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Beating the Backlash Blues

When line tension is optimized for lure weight, all you need is an educated thumb to keep you out of the bird's nest.

By Russell A. Graves

It's been called backlash, bird's nest, professional overrun and words too lurid to print. Despite the varied nomenclature, the result is always the same: a rank and tangled mess of monofilament, or worse, braided super line that clogs up your baitcasting reel and slows your fishing. If you're lucky, you'll be able to strip out the line and be back to fishing in a couple of minutes. If you lose the backlash lotto and get a bad case of the dreaded angling malady, your day may be over if you have to cut all of the line from your reel just to release it from the grip of the tangles. Take heed, though. Help is here for those who occasionally see the twisted tyrant rear its ugly head.

"Backlash is created when the speed of your spool is greater than the speed at which line is being pulled from the reel by the lure," explains Bill Liston of the Daiwa Corporation — the company that pioneered magnetic anti-backlash systems back in 1982. "Backlash is influenced by both gravity and wind which tends to slow your lure. Putting a slight amount of tension on the reel's spool helps keep the spool from turning too freely and spinning at too high a speed as the lure slows." Liston says that employing a reel that uses a magnetic anti-backlash system will cut down on the occurrence of backlash but won't necessarily eliminate it completely. In addition to the magnetic controls, he advises using a simple reel adjustment to help ease the occurrence of bird's nests.

"Virtually all reels have a spool tension adjustment on the side under the reel handle. Adjusting the tension is simple and will save you many hours of picking out backlash," Liston confides. With the line through the rod guides, tie on the lure you'll be using and hold the rod at shoulder height and parallel to the ground. Press the clutch button and let the weight of the lure pull line as it free-spools to the ground. If the lure hits the ground and the spool is still turning, the tension is too loose. Add tension to the spool by turning the tension knob clockwise. If the lure doesn't move or it stops before hitting the ground, the spool tension is too tight. Loosen it by turning the knob counterclockwise. Yes, the old saying, "righty tighty, lefty loosey" works with reels as well.

Ideally, when you press the clutch button, the lure should sink to the ground and as soon as it hits, the spool stops spinning. Of course the weight of the lure has a lot to do with proper tensioning of the spool. Therefore, each time you change lures, you should re-tension the reel accordingly. Mike Bonadonna, sales representative for the reel manufacturer Shimano, advises you to use the correct rod based on lure weight.

"A heavy lure, like a 1/2-ounce spinnerbait on a light to medium weight rod casts easier than a light lure on a heavy rod. When picking out a rod, think about what lure you have and your equipment. Use light action rods with light lures and medium to heavy action rods with heavier lures," emphasizes Bonadonna. He says that beginners should start their baitcasting experience by using a magnetic, backlash controlling reel.

"Magnetic reels affect the acceleration of the spool. Using a magnetic reel can actually help educate your thumb so you can get the feel for slowing the spool's speed manually," says Bonadonna. He explains that its best to set the magnetic backlash control at zero, adjust the tension of the spool and then dial just enough backlash control to help manage the spool's speed. Ideally, your thumb should control most of the spool's speed.

Bill Liston says controlling backlash is actually simple if you understand backlash basics. "The whole idea here is to stop your lure before something else like the water or a tree does. You want to slow the lure's flight by gently thumbing the spool as the lure nears your target, slowing its forward movement until it gently lands at the target. The key factor is that the spool stops at the same time or before the lure does."

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