Dirt, fish slime, blood, sweat, stink bait— chances are your fishing rod’s handle has all those things rubbed deep into the cork. Throw in hours of sun scorching, slamming in rod holders and beach spikes, occasional drops, or perhaps the teeth of a new puppy, and it’s easy to see why the cork is dried out, cracking, and chipped. Some anglers take pride in their handle’s battle-worn appearance and fish it until it crumbles in their hand like a stale gas-station cookie. But simple maintenance is easy, takes little time, and doesn’t require special tools and components like making a new handle. Here’s how to be sure your rod grip feels like new for years to come.

How to repair cork rod handles
Before repairing holes and cracks it’s important that the cork is clean. Baby wipes, magic erasers (these work really well), or a brush and plain dish soap will all do the job. Don’t overdo it though. Start gently, applying more pressure for stained areas. Be careful in places where the cork is particularly dry and porous. I’ve gotten carried away before and pulled huge chunks of cork off of the handle.

Once you’ve got the cork clean and dry it’s time to patch up crevices and holes. To fill in those cracks, grab some wood filler from the shed or garage. Most stores carry a variety of colors . If you go that route, pick the one that most closely matches your grip. Just make sure whatever you get can be sanded. If you can’t make it to a store, the Elmer’s Wood Glue everyone has stuffed away somewhere will work too. You can combine it with sawdust to give it more body.

Using your fingers (my preferred method) or a small putty knife, press the wood filler into the problem areas, making sure to fill them completely. A thin layer of wood filler over the top of a hole will flake off or create a depression in the cork after a couple fishing sessions. You want it solid. Allow the wood filler plenty of time to dry and then sand it smooth with medium or fine sandpaper. Go slow and take your time. You want to remove as little material as possible.

Replacing lost chunks of cork
Some injuries to rod handles can take off a whole segment of cork down to the metal. If your handle has degraded past the point of simple cracks and holes, you may need to take more drastic measures. Luckily, the patch you need can be taken from almost any old wine cork you’ve got laying around (as long as it’s real cork, not plastic).

Take a close look at the missing section of handle. Then, take a razor knife to the wine cork to create the right-sized puzzle piece. This may take a few attempts, but it doesn’t have to fit perfectly. When you’ve got your patch, lay down a healthy layer of wood filler in the hole, then firmly press in the wine cork patch. Fill in the edges as needed. Let it dry then sand it down. It might not be pretty, but I bet it will look better than before.

If it’s a really odd-shaped hole, you can also make a cork mixture to fill it. Instead of cutting you wine cork to size, try taking a rasp to it and creating small individual chunks of cork. Mix these with your wood filler and fill in the hole with a putty knife. Sand it to shape when it dries. 

Sealing
You could stop at this point, but I’ve found it helpful to take it a step further by applying cork sealant to prevent oil and debris from penetrating the cork’s surface. This prolongs the life of a rod handle more than anything else.

First clean the handle again to remove any wood particles leftover from sanding. Once it’s clean and dry, apply the cork sealant with a foam brush, allowing it to soak in and dry. I’ve used both U-40 Cork Sealant, a specialty product marketed towards anglers, as well as cork sealants sold at footwear stores, and had similar results. Either way, $10 worth of sealant is enough to treat dozens of rods.

Of course, there are people who ask why I don’t just leave the plastic film on the handle when I buy a rod. I personally like the feel of cork and don’t pay for a nice handle to keep a cheap plastic film over it. It seems like paying for leather seats in your vehicle and then covering them with old bed sheets. Also, that plastic film gets slippery when it’s wet. Water can also get under it and cause mold. To be honest, seeing someone using a rod with a plastic-wrapped handle is like seeing someone wearing a belt and suspenders. I don’t trust them.

If you don’t want to mess with repairing a cork handle or prefer the feel of foam or a rubberized grip, there are a variety of wraps, grip tapes, and heat shrink materials available. Whether restoring a cork handle or covering it with another material, all these methods are great ways to fix up old rods you find at garage sales or pawn shops. Oftentimes the rod blank is still in good condition even though the handle is falling apart.

Getting a few more years out of your handles and protecting the good fish karma you’ve soaked into them only takes a minimal investment and a little time. Before you throw your rods in the back of your truck or your boat’s rod locker this year, it’s worth a few minutes to give them some love.