The 8 Best Catfish Reels: Expert Recommendations and Buyer Guide

Last Updated on April 20, 2021 by Coty Perry

Best Overall

Penn Squall LevelWind

4.6/5

Best Catfish Spinning Reel

Penn Spinfisher VI

4.8/5

Best Catfish Baitcaster Reel

Abu Garcia Ambassadeur

4.7/5

The best catfish reels will have three main components. They’ll have a high line capacity, optimal max drag, and a rigid and durable body to withstand the pressure. Penn is our favorite brand for catfish reels and you’ll find a few of their reels in our expert review. 

Whether it’s the muck and mud of a farm pond in PA or a trophy channel cat in Okeechobee, I’ve seen my fair share of catfish. Here’s my picks for the eight best catfishing reels. 

The 8 Best Catfish Reels: Our Picks

Penn Squall LevelWind

BEST OVERALL

SPECIFICATIONS
BENEFITS
DRAWBACKS

Penn Spinfisher VI

Best Catfish Spinning Reel

SPECIFICATIONS
BENEFITS
DRAWBACKS

Abu Garcia Ambassadeur

Best Catfish Baitcaster Reel

SPECIFICATIONS
BENEFITS
DRAWBACKS

KastKing Rover

SPECIFICATIONS
BENEFITS
DRAWBACKS

Abu Garcia C3 Species Catfish Special

SPECIFICATIONS
BENEFITS
DRAWBACKS

Lew’s Speed Casting Reel

SPECIFICATIONS
BENEFITS
DRAWBACKS

Shimano Sedona 6000FL

SPECIFICATIONS
BENEFITS
DRAWBACKS

Pflueger Patriarch

SPECIFICATIONS
BENEFITS
DRAWBACKS

Types of Reels for Catfish

using the best catfish reels to catch a monster catfish

While there are a bunch of different types of fishing reels, for catfish, we’re focusing on the main two. I don’t recommend spincast reels for catching catfish. The best quality reels will be either spinning or baitcasting. 

Spinning 

You can identify a spinning reel by it’s open spool and bail. This is the type of reel that most anglers start with and they’re generally intended for freshwater fishing only. What we’ve discovered over time is that manufacturers are really stepping up their game when it comes to saltwater corrosion prevention. 

If you’re planning on using your spinning reel for catfish, you’ll want to keep size in your mind. Going for an ultralight spinning reel might work well for bass and panfish but it won’t do the trick for anything more than a small catfish. 

Picking up a heavier spinning reel like some of the options recommended above will mean you’ve got a harder body so less flexing, a stronger handle, and corrosion-prevention features to help you in the salt. 

The one problem that many encounter with using a spinning reel for catfish is that they’re limited in options when it comes to catfish rods. There are few options to begin with when it comes to catfish rods but using a spinning reel limits you even more. Most catfish fishing rods are designed with a top placement baitcasting reel in mind. 

For some of you, this could be the perfect excuse to get your first baitcasting reel. I know that many of us fear switching over to a baitcaster because we’re worried that we’re going to get nested up a bunch and make a mess of everything but that’s not always the case. 

Baitcasting 

Baitcasting reels are the preferred choice for catfish anglers for a few different reasons. First, they work better with most catfishing techniques. If you choose wisely you can also use them to land smaller fish while taking on trophy fish opportunities as well. 

Catfishing baitcasters usually have a larger fishing line capacity as well which means they can hold more line. This will be important to some and unnecessary to others. If you’re fishing offshore or near canals, you’re going after larger fish and catfish which will require heavier line. If you’re hoping to use a 30lb test there’s no way any of these smaller spinning reels will do the trick. You’ll need a heavy-duty baitcaster like the ones recommended above. 

Lower gear ratios are the right choice for catfishing. You need to be patient with the fish as they’re going to take you for a ride. Cranking away right off the bat is going to not only grind up your bearings but it could snap your line as well. A lower gear ratio gives the fish some breathing room while allows you to calmly crank them in without putting too much pressure on your gear.

Choosing the Best Catfish Reels

great catfish in the dark

Now let’s talk about some of the specific features you’ll want to keep your eye out for when shopping around. Finding the best reel for catfish isn’t that hard but you need to understand this specific species of fish and why these features are important. 

Gear Ratio

The gear ratio of your reel refers to the number of times the spool turns for each crank of the handle. So, if you have a reel with a gear ratio of 5:1, it means that the spool rotates five times per each crank of the handle. The initial idea is that higher is better but that’s not true. 

Higher gear ratios are ideal for smaller fish that don’t put up that much of a fight. For these fish, a 7:1 gear ratio is great because you can crank fish in and out all day long without getting too tired. When you’re battling larger fish like catfish, you need a slower gear ratio because fast revolutions of the spool won’t happen when you have a large amount of reverse tension from the fish. 

That said, a catfish reel will generally have a faster gear ratio than a dedicated offshore trolling reel. Those might have gear ratios of about 4:1 whereas a catfish reel will stay in the 6:1 range. If you purchase a catfish reel specifically, you won’t have to worry too much about the gear ratio because it will have the ideal ratio anyway. 

Line Alarms 

One feature you’ll find in a lot of catfishing reels is line alarms or bait clickers. These allow for a free spool and they’ll click when something starts swimming away with your lure. 

To operate them you’ll cast out, tighten the slack, and turn the alarm on. When you do this you’ll press the spool release and now the line will move freely. When something comes and grabs your lure, the line alarm will alert you of that. This is especially popular with catfishing techniques like slip sinker rigs. It allows you to fish the water column and create an ideal presentation without having to manually do anything. 

Line Capacity 

Line capacity is self explanatory and not something I should have to go too far into. When it comes to fishing catfish, you’re likely using a larger line than you would for most freshwater fishing. The large braided line takes up more space on the spool, as a result, you need a higher line capacity if you expect to get enough line on there to handle larger fish. 

If you’re fishing with a low-profile reel like some of the smaller spinning reels you may only be able to get 100-120 feet of line which isn’t enough in most cases. Larger trolling and casting reels will accommodate as much as 350-400 feet of line. This gives you the room you need to let the fish do it’s work. 

Braking System 

The thing that scares the crap out of amateur anglers is nesting (rats nests). This is when you cast a baitcaster and the spool continues to move even though the line isn’t going anywhere. This can happen in the wind but it can also happen for no reason at all. It’s the thing that makes most people stick with their spinning rod setup and never move away from it. 

Many high-quality baitcasters come with elaborate braking systems to help prevent these issues. When the reel starts to sense that the line is slowing down, it automatically slows down the spool as well to prevent the line from flying off the spool too quickly. This is a feature you definitely want to look for in your catfishing baitcasting reels. 

Drag System 

Catfish are ferocious fighters and they have a lot of stamina so having a solid drag system is very important. The drag is what allows the fish to pull away from you while still remaining on the line. If your drag is too tight, they’ll snap the line or burn up your reel. If the drag is too loose, you’ll end up spending all day bringing the fish in; if at all. 

What’s most important though is that you understand how to use the drag settings on your reel. Having an optimal drag is crucial but if you don’t know how to properly set it, it doesn’t matter how good the drag is. Carbon fiber drag washers are the ideal choice.

FAQs

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions revolving around the best catfish reels.

You’ll notice that most of the reels in this review are different from your low-profile baitcasters and that's because these are round casting reels. Many of them have something called a level wind which means that the line guide slides back and forth across the spool to ensure that the line sits evenly so it can flow evenly off the spool as well. This is a preferred type of fishing reel for catfish because it makes it easier to cast heavier braided line for inshore and offshore fishing.

There are two different kinds of handles on baitcasting reels. Power handles and standard handles. Standard handles are traditionally what you would find on a baitcaster. They come with two smaller knobs which allows you to crank on either side of the handle. Power handles typically come with one knob but it’s much larger than the traditional size and it offers much more control. 

The type of knob you choose is entirely up to you. Generally as you size up your reels you’re going to find these larger knobs are more common anyway.

Baitcasters are generally considered the ideal choice for catfishing. This is because they possess the necessary line capacity and drag needed to handle large fish.

The most common reel out there is a 6.4:1 gear ratio. When it comes to catfishing I would skew towards a slower gear ratio but I wouldn’t recommend going with anything lower than a 5:1. Again, this is something that could vary tremendously from person to person and reel to reel. Everyone has their own preferences so take your personal experience and research and make of it what you will.

The general recommendation is to set the drag to ⅔ of what the breaking point is. So, if you have a 20lb braided, you’ll want to set it around 17lbs. Once again, this is personal preference and only a recommendation. It’ll also vary based on the type of reel. You might set the drag a little higher on an inshore spinning reel than you would a baitcaster.

Final Thoughts

Catfishing is a unique and fun sub-category of fishing. Choosing the best catfish reels is all about understanding how catfish behave, where they live, and how you catch them. By this point you should have a firm understanding of how to choose the best reels for catfish. Now you just have to learn to cook ‘em!

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