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Updated Mar 15, 2023 2:59 PM
The best catfish reels contribute to the long list of equipment that you must have in order to land a big catfish. The proper bait, hook, knots, line, rod, and reel need to work together to get the job done. Catfish are tough, ornery fish that put up a fight. They can range from small bullheads in farm ponds to monstrous blues and flatheads on big rivers. But unless you have the best catfish reels, there’s a good chance you won’t bring them to hand.
How We Made Our Picks
I’ve fished for catfish for more than 40 years in ponds, creeks, lakes, and on the mighty Mississippi and Tennessee rivers with top guides. Some were sponsored by companies; some were just good ol’ boy catmen. All of them had one thing in common: they didn’t skimp on hooks, bait or good reels. I’ve put all those years of experience and good advice into my making my picks.
Best Catfish Reels: Reviews & Recommendations
Best Overall: Abu Garcia C3 Catfish Special
Why It Made the Cut: Big catfish are brutes with power and stamina. This proven reel stands up to them with the same qualities.
- Carbon Matrix drag system
- Large, smooth handle for power-cranking
- Stainless steel bearings
- A tough reel that can handle big baits and big fish
- Centrifugal braking system
- Two sizes with 4:1:1 and 5:3:1 gear ratios
The first Abu Garcia fishing reel was made in 1941 in Svangsta, Sweden. Since then, millions of reels have been produced for a wide variety of species, including catfish. Abu Garcia reels have caught Mr. Whiskers around the world, from giant Wels catfish in Europe to channels in Canada and blues in Texas.
Abu Garcia reels are known for strength and durability, and the C3 Catfish Special is the catfish focused version of the already tough C3 round reel. The Catfish Special comes with proven components including a 3+1 or 2+1 system with stainless steel ball bearings and a 6-pin centrifugal brake for smoother casting even while lobbing heavy baits. The reel also has a tough drag, with Abu Garcia’s proprietary Carbon Matrix system. The reel has a rigid body and aluminum spool, as well as an oversized handle and knob, which make it easier to gain line on big fish.
Best Rod/Reel Combo: Ugly Stick Catch Ugly Fish Catfish Spinning Combo
Why It Made the Cut: Who doesn’t love a solid fishing rod and reel in one package? Ugly Stik is known for reliability in tough situations including battling angry catfish.
- 7-foot medium-heavy rod
- EVA grips work well wet or dry
- Good all-around rod and reel for almost all situations
- Tough stainless-steel guides
- Graphite and fiberglass blank blends sensitivity and durability
- Oversized handle for fighting big fish
The Ugly Stik Catch Ugly Fish combo is designed specifically for catfish. The rod is a one piece 7-foot medium-heavy GX2, Ugly Stik’s graphite and fiberglass workhorse. The GX2 is a great all-around rod, sporting Ugly Stik’s characteristic unbreakable build along with solid sensitivity. The rod also features the maker’s signature Ugly Tuff stainless-steel guides which hold up well and eliminate pop outs. Looking at the reel, the aluminum spool construction is lightweight but, again, durable. It holds up to 200 yards of 17-pound test line and has a rating up to 20-pound test, though this combo comes pre-spooled with 14-pound test line. The reel, with its proven oil felt drag system, holds up just as well as the rod. You can go after bigger fish with confidence. Along with the rod, reel, and 14-pound test line, the combo comes with sinkers, split shot, beads, hooks, Berkley bait, and other gear. This combo gets you ready to fish immediately but won’t give up if you put it through wringer. A great value combo.
Best Spinning Reel: Team Catfish Gold Ring 5000
Why It Made the Cut: Team Catfish products are designed for one thing: to fight catfish of all sizes. They’ve been proven on the best catfish waters in the country against big blues, flatheads, and channels.
- Designed with durable, lightweight graphite
- Oversized handle great for cranking big fish
- One-way clutch, instant anti-reverse
- Great line capacity, up to 190 yards with 20-pound test
- Casts large baits on heavy rigs with ease
- 26 pound drag capacity
Catfishing with spinning tackle gives you more leverage, especially with big cats, and the Team Catfish name gives a not-so-subtle hint to the focus of its gear. Team Catfish gear is specifically designed by guides and veteran anglers with decades of experience of catfishing in all conditions. The Gold Ring 5000 reel has a litany of features and special designs. They have loaded this reel with a 6+1 bearing system, 4.9:1 gear ratio, 26lb. max drag, instant anti-reverse, and solid line capacity (190 yards of 20-pount test). For special design, you’ve got a high strength graphite construction, double anodized aluminum spool, ambidextrous matte black handle, and a personal favorite, a titanium coated anti-twist line roller. You might think that’s overkill until your line spirals into a mess. With its solid drag system, overall construction, and catfishing know-how, this reel won’t leave you spinning your gears.
Best Casting Reel: KastKing ReKon
Why It Made the Cut: Big catfish don’t stand a chance against this reel, which has quality components and is designed for a challenge. The line clicker system helps when you need to drop baits at precise depths.
- Main gears and worm shafts are crafted from precision-machined brass
- Carbon disc drag system
- Line clicker system for releasing bait, planer boards, drifting or for strike detection
- Works for big catfish whether trolling or dropping, as well as salmon, steelhead, walleye, or other species
- Big spool allows for a high line capacity, up to 250 yards of 20-pound test mono
- Two sizes and two handle options, so you can switch for different sized fish or species
- Line counter numbers might be difficult for some older eyes
Many anglers and guides who troll or drop baits on big rivers use baitcasting reels for a couple of reasons. One is that they’re convenient to store and don’t tangle as easily as spinning rigs. Another is that some clients find it easier to reel a baitcaster than spinning reel. Baitcasting reels are tough and strong, and KingKast specializes in tackle for big fish and open waters. Together, you get the ReKon, a baitcaster perfect for big cats.
The first apparent feature is the line counter, a definite a plus when you need to drop a shad fillet or gob of guts to a cat lair. The precision can help, no doubt, when you’re getting bites in an exact zone, and it’s easy to use that to your advantage. Internally, you get 3 stainless-steel ball bearings, plus the instant anti-revers bearing, as well as KastKing’s carbon disc drag that gives you strong stopping power. You also get decent line capacity in each size. The Size 10 holds up to 250 yards of 20-pound test mono, and the Size 20 holds up to 420 yards. With solid internal components, a ton of line capacity, and the precision of a line counter, this makes a solid catfishing baitcaster.
Best Spincast Reel: Zebco Omega Pro
Why It Made the Cut: This reel is well engineered for years of use for average-sized catfish and other species.
- 7-bearing drive
- Adjustable disc drag system
- Instant anti-reverse clutch
- Works for big catfish
- Forged aluminum cover, metal gears, and internal ceramic line pickup pins
- Decades of proven history is known to anglers
- Handles 10- and 6-pound test line; would like to see something for bigger fish
The Omega Pro has a forged die-cast aluminum body, aircraft aluminium covers, and a handle large enough for big or small hands. It’s adjustable for left- and right-handed anglers. The drag system is upgraded to a triple-cam multi-disc system. And, the internal guts see some upgrades as well: metal gears, worm gears, and pinions are very durable. In the Omega Pro, you also get a quick-change spool system, a spare spool, and a power handle and a speed handle. It’s a happy medium, both a simple spincaster like Zebco is known for and a step up from those utilitarian models. It’s easy enough to learn on, but nice enough to keep around. This reel is nearly indestructible, will last a lifetime, and catch catfish for years, along with bluegills, perch, and bass.
Things to Consider when Buying a Catfish Reel
I’ve fished for catfish for more than 40 years, and have come to learn that they are very unpredictable. One pond I frequent has channel and bullhead cats. I’ve caught a few while fishing for bluegills with spinning gear. When I returned with my catfish gear, they ignored me. I packed up and went home with nothing to show other than dirty hands and disappointment.
That’s the thing I love about catfish, though. They’re wary, finicky and put up a big fight. Bigger fish may try to dive into or around cover, which is why the proper line and reel is important; you want enough power to get the fish coming to you. My old rods are telescoping, Berkley E-Cat’s, made years ago, with “E-Glass.” They have enough length and strength to battle average- to medium-sized cats. They’re paired with Abu Garcia baitcasters, and I’ve never had an issue with them. Using the proper gear while battling cats is crucial. Here are several reasons why.
You should know the general size of the catfish you plan to target to determine which reel is best. You can catch a mess of eating-size squealers with a big spinning reel, but why use a hammer to smack a mosquito? Unless you’re incredibly skilled, lucky, or both, chances are slim that you’ll land a giant blue or flathead with an undersized and underpowered reel. Know the size of the fish you’re targeting and pair it with the right size reel.
Who’s Using It?
Make sure the person using the reel knows how to properly operate it. A child most likely can’t adequately use a large baitcasting reel or cast a big spinning reel. A spincast reel might be best for young and inexperienced anglers. Remember to ask yourself a few simple questions; Is the angler a child or novice? A veteran? Will you be fishing in a pond or on a big river or lake? These questions will help you determine the right reel so the angler can get the most out of it.
Bait and Setup
Launching a wad of nightcrawlers threaded on a hook is fairly simple. Doing it with a gob of livers or shad guts is another story. Consider what you will be fishing with and make sure your reel can handle how heavy, or light the bait is. Your tackle is also going to impact the reels performance. Will you be using heavy sinkers or split-shot? A 3-way rig with swivels? These factors will also affect how far and smooth you can cast. You want a reel that can handle the heft often required with catfish bait and tackle.
Q: What reel is best for catfish?
There is no best reel to use for catfish. Spinning, baitcast, and even spincast reels all work well, given they are used in the right situation. A spincast reel on an inexpensive rod won’t hold up against giant blue cats on a big river or lake. But using a heavy-action rod and large reel is overkill for ponds. The best reel for catfishing is the one that is best for the situation.
Q: How much do catfish reels cost?
Quality reels that will hold up against average- to large-size catfish can cost between $60 and $175. Catfish are strong, and big ones can strip gears in a cheap reel without a problem. I would encourage to buy something that can handle a good size fish. But if you need something in a pinch for a quick outing, some big-box stores sell reels for about $35 to $40.
Q: What kind of reel do you use for catfish?
The best reel for catfishing often is a personal preference and based on what you used as a kid. I grew up with Zebco 33 spincasting reels, and then spinning reels. In the last 20 years I’ve used baitcasting and spinning tackle for trolling and casting. Again, choosing the best reel depends on the situation
Final Thoughts on the Best Catfish Reels
According to the 2016 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service national survey, more than 8.1 million people said they fished for catfish. That number was up from the 2011 survey. Catfish are America’s fish, found throughout the country in waterways large and small. They’re fun to catch, a special kind of ugly-beautiful, and they create memories for a lifetime. Using the best catfish reels is crucial for getting them to the bank or boat, and hearing that croaking denial that makes you laugh.