If a donut without a hole is actually a Danish, then a reel without line is just a paperweight. In fact, I’ll take that one step further. A reel that’s not properly spooled with line of the proper type and size is going to make you want to pull your hair out. That’s why getting this right is so critical—the alternative is misery.
Whether you’re using a baitcasting reel or a spinning reel, changing line regularly and properly is key to making longer, more accurate casts and fewer lost fish. Here’s how to ensure you’re well-equipped to hit the water.
First rule of Line Club: Don’t buy cheap line. I’m not saying that you have to find microscopic braids made from the hairs of virgin angora goats, but whether you’re using braid, monofilament, fluorocarbon, or copolymer, don’t skimp. The particular type you buy will depend on your tactics and the species you’re chasing, but make sure it’s matched to spool size and drag systems.
Sure, you can put 50-pound mono on an ultralight spinning reel. But not only will you only get a mere 3 or 4 yards of it on there, but it’ll also barely come off the lightweight spool. On the flip side, you can put a super-light line on your baitcasting swimbait reel, but it may creep into orifices where it’s not wanted, break on the hookset, and it’ll require miles of the stuff to even get close to the spool’s lip.
Remember, braid has the least stretch and the smallest diameter per pound test. Because of this, it takes more of it of the same strength to fill up a reel. Mono has the most stretch. Fluoro is in-between the two, and is the least visible, but unless you buy the super-premium stuff (that comes with a super-premium price tag), it can be harder to work with, especially on spinning tackle.
Good line is determined by the right type and size, but also its vintage. Find brands you like and don’t buy the stuff with inches of dust on top of it from sitting on the shelf too long. Once it’s home, store it out of the sunlight, preferably in a cool drawer or bag somewhere. Visitors to my office may be surprised that my main file cabinet is actually a line drawer, but I like it that way. Right next to it sits a “go bag” I use to take the varieties and sizes I’ll need on any given overnight trip. Braid stays fresh longer than mono or fluoro, so I change it out less, typically when it starts to discolor or fray. When in doubt, change it. It’s worth avoiding the heartache of line break or excessive twist.
OK, you’ve chosen the line you’re going to use. Now you need to attach it to the spool. Generally I spool up in the boat or garage, but I also keep a short spinning rod and a short baitcasting rod in my home office for this purpose. Thread the line through the lowest, largest guide and then onto the reel. Remember, braid is slippery, so if that’s your main line, tie it to the spool or use some backing to prevent slippage on your hook sets.
Actually, unless you consistently expect to get down near the spool, add backing no matter what—it’ll save you on the amount of line you need to add back on each time. I’ve heard some people say that they simply transfer old line from one reel to the other, reversing it and exposing the previously-unused part to the elements, but that seems to me like a monumental pain in the butt.
If you want to ensure the process goes quickly and smoothly, enlist someone to help you. If you’re dealing with a bunch of reels (before our Mexico trips, I’ll often unspool and re-spool up to 15 for me and my wife combined), this is a time-consuming process. Hell, I think that’s half of the reason some people have kids—to have someone hold the pencil through the middle of the spool and apply tension. Then again, once you get into a rhythm, there’s no reason you can’t do this on your own in front of the TV.
The good news about this process is that once you have the rods, reels, and line, you don’t need anything more to get the job done. You can even hold a spool between your toes if needed. Then again, part of the fun of fishing is investing in all sorts of tools and Rube Goldberg devices to “make life easier.”
The one that I can’t live without is a line stripper. Several manufacturers make simple battery-operated tools that will remove the line from your reels in a hurry, or you can retrofit a power drill to do the same. There are also all manners of systems built to store and spool line onto your reels. Some bass boats now come with tensioned dowels for this purpose. Alternatively, you can buy a standalone model that does the same thing. There are even clamps that attach to your rod blank to hold the spool in proper position, with proper tension. One decidedly low-tech tool that I consistently use for this purpose is a square hotel room ice bucket, which holds a spool just perfectly for my purposes. I apologize to various Best Westerns, Days Inns, and No-Tell-Motels around the country for my inadvertent thievery.
If you’re filling up a spinning reel, the number one gremlin you’re trying to guard against is line twist. It will happen eventually, but you don’t want to start out behind the eight ball. With your line threaded through that first guide, tie it to the reel’s spool, lie the filler spool on the ground and start reeling. The line should come off the filler spool in the same direction as it goes onto the spool. At least that’s how it’s been explained to me. No, it doesn’t make sense to me either.
Here’s the simple solution: If you start reeling and the line starts coiling on its own in all sorts of nasty tangle, flip the filler spool over and that should stop. No matter what, make sure that there’s tension as you apply the line so that the loops are wound firmly and not prone to jumping off the spool.
Another solution to this is to use a main line of braid, with some length of fluorocarbon or monofilament leader. The braid is much less negatively affected by line twist, and you can easily and inexpensively change out the leader every day, or multiple times a day if you like. I recommend learning the semi-complicated FG knot to connect the two lines, as it goes through guides easier than many other connecting knots.
Baitcasting reels don’t typically suffer from the same level of line twist as spinning reels, but they have gremlins of their own. Chief among them is that the line tends to pile up on one side of the spool. To avoid this, use a finger to aid the levelwind in ensuring that your fresh line is evenly distributed across the spool and not crisscrossed in a manner that will lead to gnarly backlashes.
Braid and fluorocarbon present potential issues of their own. With the former, if your line is packed unevenly, you’re going to end up with nasty backlashes as various layers get intertwined. With the latter, if the layers of line are across one another in any way, the fluoro may cut itself.
With both types of reels, you’ll generally fill the spools up within an eighth of an inch of the lip. When in doubt, go a little bit over. You can always remove some line, but it’s less-than-ideal to under-spool.
If you have any doubt that the line is non-twisted, or spooled unevenly, let some out behind the boat with a lure tied on and then reel it back in straight. In fact, that’s how some people spool their line on in the first place, using the natural tension of the water’s surface.
Once everything looks OK, make your first few casts smooth and relatively gentle—you don’t need to booger up a freshly-spooled reel before you have a chance to winch on some fish. Check your drag again, too, so that He-Man hookset doesn’t break it.
While most premium lines are fine by themselves out of the package (assuming you stored them properly), some additives may help performance. I’ve seen old-timers take a just-loaded spinning reel spool, remove it from the reel and place it in a bucket of water overnight, the theory being that the loops will now conform to the spool they’re on rather than the one they came from.
With a braid line, which I use increasingly frequently, that’s not as critical. I am, however, a big fan of certain line conditioners, like Blakemore’s Real Magic, KVD’s Line & Lure Conditioner, Braid Aid, and the wonderfully-named Reel Snot.
Spool your line up right and it’ll be the last thing you think about, which is good. Like a petulant child, if you’re thinking about it, that means it’s probably misbehaving.