Winter Chores for the Angler

By Scott Haugen

While the open-water fishing season might be over that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for anglers to do. Always with an eye towards next spring, when breakup portends the arrival of the season’s first fish, it’s time to make sure everything is prepared just right for those first forays onto your favorite piece of water.

Reel Maintenance
With winter upon the Alaska angler, now is a good time to take a close look at your gear and give it one last cleaning before packing it away until spring. From tackle boxes to motors, waders to rods, every element of gear deserves attention. Reels—whether casting or spinning—are no exception.

In fact, reels are such an important part of our gear, they deserve care and attention every time they’re used. It’s easy to neglect reels; I know, I’m guilty of it myself.

One spring when I picked up a level-wind salmon reel that I’d put away the previous season, I was kicking myself for not taking the pressure off the drag. I knew better, but just got in a hurry and forgot to back-down the drag before storing it.

The last trip I’d used the reel on was when back-bouncing for salmon. I’d cranked the star drag down pretty tight and should have loosened the gears before storing it at the end of that day, let alone for the winter.

On the positive side, I had cleaned the reel, including the worm-drive. I also wrapped it in a cloth bag, to keep the reel free of dust. But when I pulled out line to check the drag, I cringed when it didn’t move. After some adjusting, I did get the drag to work, but it was sporadic, not nearly as smooth as it should have been.

The more I played with it, I found I had to crank the star drag down tighter than normal to get the drag system to engage. It wasn’t the same as it used to be, and I knew it would be in need of some washer replacements if I wanted it to return to its normal functioning state.

Plain and simple, neglecting to back-off the drag on any reel is a mistake that is easily prevented, and one I’ve been aware of since I was a kid. But this is just one tip to be aware of when it comes to basic reel maintenance; there are others.

In recent years I’ve had the good fortune to fish with Mike Perusse. Mike’s a good friend, hard worker, former guide and knows his Alaska fishing inside and out. He knows more about the intricacies of gear than I ever will and his current job includes, among other things, marketing Shimano reels for a living.

As such, Mike is dialed-in to what it takes to maintain reels to keep them functioning at optimal levels. Mike is continually on the road, deals personally with numerous sportsmen a year, and delivers top-notch seminars on fishing-related topics throughout the Pacific Northwest. In other words, he knows his stuff.

“The most common mistake I see being made is people not backing-off their drags at the end of each day, especially on level-winds” shares Perusse. “Because the washers in a drag system compress and release, when you pull line off a reel it puts a lot of tension on the drag’s washers. Loosening the drag will help the washers retain their shape by relieving otherwise continual pressure.”

“It’s especially important to back-off the pressure on level-winds because people have a tendency to really crank those star drags down tight compared to the plastic knobs on a spinning reel that doesn’t create as much tension,” Perusse continues.  “Ideally, it’s best to back-off the pressure on all reels at the end of each day, not the end of a season.”

Another misconception Mike commonly encounters is the tendency for people to oil or grease the worm-drive on level-wind reels. “The worm-gear, the one that drives the line back and forth across the spool, can get clogged with debris while fishing as well as when hiking through brush to get to bank fishing spots,” Mike points out. “It’s the conglomeration of this moss, surface scum, salt residue, dirt, leaves, twigs or whatever else gets in the worm-drive that hinders it’s performance. When you grease this gear, it acts like a spider web, catching more debris than if it hadn’t been greased. Instead of greasing or oiling the drive, simply wipe clean with a damp paper towel.”

Also, as he points out, if fishing in saltwater or brackish water, gently rinse the reel with freshwater at the end of the day. There’s no need to pressure-wash the reel, as a gentle rinsing will do the job. “If you own a cast aluminum reel, be sure to thoroughly rinse it with freshwater, as any salt or brackish water that gets in or under the sprayed paint job can lead to corrosion,” Perusse suggests.

Mike also enlightened me to a commonly overlooked fact of reel care. “On level-winds, there’s a littletension knob that people often tinker with that allows the spool to more freely rotate, increasing their casting range. This knob should be closed at the end of each day, and here’s why:

“Every time you loosen that knob, it creates a gap on either end of the spool,” Mike adds. “On most reels, you can actually push down on the spool and feel it move left and right between these gaps. If you don’t close those gaps at the end of the day, dust and other sediments can collect in them, potentially cutting down on the effectiveness of that system. These gaps also collect salt and scum during a day of fishing, so be sure to rinse them out before cranking down the knob.”

Generally speaking, when it comes to reels, the more you invest in them the higher their quality and level of performance will be. But no matter how high-end your reels, the better care you can take of them, the more efficiently they’ll operate and the longer they’ll last.

Before stowing reels for any length of time, I encase them in a cloth or felt bag, then place them in a cupboard to further prevent dust from collecting in the spools, worm-drives and other parts. The more bells and whistles your reels have, the less mechanical maintenance they should need.

The key, as I’m still learning, is remembering to do what I’m supposed to at the end of each day. Though basic, the goal of reel care is to keep them in smooth, operable condition and to protect that investment for many years to come.

Rod Maintenance
Believe it or not, fishing rods are one of the most neglected tools when it comes to care and maintenance. This is especially true in Alaska, where conditions are rough and demands many. Anglers usually tend boats, anchor ropes, dirty rags, tackle boxes, terminal gear, motors and reels with diligence, but rods often go overlooked.

With many of today’s high-end rods, it’s even more important to take good care of them. Not only does proper rod care ensure optimal performance, but it extends the life of the rod.

As soon as you get home be sure to give each fishing rod a thorough rinsing. If your fall season is over, before putting away the rods for winter, give them a complete cleaning.

While it’s obvious rods need to be washed after fishing in salt- or brackish water, it should also be done when fishing in places where algae is present. Algae, as it clings to the line, often gets knocked off when passing through guides, sticking to them. The algae will even stick to the rod itself, as well as reel seats. If not tended to, algae can break down these parts as well as the finish of the rod.

Speaking of guides, be sure to periodically check them for any cracks or rough spots. This can be done by passing a dry ear swab in a circular motion around the inside of each guide. If the swab snags, there could be a rough spot on the guide, meaning it may need to be replaced so it doesn’t fray your line. This is especially true with ceramic guides.

Cracked guides can be very difficult to see with the naked eye, or to feel with a fingertip. If you notice a bent guide or one that’s deformed in any way, be sure to test it with a swab, especially if you tried bending the guide back into shape.

The guide that’s most frequently damaged is the one on the tip of the rod. This guide often becomes damaged due to reeling swivels or sinkers all the way up to the end of the rod. Be sure to stop your retrieve early, before any terminal gear comes in contact with the tip of the rod, or worse yet, driven into and lodged inside the guide, thus causing damage.

When storing rods with terminal gear still attached, avoid hanging any hooks on the guides. Today, most quality rods have a hook keeper—a little metal loop located above the handle and below the bottom guide—and this is where hooks should be latched. Storing rods with hooks placed through the guides may damage the guides, causing splits to occur.

The butt section of a fishing rod is one of the most neglected parts when it comes to rod care. Be sure to wipe down the cork very thoroughly at the end of the day; it’s best to wash it with hot, soapy water. Personally, when fishing bait for salmon and steelhead, I keep a wet rag handy and wipe my cork handle dozens of times throughout the day. This keeps any egg, herring or shrimp oil from embedding in the pits of the cork, potentially rotting and transferring foul odors to the hands, which later come in contact with fresh baits. For salmon anglers, keeping that cork clean is a must due to their acute sense of smell, which is measured in parts-per-billion.

While on the subject of handles, it’s a good idea to back-off the reel seat at the end of the season (even each day). This will take pressure off the seat, ensuring no warping occurs within the seat or threads of the seat. If using large reels that form a tight fit in the reel seat, it’s important to take these reels off at the end of the season as they can throw a reel seat out of alignment, making it hard for them to firmly hold smaller reels.

If fishing in saltwater it’s wise to give the reel seat a douse of WD-40 at the end of the day. It’s even a good idea to do this after a day of fishing in freshwater, as the lubricant/inhibitor fights against rust, corrosion and repels water.

When storing rods for any length of time, be sure to keep them from getting in a bind. Let off any pressure on the reels and line, ensuring the rod is straight and in a relaxed position. One of the best ways to store rods is in an upright position, either against a wall or in a rod rack. Rod racks ensure rods are held firmly in place, keeping them from coming in contact with other rods or abrasive surfaces that may potentially lead to fractures.

Be sure to store rods out of direct sunlight, heat and weather. When walking through brush to reach that favorite bank-fishing hole, breakdown those two-piece rods. This will allow you to more easily negotiate the terrain, saving rods from potential damage.

As winter sets in across Alaska, simply apply common sense when cleaning and storing your rods. What you’ll come away with is a quality-working rod that will last for years and not let you down during that moment of truth.

Home Management Options
And last but certainly not least, December marks what many consider to be the start of the offseason for Alaska angling.  While some fishing does still exist, for the most part, fishermen are looking ahead to next spring.  In planning for next season’s adventures, now is prime time to get organized.

Whether you’re a traveling angler or a resident of Alaska, keeping your gear organized is key to staying on top of your game.  Knowing where all your gear is at, and what shape it’s in, is very important to optimizing your efficiency while on the water.

Alaska has a wide variety of fish species to pursue, and they can require a wide range of gear and tactical approaches to catch.  Preparing at home now, in the offseason, is important to being ready when seasons open and fish runs arrive.  Here are some pointers that have helped me over the years, both when I lived in Alaska, and now that I travel there several times a year.

Tackle Storage
Organization is one of the most critical elements to successful fishing.  The best anglers I know are the ones who pay the most attention to detail, and it starts well before hitting the river.  Believe it or not, how you store your tackle at home can have a direct correlation with overall fishing time, and thus, the ability to catch fish.

Storing gear in such a way that it can be readily accessed is not only a big timesaver, but it allows you to select the specific gear needed for a particular trip.  For instance, if you’re going to concentrate solely on side-drifting kings, there’s no need for the jig, plugging or drift-fishing rods and gear.  The space saved from excess gear that goes with these other methods makes things much more manageable when on the river, be it in a boat or fishing off the bank.

There are many options when it comes to storing tackle at home.  You may elect to have one big tacklebox for each species, say one for kings, one for fall steelhead, one for ocean fishing, one for winter trout, and so one.  This means when heading out for a particular species, you can grab one box and go.  But what if you’re hitting kings and steelhead in one trip? That’s two bulky tackleboxes to take along.

For this scenario, many anglers choose to store their gear in manageable sized multi-compartment boxes.  This means they can grab a box of Corkies and go, knowing the sizes and colors are there for targeting the fish they’re after.  The same holds true for plugs, sinkers, divers and other gear.

Another excellent setup, if you have the wall space, is hanging all your tackle on pegboards.  For smaller items, package them so they can be hung.  This allows you to see exactly what gear you have in stock and more importantly, makes for easy selection when preparing for a trip.  Simply grab an empty tacklebox or similar type container and go down the wall, choosing the gear you’ll be using on the next trip.  This approach requires a bit more time in the preparation phase, but saves time on the water for you know exactly what’s available.

Breakdown Gear
If storing gear in large tackleboxes at home, lugging them along in the boat or along the bank can be cumbersome.  To save space, conserve weight and optimize overall efficiency, consider breaking your gear down into smaller tackleboxes.  Rather than taking a hefty tacklebox full of gear you won’t use, sort through the tackle you know you’ll be using and take only what you need.

For instance, if your big king tacklebox contains weighted divers, an array of sinkers, flashers or big trolling spoons you only use on for that species, then leave this gear behind when targeting coho.  Though there is some gear crossover, that is, the same tackle is used for both kings and cohos, for the most part they are specialized species fished in specific water types that require precise approaches.

By taking along only the gear you know you’ll be using on a particular trip, the amount of space saved and overall weight reduction is surprising.  For bank anglers, keeping all the gear on your person allows for a great deal more water to be covered and dramatically increases your fishing time.  It comes back to organization; the more organized you are, the more selective you can be, the greater your overall effectiveness when on the river.

Home Rod Storage
Believe it or not, how rods are stored at home can have a direct correlation to catching fish.  It’s not uncommon, for example, for people to breakdown their salmon rods at the end of the season and toss them in the corner of the garage until next year.  Come the day before the season, they’ll grab the rods, blow off the dust and rig up.  Never mind changing line, checking to make sure abrasions were not attained on the rod itself, or check on the functioning of the reel after a year of sitting.

Line ages, even when not being fished, are an extremely important item to keep in mind.  The likelihood of breaking off that first fish is high with old line.  At the same time, the odds of snapping a rod tip where it was scored as things were piled upon it in the garage, will not be realized until a fish is hooked.  The same holds true for drags and springs in reels; not until it’s too late do you realize something’s wrong.

By storing rods in a safe, open place, they’ll receive more attention.  Rod racks that can be screwed to the garage or shop wall, where rods can be safely stood upright in them, is a good way to go.  If hurting for wall space, consider using some 2x2s hung from the ceiling, spaced apart so the rod butts rest on one end, the mid section on the other.  Both storage systems keep the rods out of harms way and allow for easy to access.

The easier you can get to the rods, the greater the likelihood of changing out the line, coating the reels with antirust spray and taking better care of them, overall.  Reel covers can also be used to further increase the life of the reel.  Having rods in view equates to better care which extends their life and performance level when it comes time to fish them.

This winter, take the time to organize and maintain your gear.  What you’ll discover is the time you invest now will pay off come fishing season, both in the form of more fishing time, and more meat in the freezer.