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Reel tuning and modification
Written by Mike Thrussell
All forms of moving mechanical engineering, be it a car engine, a boat outboard or other engine driven tool requires a period of running in when the moving parts can bed in to each other. Mechanics are delicate things that need initial gentle use to wear them in progressively to encourage peak performance, reliability and a longer life.
Fishing reels, especially multipliers are just the same. They benefit from a period of running in to let the gears, spool spindles, bearings and other moving parts bed in to each other.
But it doesn't end there. Reels can be modified and tuned to give improved casting performance. Easy home tuning can add at least 20% more distance to your cast, often more, and yet make the reel much more user friendly in the surf. Here's how!
CHOOSING THE RIGHT REEL FOR LONG RANGE CASTING
Aim to use a reel with the smallest line capacity you can comfortably fish with. A reel holding 300-metres of 15lb line will cast up to twice as far as one holding 300-metres of 30lb line, especially in to a head wind and rough weather. For example, choose just 15lb line as standard for clean beach work, but with a 22-foot (7-metres) length of 50lb shock leader to cope with initial casting pressures. Smaller reels are also much easier to tune for peak performance.
Choose only reels with an aluminium alloy spool, preferably machine cut from a single piece for strength. Ignore reels with heavier metal spools as any increase in spool weight increases the flywheel effect during the cast which causes reels to backlash or birdsnest.
Spools need to run on floating ball-races, that's stainless steel ball bearings to you and me. That said, there is only fractionally less performance from a well tuned bronze bush like that found in standard ABU 7000's (red side-plates). It's just that the ball bearings soak up and retain enough lubricant for several fishing sessions, but also prove smoother under heavy retrieve when fighting a big fish or just hauling masses of weed in. Bronze bushes need constant lubrication checks and feel less smooth when retrieving.
Proven surf casting reels have a cast control system. The best have centrifugal brakes. These are simple little fibre blocks that slide on to stainless steel bars fitted to one side of the spool. The blocks push outwards during the cast to make contact with a flange on the inner side-plate of the reel much like a cars brakes work. The drag caused by the blocks running around the inside edge of the flange controls the spool speed.
Second choice, though they've never really caught on with the best tournament casters and long range fishing experts, would be a reel with magnetic brakes. These are simple little magnets that when screwed inwards impose a magnetic pull on the spool to control speed.
Reel frames have to be rigid. The old fashioned chrome over brass were best, but nowadays one piece alloy or graphite frames are the alternative. Alloy is rigid enough, but needs constant maintenance to avoid corrosion. Reel seats should be part of the frame and not riveted on. The rivets quickly corrode.
Example models for maximum fishing range would be the ABU 6500 series, Daiwa 7HT's and the Penn 940 Levelmatic. For tougher fishing where a greater line capacity is required look to reels like the ABU 7000C, Penn 535 and the ABU 9000C, plus the Penn Mag series.
This removes any manufacturing swarf, filings and dust left over from the factory and flushes out stale lubricants and over zealous greasing on the gears etc. Leave the parts to fully dry now on newspaper.
Now re-assemble everything. Gears need lightly greasing with a lightweight machine grease, not an auto grease, as does the drive train spindle. Use an automotive 20/50 oil sparingly on spool spindles and level-winds. Reels with a larger line capacity like the ABU 9000 require a thicker oil such as 30 grade on the spool spindles etc.
The bearings need special attention. Once clean and dry, we have to guarantee that the oil reaches the inner bearing to fully protect it. Dripping oil on to the bearing direct does not get oil in to the inner bearing cavities.
You need an old soup spoon which is filled with either 20/50 for reels up to ABU 7000 size, or 30 grade for the larger reels. Now gently heat the spoon over a safe heat source to thin the oil. Drop each bearing in to the heated oil and watch the little air bubbles rise up from the centre of the bearing. When the bubbles stop, the bearings are fully soaked and ready for fitting. Fully assembled, you can now run in the reel.
Do this by using the reel for close in fishing at first aiming to make at least a hundred 50-metres casts initially. By the mid point you'll be able to feel the reel freeing up as the parts begin to gently wear in taking any roughness off the spool spindles, machining fash from the gears, and any minute irregularities in the general drive train. The hundred plus casts completed, fully strip, clean and dry the reel parts again as it's now ready for tuning and modification.
First to go are the level-wind systems for several reasons. These are still engaged during the cast and the turning level-wind gears and worm bar rob energy from the spool reducing it's freedom.
Secondly, the level-wind system does not produce a clean flow of line off the spool, and once distances above 130-metres are reached, the shock leader knot and line cannot get through the level-wind eye fast enough, it jams and the line snaps mid way through the cast.
Most important of all, is that for full power-casting, the casters thumb needs to be fully able to grip down hard on the ready to cast free spool. The strengthening bar at the top of the reel frame means the thumb cannot get forward enough to fully wrap over the top off the spool. To get thumb access over the full spool, we need to replace the level-wind with a solid bar to guarantee reel frame rigidity, then cut out that offending top bar.
Another bonus is that the reels line capacity is improved by 25%. Laying line on by hand (moving the line sideways across the spool with the thumb during the retrieve) creates a more compact, neater loading pattern. Also, the reel will accept a wider variance of line diameters. Level-winds tend to work best with just one specific diameter of line. Go above or below this, and the line lay suffers.
You can either get a machine shop to make a solid bar to fit the level-wind gap, or there are still ready made easy to fit conversion bars available for older reels. The best materials are either 316 stainless steel bar, or chrome over brass bar. A chrome over brass conversion is available for roughly �15 for 6500 and 7000 series reels.
To fit the conversion bars, first remove the full level-wind assembly including the plastic gears in the side-plate, and the small gear on the spool spindle that drives the level-wind. The latter, if left attached to the spool, acts like a Mississippi paddle steamers wheel scooping air with each spool revolution that fractionally reduces overall spool speed.
Now fit the conversion. This will have been made so it's just slightly tight as you wedge it between the reel frame. Gentle pressure will see it push in to place. Now secure it with the screws at each end which should be tightened with some locking compound added. Only when this is fully in place and secure do you remove the top bar. Cut this out with a small hacksaw cutting the bar off to leave just an 1/8in (3mm) of stud protruding from the reel frame. These can either be painted, or have plastic caps pushed over them for neatness.
Such is the increase in casting performance achieved by converted reels that here in the UK ABU and Daiwa both produce ready converted production multipliers without level-winds. These are the ABU 6500CT series including the Elite model, the ABU 7500CT and the Daiwa 7HT. Shakespeare have also introduced a converted baitcaster in 6500 and 7000 sizes.
Due to the screw together construction of some reel frames, such as the ABU 9000 (thumb access is also much easier on the bigger reels), removing the level-winds and fitting a solid bar is not practical. However, it still pays to remove the level-winds drive gears to maximise free spool rotation, but leave the worm gear and covering tube in place to keep dirt and water out.
Start with the spool spindles. These need polishing with a mild abrasive liquid metal polish. A few drops on a dry soft cloth and spinning the spindles through the polish for a few seconds each is enough to remove any rough areas and create a smooth surface.
Do the same with the inside of the pinion gear that the spool spindle drives through. I use a cotton wool bud soaked in the liquid polish and turned a few dozen times around the inside of the pinion gear to polish the surface. Also polish the spindle that the drive train and drag stack rotates around when the handle is turned.
As you replace the drag washers, dust these over with graphite powder. This produces a smoother drag with a wider, more subtle power band and reduces any tendency for the drag washers to stick which, if it occurs during the fighting of a big fish, can result in the line snapping.
Also polish the spool where the line sits with wax car polish. This doesn't help casting in any way, but reduces corrosion through salt on the line attacking the spool sides.
The grades of oil you choose for spindles and bearings can, in combination with the right brake blocks, help control overall spool speed and keep backlash at bay from casting with a too free spool. A thinner oil gives a faster revolving spool, but put thick 30 to 90 grade oil in the bearings and the spool speed is substantially reduced.
If you've got a powerful, smooth casting style, ABU 6500's give their best casting and fishing performance lubricated with 20/50 in the bearings and two small brake blocks. If the reel is too fast for you at this setting and you feel the line trying to lift up during mid cast, put two medium sized blocks in which should cure the problem. In ideal conditions, top UK casters will get away with a lighter grade oil than 20/50 and a single block in a highly tuned 6500, but these are very racy reels set up like this and line flow problems are inevitable.
7000's cast easily and without backlash with 20/50 and two medium blocks, but again bigger blocks slow the spool down if you find the reel too fast. Use 30 grade oil and two medium or large blocks in a 9000. Even reels without centrifugal blocks or magnets can be made docile for casting by loading the bushes or bearings with thick oils up to 140 grade.
LOADING THE REEL
This is due to the weight of the line creating a flywheel effect. Reducing the amount of line loaded reduces the overall spool weight making the casting controls more efficient and easing the likelihood of backlash.
How you load the line is also important. Attach the line with a spool knot, then slide the knot to one end of the spool. Slowly wind the initial 50-metres of line on to the reel in tight touching turns cotton reel fashion. Now just use the thumb of the hand holding the rod to lay the line on in roughly even fashion until full.
The bottom 50-metres laid so neatly on gives the upper line a format to work to as you retrieve each time and balances the spool across it's length which smoothes the flow of line leaving the spool during the cast.
Providing they're used with lines under 18lbs, fixed-spools will cast pretty much as far as multipliers. The secret to long casting with a fixed-spool reel is a large line capacity of light main line, and it's important to understand the problem of line friction as it passes over the lip of the spool during the cast.
With a fully loaded spool, the initial line coming off the spool has only a tiny step of spool lip to pass over. Once half the cast has gone and the height of the line on the spool has lowered the angle for the line to pass over the spool lip gets steeper and steeper dramatically increasing friction. The more the line level falls, the steeper the angle and the greater the friction created between line and spool lip resulting in a rapid deceleration of the casting weight.
Choosing a large diameter reel means less line depth is lost when a long cast is made minimising the angle the line has to climb to get over the spool lip. Fixed-spools, due to the rapid loss of line height on the spool, are therefore not a good choice for casting lines over 18lbs diameter and cannot compete equally with a multiplier when used with these heavier diameter lines. Go for a spool holding at least 300-metres of 25lbs when intending to fish with lines of 15lb breaking strain.
Also important is the actual profile of the line when viewed sideways across the spool.
Few fixed-spools give a perfect line profile during retrieval. Often, the line builds up at both ends of the spool, or mountains in the middle. We need a profile that sees the line filled in a flat profile level with the spool lip. Here's how we achieve this!
Note where the line is building. For example, say it's towards both ends of the spool with less line in the middle. Strip off about 300-metres of line from the reel. Now wind the line back on by hand but building line up higher in the centre of the spool. You're aiming for a reverse profile of the original. Once you've put back about 75-metres of line by hand, retrieve the rest with the reel as normal. You'll now find that the reverse profile has pretty much cancelled out the natural retrieve bias at stacking line up at each end and produced a fairly even profile. You can experiment with more or less hand wound line to get the perfect profile.
Profiling also sees the reel spool hold up to 10% more line. Aim to fill the spool almost level with the spool lip for maximum casting performance.
Instead of filling the whole spool with good line which is wasteful, use PVC tape or old line to build up the spool spindle diameter enough to allow just 300-metres of actual fishing line to be used. That's enough line to allow for a 150-metres fishing cast, plus you'll have enough line in reserve to let a big fish strip plenty of line off.
The bale arm on fixed-spools will often prematurely close as a power-cast is released due to the bale-arms own weight. This will cause the line to snap and send the lead weight shooting dangerously down the beach. Use 18 gauge stainless steel wire to form a hook shape at one end and a eye at the other. Tie a strong rubber band to this and attach the rubber band to the reel foot. When the bale arm is opened and locked for casting, clip the stainless hook over the bale arm to avoid premature closing. Alternatively, revert to manual pick up by cut off the bale arm wire to leave just the line roller for the line to sit behind.
Because fixed-spools have no moving parts during the cast, they need no real running in, nor modifications other than the bale arm problem. However, it is again worth fully stripping a new reel, cleaning it of swarf and filings etc, then re-assembling using fine grease on the gears and lay shaft, 20/50 oil in any bearings, and lighter oil on the bale arm roller.
Reel tuning and modification should be undertaken first BEFORE you start to think about learning or improving your power-casting technique. These reels not only cast further maximising a good casters potential, but they're actually easier for beginners to learn to cast and control from the start. Reels with little or no braking facility, limited thumb access to the spool, and poorly profiled line makes even a good caster bad.