas. Put the reel back together working from right to left, taking parts from the tackle box. The reel should cast as good as new.

Smooth Operator

To go deeper inside your reel, locate the drive shaft and worm-gear bearings. Use a screwdriver to remove the cover on the handle nut, usually held in place with a single screw, to access the nut securing the handle. Remove the nut with a reel wrench. The handle should come off. Next, remove the handle friction washer. This is different in every reel, so take a photo here! Unscrew the star drag to remove the washers and the clutch roller inner tube. Locate screws securing the cover and remove it. The drive shaft is the threaded part that holds the handle in place. Remove bearing(s). The long, crisscrossed, cylinder-shaped gear viewed from the bottom of the reel is the worm gear, responsible for level winding of line. Remove this to find the bearing(s).

Clean and oil bearings using the same process as above. Clean the reel and grease gears. Unless there was a functional issue, reassemble the reel. It will now cast and retrieve much more smoothly. Remember to use the same organizing principles here. Some reels have up to four more bearings in the handle paddles. Add a small drop of oil to each bearing and spin the paddles to allow oil to penetrate bearings.

Consider An Upgrade

New and vastly improved bearings are now available to tighten the performance of even the oldest reels. Replacing bearings not only improves casting and retrieval but also lowers reel weight. It's easy to bring an old classic back to life. Most reels come with standard ABEC 1-rated stainless-steel bearings. As the ABEC number rises, bearings perform better. To achieve such levels of reduced friction, bearing manufacturers opt for sealed ceramic bearings. They don't require oil, only periodic cleaning. My 1992 Shimano Chronarch has been supercharged with Boca Bearing Ceramic Orange Seal ABEC 7 bearings, and it's noticeably smoother and easier to cast. Manufactured with fewer irregularities, ceramic balls in stainless-steel races and retainers (housings) have a lower degree of friction and can withstand heat better than metal balls.

Bearings are critical to reel performance and longevity. Cleaning or upgrading them will improve reel performance. Whether you're bringing an old reliable back to life or picking up a bargain on eBay, cleaning or upgrading fishing-reel bearings is an easy fix for the squeaky reel! 

— Published: Spring 2016


  • On-the-road assistance for your trailer and vehicle
  • Only $38 Annually! ($24 Membership + $14 TRAILER ASSIST)