Super-Tuning Baitcasters

Some finer points on the need for speed.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Call it lethal weapon 5. in long-distance casting competitions that means the ability to cast a 5-ounce sinker as far as 300 yards with specially tuned off-the-shelf baitcasting reels. The lethal part comes when someone hasn't gotten a leader knot quite right, in which case that big hunk of lead snaps free during the windup. This isn't the best way to make friends on a crowded beach, and stories of smashed windows and punctured car radiators are legion among such casters.

Most American anglers won't ever encounter the extremes of competition casting tackle, mostly because it's much more popular in the U.K. than here. And most won't ever see the kind of roundhouse, pendulum-style casts that give the greatest distance, unless they happen to fish Cape Hatteras, for example, where long-distance surfcasting has been raised to an art form. On the other hand, tuning up your baitcasting reel like the big guys do will deliver some immediate benefits. That's true whether you are gunning for distance while shore-fishing a big Ohio River tailwater or simply want to cast more efficiently around the stumps in your local bass pond.

Super-tuning your baitcaster involves the following chores and components: cleaning, lubrication (sometimes with special oils), possible bearing upgrades, and custom drag washers. You can even change drive-gear ratios and choose among custom handles to suit your personal style. Before you start, though, heed this warning: If you're a novice caster or a mechanical klutz, super-tuning isn't for you.

Bearings and Lubes
Many new baitcasters come with greased spindle or spool bearings, and that heavy grease has the net effect of slowing the spool. If your reel feels lethargic while casting (or if your older reel has accumulated dirt over time), then it's time for an oil change. Your choice of oil will radically affect casting performance. Low-viscosity oils can enable a dramatic increase in spool speed when casting, thereby allowing more distance. Higher-viscosity oils will slow the spool slightly, making the reel easier to control with fewer backlashes. The trick lies in choosing an oil that gives the right combination of distance and control.

First, find a clean, quiet place to disassemble your reel. Make sure you've got a schematic parts diagram. (If you lost the diagram that came with the reel, you can find schematics posted on most major reel makers' Web sites.) Be careful of small screws and popping springs as you work; otherwise, you'll spend agonizing minutes down on the floor searching for a midget spring clip.

Remove the two small bearings on which the spool (or its central spindle) revolves, and soak them in a solvent to remove grease and dirt. Then allow the bearings to thoroughly dry. If the bearings are worn or rusty, or if you'd like to try some higher-tech speed parts, both stainless-steel and ceramic replacements are available for most reels.

Then re-lube the bearings with an appropriate oil, for which there are lots of options. Some anglers use higher-viscosity motor oils (say, on the order of 20-50) for best spool control when casting with larger reels; others use lighter oils (such as 3-in-1) on smaller reels for maximum spool speed and distance. Keep in mind, too, that changes in ambient temperature might require you to change viscosities.

Most recently, I've been experimenting with Rocket Fuel, a series of special reel-bearing lubes first developed for tournament casting in the U.K. These are available in different viscosities: Red, Yellow, and so-called Tournament Grade. In general, Red is for larger reels, meaning Abu 6500 size and larger. Yellow, which is thinner, is for smaller reels (or speed-and-distance freaks with highly educated thumbs). Tournament Grade is just that, meaning regular fishermen need not apply.

Having lubed the bearings, and then having cleaned, lubed, and reassembled thhe reel normally, you'll need to make some casting tests. Remember that tuning your reel is very specific to your particular tackle, casting style, and favored lure weight. With the right bearing lube in place, you should be able to cast smoothly and to good distance without using the reel's mechanical cast controls and with barely any thumb control. As fishing conditions change-casting into a headwind, for example-or as you change lure weights, you can use the reel's mechanical controls to compensate.

If you're getting lots of backlashes, re-lube the bearings with heavier oil. If you're getting too little distance, go lighter. The experimentation is time consuming, but you only have to go through it once for a given tackle setup.

Remember that if you do use a thin oil, you'll have to service and re-lube your reel more often to avoid undue bearing wear. On the other hand, an adequate set of replacement bearings can cost less than $10. Having to replace them as a worst case isn't a huge disaster, and the performance gain is well worth it.

Other Speed Parts
Other things being equal, you'll inevitably get slightly greater distance by using a reel without a levelwind mechanism. Baitfishermen who cast and retrieve only intermittently aren't overly inconvenienced by having to spool line evenly by hand, which makes reels like a Penn Mag 525 or Abu 6500C3CT Blue Yonder good choices for baitfishing at extreme distances.

The constantly casting lure angler needs a levelwind, however, and that's also a mechanism that can be tweaked. First and most simply, clean and re-lube the mechanism with light oil (not grease). In fooling around with some Abu 5500/6500 reels this winter, I found it's also possible to replace some plastic bushings in the levelwind system with true midget ball bearings. That's a minor improvement, but the super-tuning of reels-as with cars-is most commonly the sum of minor improvements.

While I was at it, I dropped in some custom drive gears, boosting one Abu 6500 to a fast 6.3:1 retrieve ratio, and slowing down another to a powerful 3.8:1. Since the drag washers are located in the reels' main drive gears that I'd already exposed, I added sets of Super Smoothie drag washers as well. Custom, easy-to-grab power handles completed the trimmings.

RESOURCES The best source I've found for baitcaster speed parts, including both Rocket Fuel and an extensive parts list for Abu 5500/6500 reels, is Hatteras Outfitters, Dept. FS, 3619 Hawthorne Ave., Richmond, VA 23222; 804-329-8400; www.hatterasoutfitters.com (extensive online catalog with direct ordering available).

For custom bearings, including high-tech ceramic styles, check these two companies: Boca Bearing, Dept. FS, 1500 S.W. 30th Ave. #3, Boynton Beach, FL 33426; 800-332-3256; www.bocabearings.com. Johnson Bearing, Dept. FS, 894 Deming Way, Sparks, NV 89431; 800-827-1049; www.arrowweb.com/bake.

Finally, for a detailed look at extreme-distance casting plus more tips on reel tuning, check out former world champion Neil Mackellow's Web site at http://neilmackellow.sea-angler.org (and be prepared for a distinct U.K. flavour).-J.M.