How to Fix a Fishing Reel That Won’t Lock In

Having a fishing reel that doesn’t lock in can be frustrating. Especially when you have caught a fish and the line just spins out freely without engaging the drag. But fixing this is completely achievable, no matter your experience or skill level. It’s something many fishermen have faced at some point or will face – so knowing how to fix this common issue can definitely help save a fishing trip!

How do you fix a fishing reel that won’t lock in? First, you need to diagnose the problem. There are a myriad of reasons that could cause your reel to lock up. They can include:

  • Broken Spool or Bail Wire
  • Anti-Reverse Issues
  • Line Tangles or Twisting
  • Drag System Malfunctions
  • Spool or Drag Lock

After finding the culprit you will want to do your research in order to find best practices to resolve the issue or seek help from a specialty shop for more complicated issues.

A main reason for sub-par performance from your reel can also have to do with how you’re using it. So, there are preventative measures to be kept in mind as well.

Understanding Your Reel

When you begin fishing, just like many other activities, learning the inner workings is not only important, but can also be fun.

As you grasp a full understanding of how the equipment works, it will automatically help you in becoming better at fishing.  This will save you time so that you can avoid common mistakes.

There are many different types of fishing reels, but some of the most common are:

  1. Spinning Reels (click to see on Amazon) – typically the most popular, especially for bait fishing – user friendly and efficient
  2. Spincast Reels (click to see on Amazon) – similar to spinning reels, but has closer gears that limit accuracy and the length of the line you can cast
  3. Baitcasting Reels (click to see on Amazon) – a more difficult reel with a spool that tends to turn while casting
  4. Conventional Reels (click to see on Amazon) – similar to a baitcasting reel, it is mainly used to haul in bigger fish

While spinning reels in their most basic sense have been around for centuries longer, the model closest to a modern-day spinning reel has been used in North America since the 1870’s. And for the past 150 years, it has remained a popular option for the sport.

How the Spinning Reel Works

The open-faced design of the spinning reel makes it not only user friendly for the fishing itself, but also for troubleshooting issues. When you have a tangle or it locks up, the open design makes for much easier access.

The spinning reel allows for ample line space. There is extra line capacity in the reel as compared to others. So, this can be an excellent feature for anyone seeking a long day out on the water without needing frequent line changes.

The reel hangs under the rod and it has a fixed spool allowing free flowing casting for light lures. This gives the reel a sense of balance and is a main reason why so many like it, and why beginners can get the hang of it quicker.

Understanding how the reel operates, how to set one up, and how to maximize longevity for all your equipment with proper maintenance will help you prevent issues.

The Issues and Solutions

There are plenty of reasons why a reel may not lock in, but some tend to be more common than others. We will cover some of those top reasons, along with the solutions to fix them so you can get back on the water.

Broken Spool or Bail Wire

A broken spool or bail wire is easily the most common occurrence when dealing with reel performance, so we will go through this one thoroughly.

The spool, gears, or bail wire are susceptible to breaking or malfunctioning. The same can happen inside the reel for some of the most vital components, like the springs. If anything inside there has broken or stopped working, it will almost always result in the reel not locking.

If this is your issue, go ahead and grab a pair of pliers, a small screwdriver, and if you have any replacement parts lying around, it may be good to have them ready.

These steps are outlined in an easy way that can be used as a process of elimination until you reach the culprit.

  1. Use the screwdriver to remove that smaller screw on the side of the pivoting arm that holds the bail wire. Most spinning reels will allow you to just remove the one screw, but for some models you may need to remove both of them.
    • This is a great time to inspect those screws to be sure they are still in good condition. If they are stripped or broken in any way, you can use this time to replace them. Whether you will be keeping the original screws or using new ones, put them aside in a safe spot so they will be ready for reassembly later.
  2. Now you will be able to inspect the bail wire for signs of damage. Go ahead and remove the bail wire and inspect the entire wire. Lookout for rust and corrosion, while also seeing if any sections are bent, misshapen, or that have even snapped.
    • If there is any type of damage, use this time to go ahead and replace it.
  3. If you have inspected the bail wire and have found it to be in excellent shape, then it is time to check the line roller. This will be simple: remove the screw holding the line roller and inspect it thoroughly. If it is no longer in good condition, you should replace it.
  4. The next place you need to look if everything until now has looked good, is going to be the springs. In order to inspect it, you will need to remove it from the side of the pivoting bail arm.
    • A damaged spring is a very common cause within the inner components. They are not the most durable or sturdy parts of a reel, so a busted spring is a frequent problem that causes locking. When you inspect the spring, you should make sure nothing is broken, bent, rusted, or damaged in anyway including kinks in the springs.
    • If you find a damaged spring make sure the replacement you get is identical; otherwise, it can throw everything off.

If you have completed all these steps and still have not found the cause, you will want to seek other areas of the reel to diagnose the problem. Be careful while reassembling everything and use this time to replace anything, even if it’s not the core problem, but seems like it is on its last leg. It’s always good to be proactive rather than having to take it all apart again for a new issue.

The Drag System

Your drag system allows for strong large fish to pull the line without breaking it while still creating resistance to wear the fish down. When reverse pressure is drawn by the fish, the drag system stops the line from being pulled out freely. This can be another common reason for the reel not locking.

The drag system can be a bit tricky at times to diagnose and fix, especially if you are using it in saltwater or not cleaning your equipment frequently enough.

Making sure the drag is set properly will be the first step. If it is on the lowest setting, that may be the cause of locking issues. Basically, it will make the line unwind quickly, and too easily.

If that doesn’t solve it though, it may be an issue with the actual drag itself. This could mean any of the components, including the knob or spring have been compromised. These inner components are not the easiest things to work with, so it could get intimidating at this point.

You will need to open up the drag and remove that drag knob for inspection. This means everything; the fiber, spring, spring clip, and the washers. If anything is broken, get replacements installed and reassemble and you should be good to go.

The Anti-Reverse

If the anti-reverse system is the cause for your reel not locking in, you may be looking at a more complex solution. The anti-reverse system is a very intricate system involving a lot of gears, small springs, and miniature components that can easily break or be damaged.

The core function of an anti-reverse is preventing the reel from turning backwards while engaging the drag. This means there are a lot of moving parts, so it can lead to not only a lot of issues, but complicated solutions.

So if you have exhausted other options regarding what the issue may be, and you have landed on this being the root cause; you may want to opt for bringing it into a professional. But if you are confident in your skills and being delicate in removing and reassembling pieces – here are a few tips:

  • Take it slow. You will need to take it apart very carefully, piece by piece. 
  • Once you have all the pieces taken out, you will inspect each one for damage. 
  • If you find anything broken or damaged, replace the item and put it back together.

While there are many specifics that could be going wrong, it is such an intricate system, that it can be overwhelming for step by step instructions.

Line Issues

There are a few different things that could be happening to the line itself that can cause performance issues. These tend to be a little easier to diagnose, but still shouldn’t be taken lightly. Minor issues can throw off your entire game.

Line Twist: 

Problem: This is the most common among line issues. One of the top reasons for it happening is simply long-term use. It may be that you just need to replace it, as it is not as strong as it once was. It can also be caused by improper setup because it is uneven or loose.

Solution: Take the old line off your reel and apply a new one carefully (use a professional machine if possible) to ensure a tight and evenly dispersed line.

Braided Line Slippage:

Problem: Braided lines are very durable, so we tend to assume they won’t be an issue. Their strength can be deceiving though, because line slips are common. They don’t stretch, so this can cause tangling or slipping. Strong, but slick; it won’t always adhere the way you’d hope to the spool.

Solution: Apply something to help back the line. Electrical tape works nicely to stop slipping and give it a backdrop. I prefer to back mine with a few feet of monofilament.

Line Size:

Problem: This one can happen to anyone. You accidentally buy the wrong size and just think it will be okay, or maybe you have been getting the wrong size for your reel all along. Many times, it has to do with the weight of the line being too heavy.

Solution: Always refer to the manufacturer’s recommendation for your reel.

Preventing Problems with Proper Setup

While some issues may be unpreventable and could just be a random kink or problem in the reel, many are preventable with proper technique and understanding how to setup your reel. If you follow instructions as you first learn, it will implement good behaviors so that best practices are followed throughout your life.

It may take a while when you are first getting the hang of it, whether you are a beginner or a more experienced angler who has maybe been doing this process differently or has had someone else set up the reel for them.

Gather Your Equipment

It will make for a faster and more efficient process if you have everything laid out right in front of you.

You will need:

  • Spinning Reel

Bass Pro Shops has a great tutorial on selecting the best reel to fit your needs.

  • Spinning Rod

Your rod choice will come in combination with the reel, as you want one that will be a good match for the reel you go with.

  • Fishing Line

This will depend on the type of fish you are fishing and the conditions. For more on your line selection, Outdoor Life has some great info.

  • Bait and Hook

More is better. Bring a few different types of bait, as fish tend to prefer different baits depending on the day. Do your research based on the types of bait you will want, based on the fish you are seeking.

  • Scissors or nippers

Don’t get so hung up on the main equipment that you forget something this basic, but also crucial!

Familiarize Yourself with Your Equipment

It sounds like an obvious one, but a lot of people will jump right in without that understand and it can cause trouble down the line (pun intended). The more you understand about the inner workings of your equipment, the easier everything will be.  Then you can spend more time enjoying yourself out on the water, rather than fumbling your way through setup.

Connect and Spool the Reel

You will need to open up the reel sit large enough to get the foot in there, and then tighten it, after you insert. If the reel can wobble in there, it is not tight enough. You may need to take it fully out and repeat. 

Follow these basic steps:

  1. Open the bail
  2. Place the fishing line around the reel, but only once (resulting in two pieces of the line)
  3. Tie a standard or overhand knot between those two pieces
  4. Tie another knot with that new piece of line
  5. Cut that loose line about ¼” away from the end of the reel
  6. Close the bail
  7. Firmly grasp the line approximately a foot away from the feel
  8. Turn the reel until you see the preferred amount of line wrapped on the reel

String the Rod

This is a step that is often rushed through but will have frustrating consequences if not done correctly. You will need to grasp the end of the line with one hand, while opening the bail arm with the other. Then, put the line through each one of the guides. 

Tie the Knot and Set the Drag Knob

There are plenty of options and different ways to tie an efficient knot, but you want to make sure you are choosing the best one for your specific outing and fishing needs. As you choose a knot, keep in mind the size of the fish you will be fishing. The larger the fish, the stronger and sometimes more complex you will want your knot.

While you can change the drag knob while you are fishing, you will still want it set before you begin. You’ll turn the knob (clockwise = tighten / counterclockwise = loosen) and pull the line from your reel. This will show you how the reel was affected by the knob. Repeat those steps until you have it right. 

Cast the Bait and Enjoy! 

Following these steps and doing your research on everything will undoubtedly save you time and headaches in the future. 

Ensuring a Fun Day on the Water

The fishing rod and reel are intricate pieces of equipment with endless gears, inner components and fixtures that many don’t even realize. While it may seem overwhelming when you try to diagnose the issue, if you follow guidelines and use processes of elimination it can be easier and less stressful. 

Do your research, learn proper techniques for setup, and save yourself some time so you can spend it out on the water on a nice day with your line cast!

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