There are fish--and then there are catfish.
Some say catfishermen are a different breed, but one thing’s certain: a good catfish rod and reel combo certainly is!
For cats, you need a rod that’s strong and tough, and professional catfish guides like Chad Ferguson typically recommend fiberglass or fiberglass composites over lighter, more sensitive--and more fragile--carbon fiber and graphite. And when you step up to trophy-sized cats, the move to conventional reels is almost mandatory.
A really big blue or flathead can demand a combo designed for sharks, tuna, or sailfish--a far cry from what we usually expect in freshwater!
And if that leaves you at a loss for what might fit that bill without breaking the bank, we’re here to help!
Below, you’ll find reviews of some of our the best catfish rod and reel combos, as well as a complete buying guide:
Catfish Spinning Combos
Catfish Conventional Combos
Table of Contents (clickable)
Gear ratio: 5.1:1
Line capacity: 12/280, 14/215, 17/195
Bearings: 3 + 1 roller bearing
Material: graphite/fiberglass composite
Lure size: ¼ to ⅝ oz.
Line weight: 8 to 20 lbs.
Handle: continuous EVA foam
Guides: 5 + 1 stainless steel
Shakespeare’s line of Ugly Stiks are known for their bomb-proof durability, in no small part due to their mastery of fiberglass rod manufacturing techniques. The GX2 lineup adds just enough graphite to the core to up the ante on sensitivity, making the 7’ medium-heavy combo just about perfect for cats of all sizes.
Let’s start with the rod.
Stiks are nothing if not tough, and the composite construction of this rod won’t let you down. From excellent loading for long casts to a backbone that can really turn heads, this medium-heavy rod has it all.
Offering generous lure sizes and mono line weights, anglers so inclined could run some very heavy braid to increase security with big blues and flatheads. That said, it’s sensitive enough to detect strikes from small channel cats, too, so filling a cooler for a fish fry is no sweat.
That makes this rod ideal as an all-arounder, and even if it was available in heavy power, I’m not sure I’d prefer that for three-species catmen.
This Stik’s guides are well-polished stainless steel, and in my own tests, they do a great job protecting line from the friction of a hard fight.
Shakespeare’s reel isn’t serious competition for the likes of Pflueger or Shimano, but it’ll get the job done. They decline to publish statistics such as weight and maximum drag, but there’s enough weight to work 20-pound mono, no question. And the gearing holds up to hard fights, just not with the finesse and aplomb that better reals offer.
Smooth enough for long casts and powerful enough for big cats, for the price, it’s a good deal. When it starts to wear, you can always invest in a better reel and feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth.
Drag: 17.5 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 4.5:1 (29.1” per turn)
Line capacity: 12/330, 16/245
Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing
Weight: 13.5 oz
Material: IM6 graphite
Lure size: ¾ to 1 ½ oz.
Line weight: 15 to 30 lbs.
Handle: split EVA foam
Guides: 8 + 1 stainless steel
KastKing is trying to corner the market on affordable, high-quality reels, and the Centron at the heart of this combo is impressive.
Offering more than 17 pounds of smooth, reliable drag, it has the power to tame pretty much all but the biggest cats, as well as the capacity with heavy line to give you confidence. It’s admirably smooth, casts well and just plain feels good to fish with.
For a heavy spinning reel, you can count me impressed!
The 8’ rod KastKing pairs with this excellent reel is just OK. Made from relatively high-modulus graphite, it’s more than sensitive enough for channel cats, even in heavy power. But it has me a bit worried about what might happen if you tie into a trophy blue or flathead.
While the blank has plenty of power and the guides are fine, I’d be a bit worried about repeated strains with a real bruiser. Graphite just can’t take abuse, and a few hard whacks on a pier or gunnel, an invisible crack later, and bam!--you’ve got a broken rod in a bad fight.
I’d much prefer to see this rod in fiberglass or fiberglass composite, but it’s not built around catfishing. And overall, while the reel is excellent, I’d rather work with the Ugly Stik combo on a big fish.
Drag: 14 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 5.2:1
Line capacity: 10/320, 14/280, 20/200
Bearings: 9 + 1 roller bearing
Material: IM8 graphite
Lure size: ⅛ to ⅝ oz.
Line weight: 6 to 12 lbs.
Handle: full cork
Guides: 7 + 1 stainless steel
Pflueger’s a name we can all trust, and their reels are rightly legendary.
In this case, Pflueger arms this combo with an excellent President reel, and you can depend on a smooth, strong drag, excellent casting, plenty of cranking power, and generous capacities, even with heavy mono.
Probably the best spinning reel on our list, it’s just a very, very good deal for the price.
The rod that Pflueger pairs with this reel reminds me a lot of the KastKing--and it shares its flaws. Excellent for channel cats, it’s very sensitive and casts well. But as you step up to the really big females common to both larger species, I start to get worried.
High-modulus graphite is more at home with smaller fish, and while the casual catfisherman may be satisfied with this rod, the real trophy hunter will come away disappointed.
I’d love to see this Pflueger on the Ugly Stik!
Drag: 16 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 4.9:1 (32” per turn)
Line capacity: 20/210
Bearings: 1 + 1 roller bearing
Lure size: 1 to 8 oz.
Line weight: 17 to 50 lbs.
Handle: split EVA foam
Everyone knows Zebco, but not everyone realizes that they’re moving aggressively into the spinning market. And with decades of experience behind them, they’re making all the right moves.
Zebco’s BiteAlert is built from the ground-up for cats, and like the Stik, you’ll find a tough fiberglass rod that just won’t quit. This 7’ medium-heavy rod has plenty of power for big cats, and enough sensitivity for small ones, too. It loads and casts well, and strikes me as second only to the Ugly Stik--if indeed it plays second fiddle at all!
Here’s the rub. You’d expect Zebco to build a better reel than a rod, given that they’re essentially a reel company. But the gears in this reel are either plastic or pot metal, and they just don’t hold up to bigger cats.
I’m sorry to say that because, in my hand, this combo feels like a real winner. All in all, I think the Shakespeare edges it out.
Drag: 18 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 5.1:1 (37” per turn)
Line capacity: 30/360
Bearings: 5 + 1
Lure size: N/A
Line weight: N/A
Handle: continuous EVA foam fore grip/slick butt
Guides: 6 + 1 stainless steel with aluminum oxide inserts
For catfishermen who spend their time on the water in search of trophy blues and flatheads, nothing beats a conventional reel.
Penn’s Squall lineup are proven performers in the salt on the Great Lakes, and from tuna to shark, lake trout to pike, they’ve proven they can turn the fight to your favor.
Penn’s 40-series Squall packs 18 pounds of slick drag on this conventional reel. Designed to help you fight real monsters, you can depend on it to do its job when you’ve got the trophy of a lifetime on your line. Rather than the typical star-shaped drag wheel found on baitcasters, these conventional reels have a thumb lever that’s adjustable on the fly as needed.
Trust me, that’s a feature you’ll come to appreciate really quickly!
Ultra-strong gears provide plenty of torque and what, for freshwater, are ridiculous retrieval rates.
Penn pairs this outstanding reel with a medium-power fiberglass rod that’s designed around fighting big fish. From a smooth, slick butt to a cushioned EVA foregrip to a blank that doesn’t know the word “quit,” you’ll be prepared for the meanest cats you come across.
The downside of this set-up is that you’ll want a second rod and reel for channel cats as this brute is designed for the big ladies.
Drag: 20 lbs. maximum
Gear ratio: 4.3:1 (35” per turn)
Line capacity: 40/420
Bearings: 5 + 1 roller bearing
Lure size: N/A
Line weight: N/A
Handle: split EVA foam foregrip/slick butt
Guides: 5 + 1 stainless steel with zirconium oxide inserts
For trophy anglers who regularly fight monster blues and flatheads, a step up the Squall lineup might be wise.
The Squall 50 is everything the 40 offers, plus more power.
Increase drag and capacity, strengthen the blank, and shorten the rod, and you’ve got a true trophy catcher on your hands!
Since catfish come in a staggering range of sizes depending on their species, there’s no one rod to rule them all.
Anglers looking to fill a cooler for a fish fry, pulling dozens of channel cats on to shore, won’t need specialized tackle. But fishermen who chase trophy blues, which can weigh as much as 150 pounds, certainly will!
If I were buying a combo for channel cats, the Pflueger would be at the top of my list; conversely, I’d pick the big Squall for trophy blues and flatheads and never look back.
With that caveat, let’s break down what makes god catfish tackle.
Most pros, including guides, prefer fiberglass rods to graphite or carbon fiber.
While that sacrifices some sensitivity, it increases durability, and when a big, bad blue takes your bait, you’ll want a rod that can really take a bruising.
Unfortunately, fiberglass rods are somewhat passe, having given way to more sensitive and high-tech options, a fact that’s reflected in the combos now available.
For the spinning combos, if you think you might hook a real brute, I’d opt for either the Zebco or Ugly Stik, as the fiberglass rods offered in those pairings can take what a mean cat will dish out.
Of the two, the Stik wears the better reel, and it’d be my first choice.
For channel cats, any of the spinning combos would be excellent, though I’d choose one of the medium-power rods over anything heavier. Channel cats just don’t demand a stronger blank.
If you’re after trophy-class cats, the Squall combos are the best choice out there, and both will impress.
Power describes how much force is required to bend a rod. Together with its action, a rod’s power tells you a lot about how it will perform.
A rod’s power is determined by the material from which it’s constructed and the amount of that material present in cross-section (taper). It’s also affected by the length of the rod, with shorter lengths of the same material and taper being stiffer than longer lengths.
Medium-powered rods are a common sight in both salt- and fresh-water, as they have the strength and backbone to muscle substantial fish. Indeed, in shorter lengths and tough material like fiberglass, you’ll find anglers using them to troll for tuna, wahoos, sailfish, sharks, and other large species, and they’re very, very good for all but the biggest catfish.
Medium rods are great for a variety of applications, from running crankbaits and jerkbaits to yo-yoing swimbaits off the bottom. Great with live bait, too, there’s not much they can’t do--making them an extremely popular all-around choice.
Popular line weights range from 6 to 12 pounds or so, with lures between ¼ and ¾ ounces being common.
Medium-heavy rods have serious power, allowing anglers to muscle massive fish and drive single hooks firmly home. Very stiff, they’re often used by largemouth anglers for techniques that demand a firm hookset like worms and other soft plastics, but they’re also at home--especially in fiberglass--on the trophy catfish scene.
When composed of fiberglass, they can be very, very tough.
Typical line weights run from 10 to 20 or more pounds, and you should expect to cast lures or live baits no lighter than ⅜ of an ounce.
Heavy rods are as stiff and strong as they come, and they’re designed for the largest, meanest fish out there or to provide an instant, powerful hookset on largemouth bass.
Expect backbone like steel, incredible control in a fight, and strength that just won’t quit.
In shorter lengths, heavy rods are a good choice for sharks, grouper, tarpon, and other massive saltwater species. They’re also popular for lake trout and trophy pike.
In longer lengths, they’re a common choice for a variety of largemouth applications like flipping and pitching, as well as worm fishing with single hooks. Expect instantaneous hooksets, especially with braided line.
Heavy rods are typically built for line above 12 pounds, though lure size varies with the specific application.
But unless a heavy rod is built from fiberglass, its design tends more toward rigidity and sensitivity than brute strength. I’d shy away from non-fiberglass rods for trophy-size cats.
Guide quality is essential on most rods, especially as you move up in power.
Guides have two main purposes: they protect your line from friction, and they distribute force over the length of the blank. In both cases, more is almost always better than fewer, as more points of contact reduce the stress at any one point on both line and rod. (On spinning reels, they also help channel line from the spool, which is why you’ll find a large “stripper guide” nearest the reel on most spinning rods.)
Typically, you want one guide per foot of the rod, plus one.
Guides are attached to your rod via feet, and they’re secured with adhesives and some form of wrapping.
Three things are important here:
A common material for quality guides is stainless steel. It’s strong, it’s rugged, and it resists corrosion.
Modern fishing rods can be made from a variety of materials, including carbon fiber, graphite, and fiberglass. Some feature composite construction, using more than one material in the blank that provides their backbone.
Graphite is a common blank material, providing strength, stiffness, and lightweight in a single package. Usually described with the word “modulus,” fishing blanks that have higher modulus numbers are--diameter to diameter--stiffer than those with lower numbers.
Graphite also provides excellent sensitivity, a hallmark of high stiffness.
But graphite’s weakness is brittleness, and when pushed too far, it tends to crack and break.
Fiberglass is older rod technology, but that doesn’t mean it’s not excellent rod tech.
Fiberglass rods tend to be heavy, just like fiberglass boats, and inch to inch, foot to foot, they’ll weigh more than the other options. That said, fiberglass blanks can be very flexible and amazingly tough at the same time. They can also be extremely rigid in short, tubular lengths, making them an ideal option for trophy-size catfish.
Where fiberglass doesn’t shine is sensitivity or fast actions (except in very short lengths). It’s just not as stiff as other options.
Carbon fiber is space-age tech, taking everything good about graphite and raising it up a level. Extremely stiff, amazingly strong, and surprisingly light, it’s a great choice for blank material.
Carbon fiber is sensitive to impacts, and a hard whack on a piling or boat can damage your rod.
It’s also extremely expensive, as you’d expect!
Some rod manufacturers combine materials in an effort to wring the best from each of them. One common example is a graphite core--providing stiffness and strength--around which fiberglass is then wrapped--offering flexibility and toughness.
When done well, these composite rods perform very well.
Rod length matters.
Generally speaking, the longer the rod, the further it will cast. And generally speaking, the shorter the rod, the more accurately it will cast.
A good place to start is 6’6” to 7’. That’s the sweet spot of distance and accuracy: any shorter, and you’ll lose range; any longer and accuracy will suffer.
Much about which handle to choose is a personal decision, and what’s comfortable to me may be misery for you. There are two primary handle materials you’ll find on rods: cork and EVA foam.
Cork is a natural material that’s warm to the touch and just soft enough to provide a firm, comfortable grip. Premium-grade cork is attractive, too, and though not as durable as synthetics, it can take a beating.
EVA foam is a synthetic material that provides a soft grip. A bit colder to the touch than cork, it’s generally more inexpensive and durable.
The first thing I look at on any reel is the drag.
First, I assess where it is. The best drag systems are located directly over where they’ll be working, and as a result, the drag knobs are usually located on the end of the spool.
Some spinning reels have dials positioned elsewhere, but these rely on a more complicated mechanism and tend not to work as well or last as long.
Second, I take a hard look at the maximum setting and assess whether or not it slips at that weight. For spinning reels, I’m looking for a maximum setting that matches the size and weight of the species I’m after, and by stringing some strong line on and testing the drag with a weight, I can get a sense of whether the drag can hold.
This is more about assessing the quality of the drag than testing that maximum: I’m never going to set the drag that high!
Finally, I like to spool-up some medium-weight line for that reel, set the drag to roughly a third of that, 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.
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.
This matters for two reasons.
For some lures, a slow, medium, or fast retrieve is ideal, and matching a reel’s gear ratio to its intended use can improve action. For instance, shallow crankbaits and topwater lures tend to work best with a fast reel, defined by a gear ratio higher than 5.2:1.
The second reason you care about gear ratio is that it tells you how quickly it picks up line. And whether you’re jigging deep or casting far to cover water, you’ll appreciate a medium to fast gear ratio.
On any quality reel, the bail should close firmly, the crank should spin freely, and the drag knob should reliably adjust the setting. The anti-reverse system, too, should lock-up quickly to encourage solid hooksets.
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 a 4- or 6-pound mono equivalent diameter.
I’ve done just that when I decided to use my ultralight for big bass!
A good low-profile baitcaster is a dream inshore or fishing bass, but for fish much over 50 pounds, it’s time to step into conventional territory.
Conventional reels tend to be pricey, and nothing is more frustrating on the water than an expensive piece of tackle that stops working after a single season.
Penn produces some of the best reels I’ve ever used, and if you stop and have a chat on the salt with your fellow anglers, chances are, you’ll see a Penn or two in the boat!
When you’re fighting a real monster, an awesome drag is your best friend. And you want smooth and strong to be your watchwords.
Many anglers advise that the ⅓ rule always applies: set your drag to ⅓ of the breaking strength of your line. That gives you plenty of power to torque big fish while still protecting your line and rod.
A good conventional 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 level wind (the piece that guides the line on and off the spool) is essential to long casts.
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 or retrieve per turn (IPT or RPT), for example, 31”. In this case, that would mean that every turn of the handle picks up 31 inches of line.
Fast isn’t always better than slow, but it does offer a bit more versatility. It’s easier to slow your retrieve than to speed it up, and with a little practice, you can ease your natural cadence to match the needs of slower presentations.
However, speed does matter when you’re fighting a fish that runs straight for you!
It’s critical that you keep your line tight, and a fast reel really helps you do that.
Capacity isn’t something to sneer at, especially if you need to strip and cut line while you’re fishing.
The capacities we list, for example, 12/120, are measured in mono diameter equivalents and feet.
Bearing count matters with baitcasting reels, though the standard is just one roller bearing for the spool. The rest are in the innards, making retrieves as slick as icy stairs.
While not an iron-clad rule, more is better.
We can’t tell you which combo is right for you--only you can make that pick.
If you usually catch channel cats and like to use your combo for other species of the same size, it’s hard to go wrong with the Pflueger or Ugly Stik. But if you regularly fight bigger fish, the Stik really starts to shine.
And if you chase monster cats, don’t even consider skipping one of the Penn combos. You’ll want that rock-solid durability, head-turning backbone, and trophy-taming reel.
We hope this article has helped you pick your next catfish combo, and as always, we’d love to hear from you!
Please leave a comment below.