Taking the time to go through your gear in the offseason will pay big dividends when the fish return in the spring.
1. Consolidate Soft Plastics
In one tackle box I recently checked, I had three bags of Berkley Havoc Pit Boss Soft Baits in June Bug blue, my favorite color when using punch jigs for summertime bucketmouths. Each bag had only two lures left, so they quickly became one bag of six. A similar intervention reduced several partial packs of white, 7-inch Bass Assassins down to one. As you condense soft plastics, be sure to keep their integrity in terms of size, color, shape and brand. This will make it easy to find what you need while also preventing color migration within the packages.
2. Thin The Herd
Toss out any bent, dull, corroded or otherwise imperfect hooks, swivels, snaps, etc., and note what sizes, styles and brands you might need to restock. Jigheads, bucktails, parachute lures and the like also need close examination. Spare no souls when it comes to judgement day – the slightest defect requires touch-up, sharpening or discarding.
Next up are plugs and other lures. Check each hook, eyelet, split ring, lure body and skirt. Better to toss it out and grab a new one rather than to keep an item that might not outlast the fish of a lifetime when it finally strikes. If you have a little extra time on your hands over the winter, you might also consider repainting the bodies of time-worn plugs. Consider, too, taking a few minutes to crush down the barbs on a few select lures to make releasing smaller fish an easier task.
3. Sort Your Gear
Naturally, you’ll want to sort your gear by some sort of category. You can sort by items used for individual species such as striped bass, blackfish and fluke, or by type of fishing such as spinning, conventional, fly, surf, etc. How you group things is a personal choice, but smart decisions now equate to dragging less gear around, locating what you need quickly, and having a better mental idea of your overall inventory as new species enter and exit the local fishing arena.
4. Service Reels Early
Today’s rods and reels are magnificent pieces of equipment, machined with tight tolerances, or rolled and expertly wrapped with amazing precision. They are also relatively expensive, so keeping them in good condition and in perfect working order is imperative.
Smaller spinning and conventional reels, or those used only in freshwater environments, don’t really require much maintenance, but if you don’t give them at least a little TLC each winter and throughout the season, they can still become discards.
Most problems can be avoided with merely a good cleaning now and then, but a lot of people wait too long. The basic routine for smaller spinning and conventional reels requires no more than a soapy-water wash-down, complete drying, and a touch of WD40 applied to moving parts. It’s a good idea, too, to back off the drag for the winter. If the drag sticks at all, add a touch of drag lube. Use high viscosity oil or graphite on moving parts, but only drag grease on the washers. Drag grease is thick (like pudding) as opposed to lubricant. Make sure the ball bearings are lubricated, too, as well as the rollers on spinning reels. If you hear any squeaking from the roller, or if the bail fails to flip, it needs lubrication.
How did your reel’s drag perform at the end of last season? Did the line slip free in a smooth and continuous manner when you pulled it from a closed bail or a reel in gear? If not, get out the oil or graphite lubricant and get to work. Check your drag washers and make sure they are in perfect shape – any visible wear or bending requires immediate replacement. A sticky drag offers no comfort when a big fish strains at the end of your hook. All it does is make you sweat a little bit more before the line gives way.
Offshore anglers should do a little more work to maintain their reels. This should come as no surprise considering the size of the fish that tuna and shark fans are likely to encounter during the season.
“If you haven’t done any cleaning or maintenance on your big game reels yet, get out there right now and wash them all with soap and water,” advises Bryce Poyer at White Water Outfitters in Hampton Bays, New York. “Use a non-degreasing, mild, detergent-type soap—something from the auto industry is usually a good idea. Don’t let your reels sit uncleaned for several months. Get them nice and dry, and then put them in a climate-controlled part of your house as opposed to a damp basement or garage.”
When it comes time to really get them ready, Poyer suggest you start by evaluating what needs to be done by a professional. For reels that don’t need service, take them off the rods, then degrease and clean the reel seats. When you put them back on the rods, the reel seat, reel clamps and all metal-on-metal contact areas should be greased with a waterproof bearing grease. Any moving parts of the reel, including the pushbuttons and handles on the lever drags, can use a small squirt of WD40 or reel oil. Don’t squirt any lubricant into the body of the reel, just get the external moving parts.
With cleaning complete, be sure to perform a full functionality test. Make sure the clicker works with the drag engaged and in free-spool, and ensure you have good drag range. Check your reel handles, too, since handles that are getting stiff over time foretell of chronic failure. When a reel handle get a little wobbly on the reel arm, it usually means that the screw is beginning to back out or the rivet is slightly stretched out. This can lead to the handle coming off while you are fighting a fish, so take the reel into the shop and address the problem now.
“Before we even start talking about cleaning big-game reels,” says Ronnie Fauring at Sea Isle Tackle in Freeport, New York, “make sure you pick up a reel cover for each one. The spray that hits your reels when you run to the fishing grounds at high speed powers deep into these reels and causes a lot of corrosion. Often, the result is levers that fail or get stuck. Covers and a decent cleaning now and then can really make a difference.”
Another tip from Fauring: Don’t over-lubricate. Use just enough to smooth things up and eliminate any squeaking sounds, and be sure to use the right grease or lubricant for the right job. You want a fine lube on moving parts and drag grease on the washers. The two are not interchangeable.”
“Don’t wait on bringing in any type of reels,” adds Vafiadis. “Get them in now, not the day before you are ready for the season kickoff. There’s always a mad rush to get things repaired in the spring. Tackle it now and you won’t have to worry.”
5. Check Your Line
The last part of your reel maintenance routine should be to inspect and change lines as necessary. Up until the widespread acceptance of braid, most sharpies changed their line at least three times a year, once each for spring, summer and fall. If you are still fishing mono, follow that schedule.
If you favor braid, however, you might only need to cut away the first few feet if it appears to be in good shape. An even better idea is to reverse the braid. If you have two of the same reel, try reeling line from one to the other, which strips one reel and fills the second with the fresh end at the same time. As a rule, there’s no need to replace the backing.
The cardboard core from a roll of paper towels fits onto the shaft of a cordless drill. Secure it with tape, use another piece of tape to secure your line, and you can remove a spool of line in seconds.
6. Check Your Rods
When it comes to rod maintenance, start by checking that all the guides are in good shape. Make sure they are aligned, aren’t chipped, bent or simply broken, and don’t need to be re-wrapped. Check also the inside rim of each guide to make sure there are no nicks or grooves. You can do this with a dry cotton swab by wiping the end of it along the inside of each guide. Burrs and chips will catch the cotton and quickly make themselves evident. Any doubt about a guide means immediate replacement.
On big-game rods, Poyer says it is vital to check that all the roller guides are tight, the Loctite that holds all those little tiny rollers is in good shape, and that the rollers are actually, well, rolling. “If a roller isn’t rolling, it’s far worse than having just plain old ceramic guides. Amazingly, twenty percent of the big-game rods that come through the door here have frozen rollers. Keep in mind that there are seven rollers on every offshore rod so, by percentages at least, there is likely to be one stuck on every rod we see. Take the frozen ones apart and give then some TLC with oil or grease.”
7. Patch and Store Waders Properly
That small hole in your waders might not seem like much to worry about right now, but when the cool water of spring starts seeping into your boots, you’ll wish it had been sealed. Patch it now, before the action starts. Patch kits are available from most bait and tackle stores. “When it comes to waders,” adds Carmine Petrone at Camp-Site Sport Shop, “hang them upside down in a dry place and DON’T sprinkle the insides with powder because that will clog the pores on breathable models.”
8. Lights, Pliers, Knives and the Rest
Make sure head lamps, pliers, weight scales, etc., are all cleaned and lubricated. To prevent corrosion, remove the batteries from flashlights, digital scales and the like. Put in new batteries to start the season. With pliers, less expensive choices can be completely wiped down with oil or lube. The really good stainless steel models, however, should be washed with plain water and thoroughly dried. Use a high-viscosity oil that is small enough to get into the joints and lube only the moving parts.
Be sure to give some love to your knives and other cutting tools as well. Leaving a beautiful $200 set of knives in your cabin drawer all winter is just going to cause them to rust and corrode. Bring them home, wipe them down, and run them through the dishwasher. Put them back on the boat come spring.