A Complete Guide To Cleaning Your Fishing Gear

After a long day and a cooler full of fish, your fishing gear is going to be nasty.  Slime, blood and bait grime is going to get on your rod, reel and just about anything you touch for that matter.  It’s a simple fact of life for anglers.

Yeah, I know, a dirty rod and reel can still catch fish but it won’t for long.  Eventually, mis-treated equipment will let you down.  Keeping your gear clean is the best way to ensure you get top performance on the water. 

What do you need to clean fishing gear

At a bare minimum, all you need for cleaning rods, reels and most other gear is a bit of warm soapy water, a rag, and fresh water to rinse everything down.  Even if that is the extent of your cleaning all season, your fishing gear will last much longer and perform better.

If you really want to make sure all your gear gets cleaned and maintained right, invest in some good cleaning supplies. 

  • Mild dish soap for fishing rods and reels – Any type works since you’ll be rinsing the rod thoroughly.  However, fish have a keen sense of smell and can be turned off by strong scents.  Some experts will argue that lemon scented soap doesn’t scare fish away.
  • Clean rags – Almost as important as cleaning fishing gear, is drying it.  Use clean rags to dry off excess water after cleaning to stop rust from forming on rod guides, reels and tackle.
  • Soft bristle scrub brush – Dried on gunk is tough to remove.  A little extra scrubbing power won’t hurt.  Use it to clean reel seats, handles and lures. 
  • Reel cleaning and lubrication kit – Your reels are probably the most expensive piece of fishing gear you own, and the most crucial for catching fish.  Any oil, like WD-40, will help prevent corrosion and keep things working smooth but a complete cleaning kit is the way to go.  Ardent Reel Kleen cleaning kits are the best we have found. 

How to clean a fishing rod

Once you have all your cleaning supplies assembled, it’s time to start the process.  Let’s begin with the rod.  Your rod takes the brunt of abuse from fighting fish, laying it down in the mud and touching it with slime coated hands.  Even so, it’s easy to clean as long as you don’t let it sit for too long before washing.

Step 1- Wash it down

  • Give your rod a quick rinse from the hose to remove caked on material.
  • Get a small bucket of warm, soapy water ready and wipe down the entire rod with a clean rag. 
  • Pay particular attention to the reel seat and handle.  Use a small soft bristle brush to scrub the grip and reel seat components.  Be gentle on cork handles.  Every cork handle rod I own is sealed with U-40 cork seal that I bought from Amazon.  It makes cleaning much easier without damaging the cork.
  • Use the soapy rag to wash the guides.

Step 2 – Rinse it well and dry

  • Thoroughly hose off the soapy water.
  • If your rod comes in multiple pieces, separate them and lightly rinse the connecting male end of the ferrule with water. 
  • Wipe the female end of the ferrule with a cotton swab or tip of a rag.
  • With a clean, dry rag wipe off excess water.  Make sure you get all the water off the guides and reel seat so the metal components don’t develop rust.

Step 3 – Inspect for damage

  • Look for chips on cork handles or torn pieces on EVA foam handles.
  • Spot seal cork handles with U-40 if chips occur and use super glue to reattach torn foam.
  • Take a cotton Q-tip and swab each guide to check for nicks.  As you spin the Q-tip in the guide, watch for fibers that catch.  This indicates a nicked guide.  Fishing line is easily weakened from abrasions on nicked guides.  Fixing it can save you from loosing fish and expensive tackle.
  • Fix minor nicks with a small piece of super fine grit sand paper.  Larger cracks or gouges require complete repair.  Home repair kits are available.
  • Check the ferrule connection for cracks and apply a fine coat of paraffin wax to prevent debris buildup that hampers the connection.  

Cleaning and lubricating fishing reels

The bomb proof construction of quality reels will endure heavy punishment.  However, even with the exceptional engineering standards of high quality reels, regular maintenance is required to make them last a life time.  

If you’re going to spend the money on the best gear, it’s worth the small effort it takes to keep it clean and functioning well.  It’s also more fun to fight trophy fish with a smooth working reel.  

It’s not as time consuming or tedious as you might think.  Below, we’ve outline the basic process for cleaning any fishing reel.

Step 1 – Gather your cleaning tools and lubricants

It’s much easier to get the job done quickly when you have all your supplies in one place.  Setup a clean organized spot to work at the kitchen table or counter.  Lay out a towel to set pieces from the reel on as you remove them.  Keep the pieces in order and make sure not to loose any.

Here are the basic supplies required for maintaining a reel:

  • Flat-head screwdriver
  • Philips screwdriver
  • Small wrench and any tools supplied with the reel
  • Lint free swabs
  • Soft bristle tooth brush
  • Clean rag and paper towels
  • Reel cleaning kit or universal grease and lubricating oil
  • Exploded reel diagram provided with your reel for reference

Step 2 – Wash outside of reel and remove from rod

Remove loose dirt and grime from the reel by rinsing with fresh water.  Dry it well and remove the reel from the rod.  Maintenance is far simpler without the rod in the way.  Also, make sure you secure the line on the spool using the spool clip or a piece of masking tape.

Step 3 – Disassemble the reel

The process of disassembling a reel varies depending on the type and brand.  Whether you have a spinning reel or a baitcaster, only break it down as far as necessary.  Either way, keep track of the parts and the order of removal.  That’s why I like to have the exploded diagram handy.

For a spinning reel, I seldom take apart the gear box behind the handle.  Most annual maintenance involves removing the spool to add a drop or two of fresh oil to the spool shaft.  You should also lubricate all rotating bail joints.  When needed, take apart the line roller and put one drop of oil in the bearing sleeve. 

Baitcasters are a little more complicated but the basic principle is the same.  Take it apart to expose rotating components.  Clean out debris with a swab and apply grease to gears and oil to shafts. 

Pro tip: 

Don’t put grease on anything but the gears.  Use small amounts of light weight lubricating oil on rotating shafts.  This prevents debris that clings to grease from clogging up your reel.

Step 4 – Put it all back together

If you kept track of all the parts, reassembly should go smoothly.  One important thing to remember is that small parts are hard to handle so only remove what’s in the way of applying grease or lubrication.  Set parts in a spot where they won’t get lost. 

Step 5 – Apply a protective coating

When the reel is fully reassembled, give it a quick shot of rust preventative oil like WD-40 or Penn Rod and Reel Cleaner.  Both provide great protection but the Penn cleaner is safe for fishing line and is an awesome all around cleaner for rods too.  Right now, Amazon has the cheapest price for the 12 ounce bottle.

Be sure to watch these videos for extra help with cleaning a spinning reel or baitcaster.

Do fishing lures need to be cleaned

Of all the fishing gear anglers use, lures and terminal tackle gets exposed to the harshest conditions.  Especially, if you fish in saltwater.  With a little extra care you can make sure your baits look as realistic and yummy as possible.  After all, rusted lures loose their appeal on wary fish.  

Most importantly, never store your lures in a tackle box while they are wet.  Freshwater is not so bad but saltwater left on a lure is guaranteed to cause rusty hooks and any other metal components.

To get years of success from all your expensive lures, get in the habit of doing the following:

Step 1

You’ll likely be changing out lures frequently while you fish.  Temporarily storing damp lures in a separate tackle box.  You won’t contaminate clean lures with corrosive saltwater that way.  It’s also is a good way to keep track of what lures need cleaning when you get home.

Step 2

Wash dirty lures in warm, fresh water with a mild soap.  Use lemon scent, which won’t bother fish the next time you use the lure.  Or you can just rinse well with water if the lure isn’t too grimy.  

Use an old toothbrush for any necessary scrubbing.  Avoid using sponges as the hooks snag the soft material.  

Now, thoroughly dry the lures and hooks with a clean dry rag.  I find that a quick wipe down with paper towels gets every bit of moisture off.

Step 3

You’re not out of the woods yet.  If you live in a humid location or you just want to be extra cautious, treat your hooks with a rust preventative.  Regular cooking oil lightly rubbed on all metal surfaces works great.

Commercial lure conditioners exist but it’s not worth the money.  Another way to prevent rust is to place a few small desiccant packs in every tackle box.  It seems that most store bought items have a silica gel desiccant pack thrown in.  Instead of tossing aside, save them for your fishing gear.

Step 4

Inspect your lures for dull and rusted hooks every time you clean them.  If hooks needs changing, replace with stainless steel ones.

For those who don’t mind the additional effort, some rust can be removed on metal spoons and hooks with a solution of vinegar and salt.  A ratio of one cup salt for every gallon of vinegar yields the best results.  

Pull the hooks off the lure and let them soak in the vinegar and salt solution for a few hours.  Gently scrub the hooks with fine steel wool and rinse well in warm water.  Dry thoroughly.

Other fishing gear you should clean

All fishing gear requires a bit a maintenance if you want it to last more than a season or two of hard use.  Things like waders, pliers, nets, knives and even polarized fishing glasses need to be cleaned regularly.  

Most of the time a quick rinse with water is enough.  Once again, soapy water is your friend for stubborn grime.  Make sure you dry everything well and treat pliers and knives with a rust preventative.

What about cleaning saltwater fishing gear

Whether you fish in freshwater, saltwater, or both, all your gear should be clean.  Saltwater gear however, requires extra attention to prevent rust.  

It’s always a good idea to use rods and reels designed for saltwater use when fishing in offshore or inshore ocean environments.  They usually are made with high quality stainless steel and aluminum components that are sealed to protect bearings, gears and the drag system.

Most of the time, a good rinse with freshwater is all the rod and reel needs.  Wipe it dry and lightly coat metal surfaces with a lubricating oil.  Take care not to get any oil on the line since some oils degrade fishing line.  

When more advance lubrication is needed, disassemble the reel only as much as necessary to clean away debris.  Apply grease to gears and lubricating oil to rotating shafts.  Always use cleaning and lubricating supplies intended for saltwater reels.  Again, we use the Ardent Reel Kleen cleaning kits and find that our reels function just as good as the day we bought them.

Final thoughts

I was always taught while growing up to take care of my most prized items.  If you’re as much of a fishing nut as me then your rods, reels and tackle rank high on the list of valuable possessions.  

So, follow our gear cleaning guide and take care of all your equipment to keep it in tip top shape.  You’ll enjoy using clean gear and will probably catch more fish as a result.