Years ago, I was sitting in my truck on a pond bank with three lines the water. The rods were just lying on the ground with three live shiners doing their thing in the deep end of the pond. It being January and cold, I got out of the wind in my truck, expecting I’d have plenty of time to jump out and grab a rod when a bass hit. The fish were moving slowly because of the low water temperature. No way would I try this same thing in spring.
I looked away for too long, probably to read part of a book.
When I looked back, one of the rods was missing. A bass came by, saw dinner and took off with the bait dragging my rod into the water. It took about 30 minutes to rig one of the other poles with a bare treble hook and sinker to dredge the rig up. The bass ate the shiner and spit the hook.
The reel was thoroughly soaked. It went right back to fishing.
So, can fishing reels get wet? Yes. Will getting wet affect the performance? Generally no, but this also depends on how long it stays wet and what it gets wet with.
Reels Get Wet
Right off the bat, reels get wet. They have to. You are casting and retrieving the fishing line. That brings in water. Monofilament absorbs water. Braided line gets water into the braid. Both haul water across the rod and onto the reet.
That water is going to get into the internal gears. If you have ever opened a good fishing reel up, you will see the innards, which are the gears and other mechanisms. They are coated with grease or oil. This protects the winding mechanisms and makes them run more smoothly. Some cheap reels with nylon gears may not have a protective coating.
I have taken reels that started to crank funny, dunked them over the side of the boat for a few seconds and resumed using them. The water provides a temporary lubricant in this case and I have to do it regularly. I do not carry a tube of reel grease as some people do. When I get home, I put lube in the reel.
Fishing reels are simply made to get wet.
Hank Jr. might be against fishing in the rain, but I am not. Give me a warm day or a good raincoat and I will fish all day or night. Since reels are meant to be used in wet environments, rain will not hurt them in the slightest.
Freshwater will not harm your reel unless you leave it submerged for a while. Even a day underwater won’t harm your reel.
If it does stay soaked for a long time, then you should take it apart, at least until you can see the gears. Dry and clean it thoroughly. The cleaning part may require a more detailed disassembly. When dry, add some reel grease and close it back up. Give the handle a dozen turns or so to work the grease throughout the gears and your reel is ready to go.
The culprit here is the salt, not the water. Salt is corrosive. It will eat up fishing gear that is not stainless steel or not properly sealed against water getting into the inner workings.
Top-quality saltwater reels have stainless steel components and are sealed in the right places to keep the water and salt out. Even so, these reels do require maintenance. Some professional fishermen and tournament anglers have a regular maintenance schedule during which they tear down a reel, clean and relube it, and replace drag components.
Look at it this way. If your livelihood is on the line, you do not want your equipment breaking down when you are trying to reel in your next paycheck. Take care of your tools and they will take care of you.
Fish long enough and you will eventually pull a rod and reel out of the water. Of all the ones I have pulled up, not a one has had a fish on the line. I suspect the fish bound the line and broke it or cut it on something. Regardless, I took some of these rods and reels and fished with them on that day.
Some I tried to use and they did not work quite right. The problem was not water but mud and dirt off the bottom that got into the gears. I took the reel apart and cleaned it well. A bit of lube and it worked just fine.
Of course, a few I pulled off the bottom did not work even after cleaning. The gears inside were stripped or broken, which probably explains why the reel was at the bottom anyway.
Reel maintenance is less of an issue for freshwater anglers than saltwater. I have reels that I’ve not opened in decades and they fish just fine. They are also exclusively freshwater.
My saltwater reels get dropped in a 5-gallon bucket of fresh water at the end of every trip. They sit there for at least an hour. You can add a mild soap if that makes you feel better. I don’t since some soaps strip the lubricants out. If you do use soap, rinse the reel thoroughly with a water hose because some soaps also have elements that speed up corrosion.
When you are cleaning your reel and want to add lubricant, make sure you use grease or oil designed for fishing reels. A major reason for this is the drag. If grease or oil gets into the drag, that is going to impact performance.
Most drags are friction-based. Adding a lubricant reduces this friction and makes the drag less effective. Proper lubricants stay in place and do not spread throughout the reel like some spray-on lubes.
Water has no lasting effect on a friction drag because the heat generated by the drag rapidly evaporates the water. Some billfish anglers, actually the boat’s mate, dump buckets of water over a reel to cool it down after a big fish makes a line-stripping run. Salt in the drag can pose real problems.
If your reel has internal plastic or nylon parts, you cannot use petroleum-based lubes. The petrol base will degrade the plastic. If you have ever poured gasoline on Styrofoam, you know what I am talking about.
Bass Resource has an excellent article about reel maintenance, including some thoughts on what to do about one that gets soaked.
An exception to getting wet is fly reels. Some fly reels should not be dunked. Some can be. The issue is not getting wet, per se, but how the drag system is set up.
Again, the real problem is not the water. Many trout fishermen will dunk the reel in the water while dealing with a fish. If the reel hits bottom, then sand and muck can get into it. Fly reels are made with a more open design than casting reels, giving grit greater access to the internals. In saltwater, when the water dries, the remaining salt crystals cause the same problems as sand as well as corrosion.