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Updated Jun 21, 2023 11:49 AM
Like with nearly every species of fish, there are specific rod and reel combos designed for the catfish fishing fanatic, with many pre-matched, pre-rigged options for the perfect pairing. A quick Google search will reveal that catfish, along with their bullhead cousins, rank fourth in popularity when it comes to fishing in the United States. They make for fine table fare, especially when freshly filleted and are a blast to catch, with a twisting and bulldogging battle from the moment they’re hooked to the moment they’re safely scooped into a net or slid onto the shoreline. Use this guide to find the best catfish rod and reel combos to up your chances of landing more of these barbal-lipped fish.
How We Picked the Best Catfish Rod and Reel Combos
As an outdoor writer, I’ve fished from the Arctic Circle to Central Mexico and all points in between—and catfish are a common catch just about everywhere I’ve made a cast. While they were often a bycatch, there have been plenty of times where catfish were my primary target. When the latter was fact, it took the proper gear to do it right.
Best Catfish Rod and Reel Combos: Reviews & Recommendations
Best Overall: Ugly Stik Catch Ugly Fish Catfish Spinning Combo
- Length: 7’
- Construction: Graphite and fiberglass
- Power: Medium heavy
- Guides: One-piece stainless
- Size: 50
- Retrieve: 5.1:1
- Handle: Left or right
- Prefilled with quality line
- Excellent value for the price
- Harder to transport
- Shorter casting range
Pre-spooled with 14-lb Stren monofilament, and including a tackle tote with terminal tackle and Blood Red Berkley PowerBait Catfish Chunks, the Ugly Stik Catch Ugly Fish Catfish Spinning Combo is ready to be fished the moment you leave the tackle shop. The rod’s fiberglass tip has a slower action, and fish can take a bait without knowing they’re about to be duped. The shorter rod is tough, has plenty of gumption to set the hook hard, and can fit across the seats of most compact cars. This rod brand has proven itself hard-wearing since it first started decades ago.
Best Heavy Duty: Penn Squall Lever Drag Combo
- Length(s): 6’, 6 ½’, 7’
- Action(s): Medium, medium-heavy, heavy
- Line rating: 15-30 lb., 20-40 lb., 30-50 lb., 30-80 lb.
- Ball bearings: 6
- Retrieve: Right hand
- Lever drag
- Smooth drag
- Large line capacity
- Multiple sizes and lengths
- No level-wind/pawl on reel
Marketed as a rod and reel combo for saltwater (where many different species of catfish reside), the Penn Squall Lever Drag Combo’s reel is sealed to keep the ever-corrosive saltwater out, which in turn will keep out the grit and grime if dropped in muddy or silty freshwater. The tubular fiberglass blank is more forgiving than graphite, and when coupled with this smooth-casting reel, long bait launches can be had for such a short stick.
Best Baitcasting: Quantum Bill Dance Catfish Baitcast Rod and Reel Combo
- Length(s): 7’, 9’, 10’
- Power: Medium-heavy and heavy
- Action: Moderate
- Retrieve: Right hand
- Line recovery: 23” per turn
- Line capacity: 20/360
- Well-balanced rig
- Three rod lengths to choose from
- Large line capacity
The reel of the Quantum Bill Dance Catfish Baitcast Rod and Reel Combo is solid, with a smooth retrieve and drag. The level-wind feature allows line to be loaded evenly onto the spool to help avoid backlashes. There are plenty of guides on the baitcasting rod for an even arch of the blank when bowed. This retail price is in the middle of the catfish-combo price range, making it affordable for the avid angler.
Best Spincast: Zebco Bill Dance Catfish Spincast Rod and Reel Combo
- Length: 7’
- Pieces: 2
- Power: Medium heavy
- Size: 8
- Retrieve: Left or right hand
- Gear ratio: 2.6:1
- Ball bearings: 3 + 1
- Extremely packable
- Smooth retrieve
- Rugged reel
- Shorter rear handle
- Heavier in weight
Very few manufacturers offer a spincast reel specifically for catfish fishing. The Zebco 888 spincast reel on this catfish combo comes with a heavy-duty stainless steel cover, as well all-metal gears and metal reel foot, and the rod has a stainless steel hooded reel seat to boot. Because of these stainless parts, this combo would also make it a good choice for saltwater catfishing excursions. The rod breaks down into two 3-1/2-foot sections, making transporting the combo a breeze; it’s even packable on the back of a motorcycle or strapped to the side of a backpack.
Best Spinning: Bass Pro Shops King Kat Rod and Reel Spinning Combo
- Blank: Tubular fiberglass blank
- Power: Heavy
- Guides: Double-footed aluminum oxide
- Handle: EVA foam
- Bearings: 3
- Drag: 6-washer front drag
- Handle: Left/right hand
- Retrieve rate: 4.1:1
- Breaks down into two pieces
- Long rear handle sturdy in rod holder
- Bright blank easily seen in the dark
- Tip heavy
- Overkill for smaller catfish
- Slower retrieve rate
The Bass Pro Shops King Kat Rod and Reel Spinning Combo is offered in two different sizes/weights: a 7-foot 2-piece medium-heavy-power rod with size-60 reel rated for 14- to 20-pound test, or a 2-piece heavy-power 10-footer coupled with a size-80 reel rated for 20- to 40-pound test). The first is a great choice when lighter line is needed, while the second is better for battling behemoth catfish from heavy cover. Both size reels are pre-spooled with CatMaxx hi-vis green mono. The bright-colored main line united with the white rod blank makes this the perfect combo to use in low-light or after-dark catfish-fishing expeditions.
What to Consider When Choosing a Catfish Rod and Reel Combo
Below are some of the factors I used to make my selections for the best catfish rod and reel combos.
It’s not just about how long a company has been in business but whether or not they’re innovators in rod and reel technology. Has their most popular catfish-fishing combo been updated with the latest in fishing advances? Are their rods lighter and more sensitive than before? Have their reels improved from the past and are still able to withstand the heave and torque of a colossus catfish?
Do you always get what you pay for? When it comes to most any rod and reel on the marketplace, you do; the more you have to shuck out at checkout time, the higher quality the rig. Some catfish combos, however, are surprisingly inexpensive for the quality of product you receive for a little dough.
Nobody wants a disposable rod and reel. Catfish fishing rods need to have the umph to pull these whiskered fish from an entanglement of trees, as well as take the accidental whack against an overhead limb, or the possible scrape when leaned up against a rock or boat’s gunwale. Reels need to be able to take the tug of a freshly hooked catfish, and have a smooth drag in case a huge one decides it wants to turn tail and head the other way.
Generally, one-piece rods are more sensitive and durable than those with two or more sections. However, the problem with longer one-piecers is getting them to and from the water. Consider your vehicle, whether it’s a compact car or a long-bed truck.
Where you fish for catfish will impact your rod and reel combo choice. In some bodies of water—especially those in the south—water clarity can only be measured in mere inches, while in other regions, such as waterways in the Great Lakes region, super clear water is more the norm. Lighter line is needed in the latter to fool fish, but in muddy water you can get away with heavier, thicker-diameter line—and your rod and reel should match.
You need to consider the average size of the catfish, too. In some places, a 10-pound channel or flathead catfish is considered big, while a 50-pound blue is a trophy in others.
There are two basic locations to fish catfish from: the shore or the gunwales of a boat. The distance you’ll be casting from either should be thought out well beforehand. Overall, longer rods are better for distance, while shorter rods bode well for accuracy.
Q: What rod action is best for catfish fishing?
This depends on the region where you’re fishing, as well the size of the average catfish in the lake, river, or reservoir. Large warm waterways that harbor massive fish might require a heavy-power rod that can manhandle fish up to 100 pounds. In areas where flathead and channel catfish roam, on the other hand, a medium-heavy-power rod will be enough, and if the smaller bullhead is your target, a medium-power pole will do the trick.
Q: How much does a catfish rod and reel combo cost?
In most cases, you get what you pay for. Shucking out a few more Benjamin’s from your bank account will get you a combo that will last you many years, if not a lifetime.
With that said, however, there are a lot of catfish rod and reel combos in the $50 to $80 range that can endure a lot and keep you reeling in big fish for a long time. Most avid catfish anglers expect to spend in the $100 to $150 range. The real diehards who fish for these whiskered fish almost daily have no quorums handing over $200 or more to pander their passion.
Q: What size reel do you need for catfish?
Consider the region, fish size, line diameter, and possibility of crossing the rig over to saltwater applications. If, say, you’re fishing the clear waters of the northern United States with 10- to 17-pound test, a size 35- to 40- spinning reel will hold enough line for long-distance casting. Once 20-pound test or heavier is required to haul big fish from structure, you’ll need both size 50 and 80 reels to hold enough line and allow the thicker diameter line to flow freer during the cast. The latter two sizes also bode well for the occasional cast into the salty seas.
Q: What type of line is best for a catfish fishing rod and reel?
The best fishing line for catfish depends on what you’re looking for. Braided line has nearly zero stretch to it, and is good for pulling big fish from heavy cover with a heavy-power rod. It also works wonders in thick weeds as it slices through vegetation better than other types of line. Fluorocarbon line, on the other hand, has a little stretch to it, and is very dense with very little air bubbles in it. Its near-neutral buoyancy makes it better for keeping smaller baits near the bottom and it’s harder to see in clear water. Monofilament has great shock-absorbing properties because of its stretch, and helps keep line from snapping during a sudden surge during the fight on a heavy-power rod.
Best Catfish Rod and Reel Combos: Final Thoughts
I find it fascinating that catfish, no matter the subspecies, are considered a rough fish by so many anglers, rather than a sport fish. Perhaps it’s that barbule-fill face—in which the whiskered look of a cat has given them their name—as well spiny, bacteria-filled fins that steer some anglers clear from making a cast for them. Maybe it’s because they spend a majority of their time roaming the bottom, feasting on fresh matter from the lake’s floor.
But catfish are opportunistic feeders, as well; not just using that flattened head of theirs for roiling up the bottom of a lake or river and feasting on the spoils. They will suspend high in the water column, gobbling up passing baitfish and insects in the upper reaches of the water column. Walleye and salmon anglers have proven this time and time again, catching catfish while trolling with both live and artificial baits high in a waterway. As you can see, there are several factors when it comes to finding the best catfish rod and reel combos for you.
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