How to Take Care of Your Fly Fishing Gear

Fly Fishing Expert Robert Levin explains how to best care for your fly fishing gear so you're able to get the most use out of it.

A fly fishing reel attached to a rod is held over a river.

Photo by Alex Smith

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Over time, many of us have made a substantial investment in our fishing equipment. Protecting this investment is not only prudent but necessary if you want the best performance you can get from your fishing gear. Read on to learn how to clean all your essential equipment.

Fly Line

Let’s start with the fly line. Depending on the frequency of your fishing jaunts, debris and algae will accumulate on the fly lines. If you are a saltwater fly fisher, deposits of salt film will also occur. These substances will add weight to the line to a greater degree than you might imagine.

The materials that fly lines are made of are porous. You can’t see this with the naked eye, but all the foreign molecules have no problem finding all the nooks and crannies in the line to latch onto. Here is how you clean your lines:

Orange line is unwound in a white bucket.

Photo by Robert Levin

  • Step One: Get two buckets. Fill one with warm—not hot—water. Put a dollop or squirt of liquid hand soap in one of the buckets. Do not use liquid dishwashing soap, as many formulas of this product contain a fine abrasive.
  • Step Two: Pull the line off the reel into that bucket until you reach the backing. Put the reel down next to the bucket.
  • Step Three: Let the line soak in the soapy water for 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Step Four: Now, fill the second bucket with warm water and transfer the line from the soapy water into it.
  • Step Five: After about five minutes, you are ready to spool the clean line onto the reel. As you do this, you can let the line pass through some folds of a dry microfiber cloth. Mount the reel on any handle that has an appropriate reel seat.
A fly reel wound with orange line next to its black carrying case.

Photo by Robert Levin

For dry fly lines, an extra step is appropriate. After you clean the line, you’ll want to apply a fly line dressing. There are several in the marketplace and a popular one is the Rio Fly Fishing Agent-Line Dressing. This can be applied as you spool the line back onto the reel.

Reels

A fly fishing reel next to its case.

Photo by Robert Levin

Next, let’s go over how to care for reels. First, reels should be stored in a case or in individual coverings. If the cover has a pocket, insert the line description portion of the package that the line came in, as seen in the image below. If you have a collection of rod sizes, over time you are not going to remember which one is which. If there is no pocket, mark the case or cover with a marker or the spool itself. I use the standard NEMA color code for electronic components to note the line size.

The author's reel cases with colored ties on the zippers.

Photo by Robert Levin

When you return from a trip, it is common practice to rinse off your reel under running water. This is especially important for saltwater fly fishing trips because salt water is very corrosive. Besides the negative effect of the salt on metals that are not 100% rustproof, dried salt is very abrasive. Materials like brass, aluminum, and plastic can be damaged easily by dried salt crystals. You may want to place the reel with backing into the rinse bucket in Step 4 above before spooling the clean line back on, because the rinse when you got back from the trip may not have penetrated down into the backing. Now that it is exposed, it is a good time to take this extra step.

The author's fly fishing reel in pieces next to reel lube and a syringe.

Photo by Robert Levin

When you bought your reel in new condition, if that is the case, it came with an instruction booklet for oiling and greasing the reel. You need to follow the instructions of the manufacturer exactly. Over-lubricating the reel can be as detrimental as not lubricating it enough. If there is not a sealed drag system in the reel, oil or grease on the friction surface will render the drag useless. If you don’t have the booklet for the reel, check the website of the manufacturer. The care booklet will be posted there, even for less expensive reels. When not in use, reels should be stored in a case or cover. Just leaving it in a tackle box or mounted on the rod out in the open is an invitation for surprises the next time you use it.

Rods

A fly fishing rod in pieces in its bag.

Photo by Robert Levin

Now it is time to take care of your fly-fishing rods. Most fly rods sold these days are sectional and come in a cloth bag to separate the sections. Then, the bag goes into a capped tube made of either aluminum or plastic. When you return from a trip, the same rinse you give the reel is also appropriate for the rod.

If your rod has a cork grip or handle, a little extra care with those will help keep the rod in top shape. Use a soft brush or microfiber cloth with soapy water (made with hand soap) to gently pass over the cork grip or handles; this will typically remove any grime deposited there by your fishing activity. Keep in mind that cork is probably the most fragile element on your fly-fishing gear. Never scrub it with powdered cleaners or steel wool. Treat it gently and it will last for years.

The things you really want to avoid are scratches on the rod blank. These become weak points where a break can occur, and they do. This may sound overly cautious, but don’t assemble the rod indoors in a room with a ceiling not much higher than the length of the rod. Overhead fans and light fixtures can cause these accidental scratches, and the rod could be taking a trip to the repair shop in short order.

Waders

The next item requiring some attention is your waders. The after-trip rinse is a must — we all perspire in waterproof waders. Every so often, turn them inside out, spread them out on a table outside, and wash them with a garden hose. If you are an apartment dweller and this option is not available, go to a DIY car wash and do it on the hood of your car. If you don’t do this, after a while you will be able to find your waders blindfolded, thanks to their smell. Your wading boots or shoes are also candidates for a thorough rinsing.

Another concern is this: back in the early 2000s, it was discovered that a parasite causing Whirling Disease was being transferred to new waters by spores stuck on fishing waders and boots. Many states outlawed the use of felt-sole wading boots because the absorbent felt was harboring these spores. This parasite is still a problem in western rivers in particular and has decimated the rainbow trout populations in a number of watershed areas.

Rubber-soled boots are preferred in these areas. Felt-sole boots can be cleansed by a 10-minute soak in a 10% household bleach solution (outside of the boots only). During this process, it is also a good time to repair any suspected worn spots in your waders to avoid leaks. To store your waders, find a spot where you can hang them like they are being worn. Don’t store them crumpled up in tight folds.

Flies

A close-up image of a green woolly bugger fly.

The Woolly Bugger. Photo by Robert Levin

Lastly, you want to address the health and wellbeing of the flies you fish with. In the haste of changing flies out on the water, you will often not take the time to place a fly back into its original box. Stuck on a piece of foam or lambswool, the fly makes the trip home wet and a bit crumpled, so the feathers stay matted and out of shape when it dries.

Gather together these tried, but not taken, insect replicas. Find a tea kettle with a spout, pour an inch of water or so into it and set it to boil. If you don’t have a tea kettle, wrap some aluminum foil around a funnel and place that over a saucepan with about an inch of water in it to boil. Hold the flies with long tweezers or pliers in the stream of steam coming from the teapot or funnel. Hold it for a short burst of steam, then do a little fluffing with an artist’s brush. Do this several times and the fly will return to its original shape and will be ready to go back in its box.

This is also a good time to replace any missing flies that are now living in a tree wherever you fished last. Those of us who fling larger streamers may want to consider sharpening the flies that have been dragged along a gravel stream bed. A sharp hook often makes the difference for a successful hookup.

At the end of a fishing season, take the time to test your tippet material. Plastic material has a life span, especially those materials that were out in the open and exposed to UV light for hours. After a couple of seasons, they will no longer work at their listed strength. If you have a scale, you can test them.

The time you spend maintaining and organizing your fly-fishing gear is a worthwhile investment. The payback is often more tight lines and greater overall enjoyment of the sport! If you have any questions or you think your gear is no longer salvageable and you're in need of replacements, reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert! We'd be happy to help.

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Written By
Robert Levin
Robert Levin
Fly Fishing Expert
I have been an avid fisherperson since my teenage years. Caught the bug from my dad who fished exclusively with a fly rod. Not that he ever fished with a fly on that rod, he trusted the weight of the fly line as it would not break when he pulled a five foot Chain Pickerel out of the lily pads in the...
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