When taken care of, fly reels can last a lifetime and should not require any major maintenance. Given how expensive they are, I was often worried about getting my fly reels wet. Now, as an experienced angler, I can share the truth about water and fly reels.
Fly reels with sealed drag systems will be ok if they get some water on them. However, you should always try to avoid completely submerging a fly reel. This is especially true for saltwater, as the salt can cause damage. Reels with non-sealed drag systems are more fragile, and should not get wet.
While fly reels can get wet, you should avoid total submersion. However, accidents will happen! So, you need to know what to do when they do. I’ll get into that, and will also explain how to select a reel that will stand up to the elements. Lastly, I’ll share some of my best tips on how to care for your reel. Taking steps to mitigate equipment failures can be the difference between landing and losing that trophy fish!
What if I put my reel in saltwater?
By far the most corrosive element is salt. Salt can ruin a reel in a heartbeat, as it is five times more corrosive than freshwater. You should always avoid submerging or getting any fishing equipment wet with saltwater.
Today’s fly reels are constructed out of stock aluminum. Aluminum will not rust, however salt can cause aluminum to pit if the salt is not washed away promptly. Additionally, salt can build up within components of the reel causing it to become rough when reeling.
If you accidentally submerge your reel into saltwater, it should be rinsed with fresh water as soon as possible. Avoid rinsing with a hard stream, as you do not want to drive salt further into the components. Rinsing for about 15-20 seconds is sufficient to clean the reel.
So can fly reels get wet when you are fishing in saltwater? Yes, but limit the amount of exposure as much as you can.
Can I submerge my reel in freshwater?
Freshwater is far less corrosive than saltwater. Submerging or dunking a reel in freshwater is far less damaging to the reel itself. Some freshwater, such as ponds, will have residue or minerals in the water. These can leave a nasty film on the reel that collects dirt and grime.
Even when submerging a reel in freshwater, it is still a good practice to clean and rinse your reel at the end of the day. Although submerging a reel in freshwater does not do much harm, it is always a best practice to avoid submerging any reel.
So can fly reels get wet with freshwater? They can, and it’s much safer than saltwater, but limiting the amount is still best practice.
Can I purchase a reel made for salt?
The most vulnerable component of any reel is the drag system. The drag is what allows you to apply steady pressure on a fish to tire it out. If your reel loses its drag, it becomes nothing more than a fancy line holder. Salt, dirt, and grime can cause a drag to become rough or even fail. Maintaining the drag is key to the sustained life of your reel.
Certain types of drag systems will hold up better to elements than others. To better understand how these are applied, it is good to have an understanding of the different systems.
Click and Pawl drag systems
Traditionally there were two types of drag systems. An older and somewhat outdated drag system is the Click and Pawl system.
The Click and Pawl drag system essentially utilizes a gear with teeth on it. A separate component called the “Pawl” will rest against the teeth of the gear. This will create a clicking noise when the line is pulled away from the reel.
Click and Pawl drag systems do not offer much drag. They are not designed to apply sufficient pressure on large fish and will require your hand to apply drag by slowing down the reel from spinning. Check out using the reel when fly-fishing for more information on reel use.
Anglers who prefer Click and Pawl drag systems typically enjoy the noise of the reel and can get away with landing smaller fish.
Click and Pawl drag systems offer very little protection against corrosion and are susceptible to dirt and salt. I would not recommend this drag system if you plan to fish in saltwater.
Disc drag systems
Disc drag systems use washer-like discs to press against the frame of the reel. As these discs are tightened, the amount of drag increases. The use of a disc drag will create far more stopping power than a Click and Pawl system. In addition to greater amounts of drag, disc drags are smoother and apply more even pressure against the fish.
Commonly, the discs within this drag system are made of cork. The use of cork makes them ideal for putting maximum pressure on bigger fish as the cork will not overheat.
There are two types of disc drag systems: Drum sealed disc drag and drawbar disc drag. Drawbar disc drag is an open system that is susceptible to dirt, salt, and grime. These types of systems should not be submerged and need to be cleaned thoroughly if it is exposed to saltwater.
Drum sealed disc drag systems are by far the best option for saltwater fly-fisherman. Since the drag is sealed, it will be impervious to dirt and salt. Additionally, sealed drag systems often require less maintenance and upkeep. If you are hard on gear, fish muddy environments, or fish a lot of saltwater, I would highly recommend the use of a sealed drag.
For examples of reels with sealed drags that I recommend, check out my Recommended Products page.
Tips for maintaining your fly reel
Since we now know that fly reels can get wet, we should discuss proper maintenance to increase longevity.
The easiest way to increase the longevity of your reel is to rinse with fresh water after each use. The purpose of rinsing the reel is to gently wash away salt and other debris. If you spray your reel with too much force, you can force dirt and salt further into your drag system. Therefore, it is best to spray your reel for 15-20 seconds with minimal pressure.
Once you have finished rinsing your reel, it is best to dry the reel before storage. Storing a wet reel makes it mildew-prone and can cause the water to seep into the drag system.
When not in use, it is always a good idea to keep the manufacturer reel case on the reel. This will help protect the reel from collecting dirt and dust. For additional tips on storing your fishing gear, check out How to Organize Fly Fishing Gear.
Sprays and oils
Many anglers will choose to apply a lubricant spray to their reels. Although many of these sprays will work fine, I do not recommend using them.
Applying a spray to the reel will typically leave a residue that collects dirt and dust. This film can build up over time and create more issues. Furthermore, applying a spray to your reel can also affect your fly line. This residue will now make its way onto your fly line, which can cause the line to become dirty or put a fish deterring scent into the water when casting.
Instead, if your reel needs additional attention, I would recommend using a small amount of reel oil in spots where components turn. The manufacturer often supplies a small bottle of oil when you make a purchase. I cannot stress enough, that you only need a little bit!
After you have applied the oil, be sure to work it into the components by tightening and loosening the drag and turning the spool.
Less is more
Whenever you are maintaining your reel, it is best to do as little as needed. If your reel is functioning properly and you are spraying it after each use with freshwater, there is no need to add oil or take components apart.
The more you mess with the reel, the more likely you are to create issues. The saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies perfectly to this situation.
Fly reels can get wet, but the amount of water exposure should be kept to a minimum. If you happen to submerge your reel into the water, there is no need to panic. Take the extra time to make sure you are rinsing the reel thoroughly with fresh water.
Even if you have a sealed drag, it is a best practice to avoid submerging your reel, especially in saltwater. When cleaning your reel, try not to force water into the reel when rinsing. My recommendation is to avoid using sprays on your reels and instead use small amounts of oil. If your reel is functioning properly, there is no need to take it apart to clean it as this can lead to accidental mishaps.
If you follow these steps, oftentimes your fly reel will outlive you and can be passed on to the next generation for future use.