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Best Catfish Reels Reviewed For 2020

Fishing for catfish requires unusually tough tackle, because while you can plan on hooking a 3-pound channel cat, you might end up with a 20-pound flathead!

That doesn’t mean that every rod and reel needs to be ready for a trophy blue, but rather than any given day on the water might just put your tackle to the test.

If you’re looking for a new reel for catfish, we’ve got you covered.

Below, you’ll find a complete buying guide, plus reviews of some of the best catfish reels.

Spinning Reels For Catfish

Baitcasting Reels For Catfish

Conventional Reels For Catfish

Best Catfish Reels Reviewed

Spinning Reels For Catfish

Penn Battle II – Best Spinning Reel for Catfish

Penn 1338220 Battle II 5000 Spinning Fishing Reel

Amazon 

BTLII2500
BTLII3000
BTLII4000
BTLII5000
BTLII6000
BTLII8000
Drag: 12 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (33” per turn)
Line capacity: 255/6, 175/8, 140/10
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 10.3 oz.
Drag: 15 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (35” per turn)
Line capacity: 200/8, 165/10, 120/12
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 12.3 oz.
Drag: 15 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (37” per turn)
Line capacity: 270/8, 220/10, 165/12
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 12.8 oz.
Drag: 25 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 5.6.:1 (36” per turn)
Line capacity: 225/12, 200/15, 135/20
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 19.8 oz.
Drag: 25 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 5.6:1 (41” per turn)
Line capacity: 335/15, 230/20, 210/25
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearingWeight: 22.10 oz.
Drag: 30 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 5.3:1 (44” per turn)
Line capacity: 340/20, 310/25, 230/30
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 30.2 oz.
Summary

Penn has built its reputation in the salt, and if you’re a dedicated freshwater fisherman, you may not be familiar with this company and its products. The Battle II series is a time-tested choice for inshore and surf anglers, and if these reels can tackle stripers and reds, you can count on them for cats as well.

We don’t recommend going smaller than 2500 just in case a hefty blue or flathead decides to take your line.

In the moderate to large sizes, there’s a lot to like about these reels. The drag is, as you’d expect, actuated by the usual knob on the end of the spool. The heart of this system is carbon fiber, and it holds and releases really well.

The spools of each model hold quite a bit of line, and of course, as you turn to the larger models, they’re designed for true heavyweights. Yes, casting will suffer with heavy monofilament (or anything of that diameter), but for some anglers, that’s a trade they’re willing to make for the ease-of-use a spinning reel offers.

And of course, you can spool-on some strong braid and push these reels to their limit on larger cats. With the right rod, there are very few that the 6- and 8000 couldn’t handle, as plenty of strippers that ended up in the cooler can attest.

Cranking is smooth with all these reels, and though the gear-ratio varies, expect each larger size to pick up more line than the next smallest.

Equipped with an instant anti-reverse bearing, the Battle II line-up locks up fast, encouraging strong hooksets.

If you’ve never really liked baitcasting reels for cats, the Battle II might just be perfect for you.

Pros:
  • Very tough
  • Excellent drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Silky-smooth operation
  • Awesome anti-reverse
  • Big-cat capable
Cons:
  • Expect casting to suffer with lines over 10-pound (mono) diameter (but that’s not Penn’s fault: blame physics!)

Cadence CS8

Cadence CS8 Spinning Reel, Ultralight Fast Speed Premium Magnesium Frame Fishing Reel with 10 Low Torque Bearings Super Smooth Powerful Fishing Reel with 36 LBs Max Drag & 6.2:1 Spinning Reel

Amazon 

CS8-2000
CS8-3000
CS8-4000
Drag: 16 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (32” per turn)
Line capacity: 6/160 
Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 7.3 oz.
Drag: 19 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (35” per turn)
Line capacity: 10/150 
Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 7.4 oz.
Drag: 20 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 6.2:1 (38” per turn)
Line capacity: 10/220 
Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 8.5 oz.
Summary

Cadence is a relative newcomer to the angling market, but their reels are quickly proving that they’re here to stay. The CS8 provides an awesome line-up for catfish anglers, with the larger sizes being ideal for average channel cats and small blues and flatheads.

The CS8 series is available in four sizes, but I wouldn’t choose the 1000 for catfish for obvious reasons. The 2000 can handle channel cats with ease, and with a good rodthe right line, and plenty of skill, you could push the 3- and 4000 to work for kitties as heavy as 50 pounds. Obviously, that will require that you run stout braid and a mono shock leader, but it’s an option to consider, made possible by an excellent drag system.

The drag on the CS8-series is excellent, and it uses a series of carbon fiber discs to create line tension. Actuated by a knob on the end of the spool, its maximum setting scales-up as you go larger. In all cases, it’s silky smooth, providing reassuring control with zero slippage.

The crank is no less impressive, and the bail opens and closes flawlessly. And for left-handed anglers, be aware that the crank position is reversible.

There’s no questioning the quality of these reels, and they’re a worthy challenger to the dominance of Penn’s Battle II.

Pros:
  • Fantastic value for the price
  • Excellent drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Superb casting
  • Silky-smooth operation
  • Big-cat capable
Cons:
  • Expect casting to suffer with lines over 10-pound (mono) diameter (but that’s not Cadence’s fault: blame physics!)

Baitcasting Reels For Catfish

KastKing Kapstan Elite – Best Baitcasting Reel for Catfish

KastKing Kapstan Elite Baitcasting Fishing Reel,Size 300,Right Handed Reel

Amazon 

Specifications
Pros
Cons
Drag: 35 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 5.4:1 (25.31” per turn)
Line capacity: 14/230
Bearings: 8 + 1 
Weight: 10.9 oz.
  • Awesome, heavy drag
  • Solid brass main gear
  • Excellent capacity
  • Very smooth
  • Superb braking system
  • Big cat capable
  • Heavy for size due to the large spool
Summary

KastKing’s Kapstan Elite is a no-holds-barred baitcaster designed to take on reels like the Curado K. Priced very much the same, this is a true head-to-head battle for the top spot in the world of catfish angling.

How does the Kapstan Elite stack-up for cats?

KastKing equips this reel with an excellent carbon fiber drag system with a powerful max and the kind of controlled release you want at lower settings. For catfish, a 35-pound maximum lets you run serious braid, and as long as you know how to tie-on a shock leader, it has you well-equipped for the big boys.

In my opinion, this allows it to edge-out the Curado as it can tackle a wider range of species and sizes, a fact reinforced by its big spool.

Indeed, the Kapstan Elite’s spool is enormous, dwarfing the Curado’s capacity by about 200%! That’s not something to sneer at, for sure, since you’ll want a fair amount of line if you’re chasing big fish.

But that comes at a hefty price tag in terms of weight, and if you’re looking for a reel that simply disappears on your rod and in your hand, the Curado K has the Kapstan Elite beat.

The Kapstan Elite runs a solid-brass main gear allowing its teeth to catch and hold under very heavy loads. That’s another feature that wins me over, and as much as I love the Curado for bass, this reel has it beat for cats.

Finally, the braking system on the KastKing Kapstan Elite uses brake shoes like the Shimano. Its performance is excellent, and for beginners and pros alike, casting is great.

Conventional Reels For Catfish

Penn Squall LevelWindBest Conventional Reel for Trophy Catfish

Penn SQL20LWLC Squall LevelWind

Amazon 

Specifications
Pros
Cons
Drag: 20 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: (30) 4.9:1; (50) 4.0:1
Line capacity: 30 — 25/455, 30/370, 40/285, 50 — 40/435, 50/320, 60/285
Bearings: 2 + 1
Weight: 30 — 20.9 oz., 50 — 24.6 oz.
  • Built for big fish
  • Light body that’s plenty stiff
  • Smooth cranking
  • Great drag
  • Excellent capacity
  • Equipped with a level wind
  • Massively over-built for anything but trophies
Summary

Penn’s Squall LevelWind series is an excellent conventional reel for trophy catfish anglers. Built to handle the stress of monster fish, this is a reel you can depend on when you have the blue of a lifetime on your line.

Penn’s Squall is legendary offshore, and it deserves every accolade it’s won. Strong, stiff, and with muscle to spare, it’s a beast of a reel designed for massive fights.

The drag system on the Squall is controlled via the typical star-shaped knob behind the crank. 20 pounds may not sound like a lot, but 60- to 80-pound mono grips a hook like iron!

This is a big reel, but the Squall’s body is graphite. Not as stiff as aluminum, it will still stand up to years of abuse. And what it lacks in pure rigidity it makes up for in weight-savings, allowing a level wind reel to come in a relatively svelte on the scale.

In the real world, the Squall has been proving that graphite works as body material for conventional reels, and if weight matters to you, you’ll be glad to have it.

Ounce for ounce, you get a ton of line from that graphite body and aluminum spool.

Its solid brass gears are plenty smooth, and they provide reassuring torque with each crank. Its teeth can take everything a monster can dish out, as has been proven time and time again on the water. And the Squall LevelWind sports an instant anti-reverse bearing that works well and holds strong.

The Squall LevelWind, as its name suggests, comes equipped with one, helping to distribute line across the spool. Especially for anglers who prefer to run mono, this is a big help, and you’ll really notice the difference with each cast.

Overall, the Squall LevelWind is an excellent reel that’s an ideal choice for anglers who fish in search of record-setting cats.

Abu Garcia Ambassadeur C3 – Best Conventional Reel for Catfish

Abu Garcia C3-6500 Ambassadeur Baitcast Fishing Reel

Amazon 

Specifications
Pros
Cons
Drag: 15 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 5.3: 1 (26” per turn)
Line capacity: 4600 — 12/160
5500 — 12/240
6500 — 12/320
Bearings: 4
Weight: 4600 — 9.2 oz.
5500 — 9.9 oz.
6500 — 10.7 oz.
  • Great drag
  • Awesome capacity
  • Very smooth
  • Excellent braking system
  • Big cat capable
  • Not as robust as the Squall, even in the largest sizes
Summary

Abu Garcia is a company with a reputation that’s stood the test of time, and their conventional reels are popular with anglers in both salt- and freshwater. Indeed, their so-called “round reels” are some of the best in the business, and the C3 range has you covered on everything from channels to big blues and flatheads.

The C3 range is smaller than the Squall, and the smallest of the bunch, the 4600, is a very good general-purpose catfish reel. For anglers who want a little more capacity, the 5500 is a great choice, rivaling the excellent KastKing in every way. And for the big boys, the 6500 is a good pick, though it can’t keep up with the legendary Squall in terms of cranking power, gearing, drag, or capacity.

Does that make it a bad pick?

No, but the 6500 isn’t the monster hunter that the Penn Squall is.

In that sense, I can recommend the 4600 and 5500 with no reservations, but if you’re after an exclusive trophy reel, the Squall is probably the best choice.

That said, the C3 series are tough reels that can take a pounding and work flawlessly for years.

As you’d expect, the C3 features a star drag mounted beneath the crank. With a 15-pound maximum, there’s plenty of smooth, strong drag for big fish and hard fights. For anything but record-setting kitties, this is more than enough!

Indeed, if you spooled on some heavy braid, I think any of this series could give an 80- to 100-pound catfish a run for its money.

The crank and its associated gears provide reassuring torque when you’ve got a nice cat on your line, and you won’t feel like you’re outgunned when you tie into a 50-pound flathead. I’d give the edge here to the 5500 over the KastKing, though that’s subjective. I just feel a little more in control, though the Kapstan Elite is definitely smoother.

Casting is excellent with any of these reels, and the levelwind makes sure that your mono is spooled evenly.

Whether Abu Garcia’s C3 is a better choice than the Kapstan Elite depends in part on how comfortable you are with a round body, but either way, you’ll be happy with your choice.

What We Consider When Selecting a Reel for Catfishing

If you’re looking for a new catfish reel, you’ve probably run into a variety of opinions about what’s best.

Some of things you’ve probably heard include the idea that spinning tackle isn’t “tough enough” for big cats or that “real” anglers gear up with baitcasters. We’ve seen these kinds of things ourselves, so we know they’re out there!

But the truth is that big spinning reels like Penn’s Battle II have been tried and tested against some of the meanest fish in the salt, and if they can take the abuse of bull reds and big stripers, they’ll have no trouble with a big blue cat.

Truth #1: Larger-sized, quality spinning reels can handle big catfish.

Now, it’s also true that with line over 10-pound mono diameter, spinning reels won’t cast as well as baitcasters. That’s simple physics, and there’s no getting around it. But on windy days, those spinning reels will really prove their worth, as you won’t have trouble with bird’s nests when you cast into the wind.

That’s not to say that baitcasters aren’t excellent in their own right, but “real” anglers use the tackle that they fish best.

Baitcasting vs. Spinning vs. Conventional

Two concerns top my list when I’m looking for a new reel for catfish: will it hold enough line to allow me to cut and re-tie, and how good is the drag?

For trophy hunters, there’s a third worry: is my reel strong enough to take the load a monster will transfer to the spool and body?

Savvy anglers have three kinds of reels to consider, and each dominates in the circumstances for which it was designed.

Spinning Reels

Pretty much everyone is familiar with the spinning reel. A great design for fighting the wind, they work exceptionally well when the weather is doing its best to spoil your fun.

Spinning reels are designed for lines of small diameter, typically less than 10-pound mono, and though you can push this a bit, casting will suffer.

The lip on the spool retains the line you wind on, but it also creates friction with the line as it unspools. Smaller diameter line slips past it more easily, and as you step-up in weight–and thus in diameter–you get more and more rubbing.

catfish spinning reel spool

The lip on a spinning spool creates friction with the line.

Does that mean spinning reels aren’t good for catfishing?

Not at all!

Not all catfishing requires super-long casts, and even then, we’re talking about differences that probably won’t spoil your day. And for many, the ease of use of a good spinning reel offsets any performance advantage that a baitcaster brings to the table.

As Dan Anderson says, “They’re easy to use, durable, and forgiving. Despite those advantages, spinning reels unfortunately have a reputation as, ‘not tough enough for catfishing.’ If that’s so, why are they the reel of choice for anglers surfcasting for 50- to 60-pound stripers? Why do so many catfishing guides entrust their clients’ success to spinning reels?”

Moreover, as Anderson points out, spinning reels naturally balance better in the hand since the weight sits below the rod. 

Drag

The first thing I look at on any reel is the drag.

Two options are common. The best system places the drag knob on the end of the spool, where it can apply direct pressure. Inferior systems use a drag lever near the rear of the reel, and these just can’t compete favorably with the other design.

For catfish, I take a hard look at the maximum setting. I need a reel that can apply enough drag to let me run 20- to 30-pound braid for situations where I want to chase big fish, and I check whether or not it slips at that weight. 

I’m looking for a maximum setting that’s in the neighborhood of 10 pounds, and by stringing some strong line on and testing the drag with a known weight, I can get a sense of whether it can hold.

I’ll also set the drag to roughly a third of its max and then see how smoothly it allows me to take line. What I want to feel is a constant, smooth release–no jerking, catching, or slipping.

Gear ratio

A reel’s gear ratio describes the relationship between the crank and the spool: how many turns of the spool does one revolution of the crank create? For instance, a gear ratio of 5.2:1 means that one turn of the crank spins the spool 5.2 times.

The reels on our shortlist provide plenty of cranking power for big cats.

Anti-reverse

An anti-reverse bearing stops the spool from turning backward while the spool is closed. It matters because the better it works, the more quickly the reel applies pressure to the line and hook.

Want better hooksets?

Look for a reel with a rock-solid anti-reverse bearing.

Capacity

Line capacity matters.

On a properly filled spool, you won’t outcast the line on your reel. But over a day’s fishing, you might need to cut line–whether to mitigate abrasion, recover from a really poor cast, or release a deep snag.

Your reel needs to hold enough line to see you through the day without needing to re-spool.

I’ll be reporting line capacity in monofilament weights. Keep in mind that you can switch to braid and either get far more line on the reel or step-up in weight to get your spinning tackle to punch like a heavyweight.

Baitcasting Reels

Baitcasting reels are a little harder to learn to cast than their spinning kin, but the reward is that they can handle much heavier line while still casting well. They also tend to have better quality drag systems, meaning that the drag action is typically smoother.

Are they “better” than spinning reels for catfish?

I’m not sure about that, but I will say that for situations where long casts will be key, they’ll shine. They can also hold a lot of line, rivaling really large spinning reels at a fraction of the size and weight. 

But in an apples to apples comparison, spinning reels cast better in the wind than baitcasters. They’re also easier to learn to use well.

Plenty of freshwater anglers choose baitcasting reels for their superior casting and precision drags, and they absolutely dominate in the world of largemouth bass. The low-profile design, differentiated from traditional “conventional” reels, is designed to fit in your palm to make working lures easier and more effective.

Most baitcasting reels are designed with this in mind, and few really stack-up against catfish well.

But whether a baitcaster is a superior catfish reel is a question of what you’re comfortable with and the situations you fish.

Drag

When you’re fighting a 40-pound blue, an awesome drag is your best friend!

Baitcasting reels typically mount their drag control behind the crank, and it’s connected directly to the spool. As a result, it can apply very smooth, very powerful pressure.

As a general rule, you set your drag to about ⅓ of the breaking strength of your line, and I’ll check my reels with the line I’m planning on using at both their max and that set level. I don’t want to feel binding or slipping: I’m looking for smooth, constant release.

Awesome casting and excellent braking

A good baitcasting reel has a spool that tries to defy physics. It should spin as freely as mechanically possible, and be paired with slick surfaces for the line to run through, as well. In fact, the proper design of the levelwind (the piece that guides the line on and off the spool) is essential to long casts.

Daiwa’s famous T-wing lets line fly off the spool.

Daiwa’s “T-wing” is famous in fishing circles for its smooth function, but other top manufacturers have their own proprietary designs.

But long casts are useless if they end in bird’s nesting backlash. To help prevent this, many higher-end rods feature magnetic braking systems that apply more pressure as the spool slows, keeping the reel from feeding more line than needed.

The brake on Shimano’s Curado K is simply awesome!

When designed and executed by the best, these systems help you cast light lures, work in the wind, and launch your crankbaits into the next county.

Gear ratio

As I explained above, gear ratio describes how many revolutions of the spool one crank of the handle generates. For instance, a gear ratio of 7.5:1 indicates that one turn of the handle spins the spool 7.5 times. The higher the ratio, the faster the retrieve. This speed is also represented by the number of inches per turn (IPT), for example, 31”. In this case, that would mean that every turn of the handle picks up 31 inches of line!

The KastKing we recommend is plenty fast for the biggest cats.

Capacity

Capacity isn’t something to sneer at, especially if you need to strip and cut line while you’re fishing.

The reels we’ve selected for our list can hold plenty of line, competing favorably with all but the largest spinning reels.

Price

Let’s be realistic–you’re going to pay quite a bit more for a good baitcasting reel than you would for a similar spinning model. That’s a fact.

But beyond a moderate price-point, each dollar you spend isn’t buying you a dollar’s worth of extra performance. 

We’ve put together a list of mid-range reels that can save you some money while still astounding you with their performance.

Conventional Reels

Conventional reels are a different beast than spinning and baitcasting alternatives. And because they’ll be pitted against potentially massive fish, they’re built a bit differently and demand a few things you might not expect.

Essentially mechanically identical to baitcasting reels, they feature round, bulky bodies.

Built for offshore applications where the fight will be with giant tuna, hungry sharks, and lightning-fast sailfish, they’re my reel of choice for trophy cats.

conventional catfish reel

Jeremy Wade catches his “River Monsters” on a conventional reel.

Drag

Monstrous fish mean monstrous fights.

When you tie into a 100-pound blue or 80-pound flathead, you need a drag that can reliably help your heavy line hold. Finesse is less important than strength and durability in a fight like this, and you’ll never be setting these drag systems down into the single digits.

Instead, you need to think about reasonable maximums as well as how well the drag holds and releases at ⅓ of that number.

You also want to consider the drag control.

Two options are available, a thumb lever and the usual star-shaped knob. Which one is better for you is largely a matter of preference, though the thumb levers are a bit easier to use when the fight’s on.

Construction

Monster tuna, grouper, sharks, and lake trout put an enormous amount of stress on a reel, and you can add trophy kitties to that list!

Keep in mind that the reel acts as your line’s anchor to your rod, and though mitigated by the rod’s action and power, line stretch, and your drag, each big fight is a test of every component comprising your reel, from the teeth on the gears to the discs in the drag to the frame that holds everything together.

Most trophy anglers prefer a solid metal body. It’s simply stronger, stiffer, and more durable than graphite. Graphite cuts weight as effectively as a college wrestler, but it just can’t offer the absolute stiffness or durability of machined aluminum.

Plastic gears have no place in conventional reels either. Their teeth will deform and break under the loads you’ll ask them to hold. Instead, solid brass and stainless steel are the best options.

Levelwind

As Garry Brummett explains, “Level wind reels feature a moving line guide that sports a pawl which runs back and forth across the front of the reel upon a worm shaft. As line is retrieved back onto the reel, the moving line guide ensures that the line is evenly distributed onto the spool, from side to side, without any large build-ups of line in any one spot on the spool. Open style conventional reels have no line guide and the distribution of the line back onto the spool is the responsibility of the angler.”

Mono is particularly prone to bunching on the reel, and care must be taken to avoid this. You’ll need to direct the line with your thumb as you retrieve, helping to disperse it along the full length of the spool.

If you don’t, bunching will impair casting–which may not matter, depending on your application–but in extreme cases, it can lock the spool via direct contact with the body.

Braid tends to lay flat, self-distributing well, so if this is your preferred main line, a level wind may not be something you need.

Gear ratio and RPT

The gear ratio and RPT (retrieve per turn) on a conventional reel is critical for fighting big fish that pull like a mule. 

The choices we’ve recommended have the gearing, handles, and torque you’ll want in a tough fight.

Final Thoughts

Catfish angling is tough on gear, and strong, reliable reels are necessary for all but the smallest channel cats. Armed with any of the products on our shortlist, you’ll be well-prepared for a day on the river, and should you tie into a big one, you can have confidence that your reel will do its job.

We hope that this article has helped you make the right choice for you, and we’d love to hear from you if it has.

Please leave a comment below!

Don’t forget to check out our top picks for catfish bait!

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