The Best Catfish Reels of 2018: The Definitive Guide (In-Depth Reviews)

Catfish caught while fishing spinning rod.

So, you’ve decided to try your hand at catfishing — good for you. But before you can hit the water you need to have the right gear. You need gear capable of not only hooking but landing even the big boys.

One of the top things on that list is your reel. Many beginners make the mistake of thinking the reel is little more than a place to store extra line, but they’d be wrong.

The reel is the foundation of your fishing rig; it not only stores extra line but provides the oomph necessary to cast it accurately and with precision, the backbone to set the hook after a bite and strength to fight to the finish.

Pick the correct reel and your friends’ social media will be blowing up with pictures of your trophies. But pick the wrong reel and you will be looking for a new hobby.

Let’s look at some of the best models on the market today.

Below are our choices for catfish spinning reel, catfish baitcasting reel and rod/reel combo, along with an explanation of the features that let these examples rise above the competition. 



The Top Catfish Reels of 2018: Outdoor Empire Reviews

These are our top recommendations for catfish reels of 2018:

  1. Best spinning reel: Get the PENN Spinfisher V Live Liner (read 540+ Amazon reviews)
  2. Best baitcasting reel: Get the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur
  3. Best rod & reel combo: Get the CatMaxx Rod & Reel Combo 

*Looking for a specific feature? Check out our quick-reference chart below:

ProductPENN Spinfisher V Live Liner
PENN Spinfisher V Live Liner

Abu Garcia Ambassadeur
Abu Garcia Ambassadeur

CatMaxx Rod & Reel Combo
CatMaxx Rod & Reel Combo

Model No.SSV4500LLC-7001CMX70
Mono Capacity300/8
20lb/250yds not specified by manufacturer
Braid Capacity365/15
Bearing Count624+1
Max Drag25 lbs20 lbs40 lbs
Gear Ratio6.2:1
CostCheck Price

Check Price

Check Price


Best Catfish Spinning Reel

PENN Spinfisher V Live Liner


PENN Spinfisher V Live Liner

There are very few manufacturers producing spinning reels specifically for catfish, most are saltwater models adapted for big bass or cats, and this is exactly what the PENN Spinfisher V Live Liner does best.

This reel was designed for the harsh saltwater environment and the fish that inhabit it but is equally at home in a catfishing boat as well. 

The overall design is robust. The large all-metal body, side plates and frame provide an excellent foundation for the equally strong metal gears and oversized bail wire. Top it off with the machined anodized aluminum spool and you have a true beast in your hands.   

As stated earlier, this reel was designed for saltwater battles; and the drag and stainless-steel ball bearings are all well suited for catfish line capacity (both braided and monofilament).

Plus, the additional Live Line feature (PENN’s version of a bait clicker) is perfect for swimming baits to cats. 

  • All metal construction, designed to take abuse 
  • Six shielded stainless steel bearings 
  • Metal gears housed in a greased watertight body 
  • Capable of handling heavy line and lots of it, both braided and mono 
  • Live Line feature not easily found on spinning reels 


Best Catfish Baitcasting Reel 

Abu Garcia Ambassadeur C-7001

Abu Garcia is one of the most well-known makers of baitcasting reel and is a favorite among catfish enthusiasts. Topping the list of the many popular models is their flagship Ambassadeur C-7001.

This is one of the most durable and dependable baitcasting reels ever made and continues to be a favorite among catfish anglers. 

The traditional round reel design includes an all-metal body, side plates and spool. The brass Duragear gear is designed to last a lifetime, while the oversized extended handle with power knobs will provide the power need to land anything you hook.  

With a line capacity of 630/30 (braided) and 250/20 (monofilament), running out of line will not be a problem. But, should you find yourself on the end of a long run, a retrieval rate of 22 inches will make short work of any fight. 

  • Heavy-duty design intended for heavy-duty use 
  • Time tested and proven 
  • Twenty-pound maximum drag 
  • Centrifugal 4-pin brake system for constant pressure throughout cast 
  • Corrosion-resistant anti-brake for added protection 


Best Catfish Rod & Reel Combo

CatMaxx Rod & Reel Combo 


CatMaxx Rod & Reel Combo

There are two things every catfish angler needs: a rod and a reel capable of meeting the demands of catching big fish. Unfortunately, although there are many quality reels and an equal number of quality rods available they are not always compatible.

A mismatched rod and reel can make fishing difficult, but Bass Pro has made this a whole lot easier by providing the CatMaxx Rod & Reel Combo. 

This setup is specifically designed for catching catfish, even big ones, and removes the need to experiment with different setups. The reel is comprised of a heavy-duty, one-piece aluminum frame and a high-capacity aluminum spool.

The 6-pin centrifugal brake system, rugged gears, 3-bearing design and instant anti-reverse are exactly what you need. An audible bait clicker rounds out the package.  

When mounted on the tough E-glass rod with heavy-duty double footed guides, carbon alloy tip and non-slip cork handle you are ready for hassle-free fishing. 

  • Matched rod and reel removes any need to experiment with setup 
  • Quality reel is designed for catfish and includes all the features you are looking for 
  • Tough, heavy-duty reel is specifically constructed to handle the abuse of catfishing, including a carbon alloy tip for extra surge protection 
  • Price is less than you would spend for comparable rod and reel when purchased separately  
  • Various sizes available to address all your catfish needs from channels to blues 



What to Look for in Your Next Catfish Reel 

man holding catfish reelThere are a number of things you’ll need to consider when buying your next catfishing reel. Some of the most important include:  

Overall Construction  

Catfish are an aggressive species and even smaller members of the family are capable of putting up a rod bending, reel screaming fight.

You will want to make sure any reel you select is built to handle the pressure a fish like this can exert by looking for a heavy-duty body, metal gears and even a stout handle.

Generally, graphite or composite reels will wear out far quicker than those made of aluminum. 


Line Capacity  

There are two rules concerning catfish and line:

1. You need heavy duty line, probably braided to catch catfish. 

2. You need lots of it.  

Look for a reel designed to handle large amounts of either monofilament and braided as well as heavy tests – 20 lb. or more.

Although smaller reels may be capable of handling heavy test and landing large cats, you will find that one or two break offs will leave you shorthanded, and force either a reel change or re-spooling. 



Drag is important with any reel, regardless of the species targeted, as it allows you to control how the line reacts when the fish strikes and takes off for deeper water.

Selecting the correct drag will keep a running fish from spooling your line or damaging the reel so it is important not to simply get by, but to select the best drag possible. Most high-end reels use carbon washers and I would recommend avoiding anything else.


Gear Ratio 

gear ratio catfish reel


Gear ratio is another misunderstood and oft-neglected aspect of selecting a quality reel. The gear ratio determines how much line is returned to the reel with each turn of the handle.

For example, a 5:1 gear ratio means that for every turn of the handle, the spool makes 5 rotations.  

Reels generally range from a ratio of 2.5:1 to 7.5:1, with some extra-fast reels exceeding this.

When targeting catfish, you need ratios slightly faster than average, which will allow for quick retrieval of slack when a fish tires and provide the power to muscle big fish to the net. It is recommended you look for a gear ratio in the 5:1 to 6.5:1 range. 



Many anglers do not consider the handle an integral part of their reel, but when you are pulling in long casts or forcing big fish to the boat the handle takes on a new level of importance.

Abu Garcia® C3 Catfish Special Round

Most catfish reels utilize a single grip, rather than the popular paddle wheel with twin grips, and heavier duty reels will incorporate a counterbalance opposite the grip.   

Generally larger grips provide better control and more power, the same being true for longer handles. The key is to find a handle which is not only strong enough to complete the task but is also comfortable enough for you to use.

It is recommended you try out several different versions before making your selection. Luckily, if you change your mind many reels have handles which can be changed or upgraded to meet personal preferences. 


What Type of Catfishing Reel Is The Best? 

There are three potential reel types available for tackling catfish: spincasting, spinning and baitcasting. Yes, there are other reel types on the market, such as fly reels, but they are not designed for catfish, so we will skip them today.

For now, we will focus on the top three and how they are suited, or not suited, for catching cats. We also have a in-depth separate article on different fishing reel types and their pros/cons. 

Spincast Reels 

Zebco Big Cat XT
Zebco Big Cat XT

First on the list is the spincast reel, quite possibly the first reel you ever used as well. This simple push button design is easy to use — the main reason it is so popular with beginners — and simple to maintain.  

Although it can be used for entry-level catfishing, such as pulling bullheads or small channels from farm ponds, it has severe limitations.

Due to its small size, light line and weaker overall construction it is unlikely you will successfully land larger cats except by sheer luck. 

  • OK for introduction level fishing 
  • Capable of catching smaller species from shore or boat 
  • Not designed for larger, heavier species 
  • Gear ratio well suited for bait fishing but not for long runs or fights 
  • Limited line capacity, both in terms of size and amount available 
  • Very rare to find spincasting reel with bait clicker 


Spinning Reels 

Okuma Coronado CD

Spinning reels are a big step up from the spincasting reels and have seen an increase in popularity among catfish anglers, especially those using live bait for species such as flatheads.

There was a time when the guy who showed up for catfish with a spinning reel was instantly labeled “amateur”, but more and more guides and avid catfish enthusiasts are seeing the possible advantages of spinning reels.  

Spinning reels come in a wide variety of sizes ranging from ultra-light to those intended for open ocean saltwater use, although the smaller version may be little better than spincasting reels, the big boys can land sharks, so a catfish is well within their range.  

But, there are still limitations, which are why they are not the go-to reel for this particular species, including the fact that they are not compatible with many catfish rods. Once again, they generally are not available with a bait clicker. 

  • Larger models more than capable of landing big cats, but this may mean selecting a larger, more expensive saltwater model 
  • Easy to use; low learning curve 
  • Not readily compatible with most catfish rods 
  • Difficult to use with rod holders 
  • Few models include bait clicker 


Baitcasting Reels 

Quantum Iron PT
Quantum Iron PT


Baitcasting reels are by far the most popular and most widely used reels when it comes to targeting catfish.

Given the heavy-duty construction, ability to hold heavy line (and lots of it) and sheer power they are capable of producing, there is a baitcasting reel for every catfish adventure.  

Even a smaller baitcasting reel, matched with a quality rod can be outfitted to catch cats far bigger than comparable spincasting or spinning reels, but it is still recommended you match your selection with the species you plan on pursuing.

There is a bit of learning curve involved in using a baitcasting reel, especially if you hope to avoid the dreaded bird’s nest, but once you get the hang of it you will find this dependable design a staple in your fishing arsenal.  

As stated earlier while it is more than capable of landing even the biggest catfish you may want to have a spinning reel available for those when live bait is called for. 

  • Heavy-duty construction perfectly suited to fighting even the biggest species 
  • Designed to provide power and torque needed for catfish 
  • Large line capacity  
  • Very little maintenance needed 
  • Best catfish rods specifically designed for this type of reel 
  • Can be difficult for beginners to master 
  • Not necessarily the best choice when using live bait 


Thomas Burrell
Tom is an avid outdoorsman and enjoys fishing , hunting and kayaking in his native Pennsylvania and anywhere else he find the time to travel to. When not recreating outdoors he is protecting it as a full time conservation officer and spending time with his wife and 3 children.


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