10 Best Catfish Reels in 2020

If you're on the hunt for a new reel with catfishing in mind, look no further. We tested and reviewed 10 of the best catfish reels below. Whether you're a beginner or pro, there's a reel below perfect for you.

Best Overall
Penn SQL30LW
SEE Best Price
Best value
KastKing Rover
SEE Best Price
Best Premium
Abu Garcia
SEE Best Price
Dale Shetler
By Dale Shetler
Updated September 26, 2020
Show Contents

Introduction

Catfish are feisty. They put up a fight and are often eager to go after bait. This makes them fun to fish for, whether you’re on a boat or the shore. There are many catfish species - all with different temperaments and sizes - so your tackle and bait will vary depending on what you’re going after.

As an example, small catfish can weigh as little as one pound, while the large ones - like blue catfish - can weigh well over 100+ pounds! In this guide, we’ll explore the ten best catfish reels, which include our favorite pick overall, the best value reel, best reel for saltwater fishing, and so on.

We’ll also cover buying considerations and frequently asked questions about reels for catfish.

Top 10 Best Catfish Reels

1. Penn SQL30LW Squall LevelWind 

Best Overall
Penn SQL30LW Squall LevelWind

Designed to resist the harsh conditions of saltwater, this reel is our top pick. It features a forged, machined aluminum spool that’s braid ready. To quickly see how much line you have left, there are convenient line capacity rings that mark ⅓, ⅔, and full capacity.

For smoothness, there’s a durable stainless steel pinion gear and HT-100 drag washers. The bearing and anti-reverse system are 2+1 shielded stainless steel.

For great drag, there’s a greased HT-100 Versa system that allows multiple drag settings. The main gear is marine-grade bronze alloy. For all the metal, the reel stays fairly lightweight thanks to a graphite frame and side plates, which also makes the reel more corrosion-resistant.

Choose the length of your handle with the Versa-Handle system. This is a great reel for strong saltwater catfish, but it works for freshwater catfish and many other fish species, too!

2. KastKing Rover Round Baitcasting Reel

Best value
KastKing Rover Round Baitcasting Reel

Part of the KastKing Rover series, we chose this round reel as the best catfish baitcasting reel for the money. It boasts great design, power, and durability. It features a CNC machined spool, precision-cut brass gears, and hard anodized aluminum side plates. There’s also an all-alloy level wind, stainless steel worm gear, and patented metal idle gear.

The level wind is a guide that moves from side to side as you turn, keeping the line laying smooth and level. The carbon fiber drag has a newly-designed “Cymbal Washer” that provides up to 30 pounds of drag. That’s good news if you’re targeting catfish around this weight.

For smooth performance, there are MaxiDur double-shielded stainless steel ball bearings. Depending on the size you get, there are four (size 70-90) or six (six 40-60). A conventional reel, you can use this KastKing for trolling, bottom fishing, and more. Other features include large non-slip EVA grips, a thumb bar spool release, and a line out clicker alarm.

Interested in other baitcasting reels? Check out our guide here.

3. Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Catfish Pro 

Best premium
Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Catfish Pro

Designed specifically for catfish, we believe this is the best catfish baitcasting reel money can buy. It features a Carbon Matrix drag system, stainless steel bearings, and a six-pin centrifugal braking system.

The drag system is consistent, which is very important when targeting catfish, a fish that likes to fight. The system gives you a long drag range, as well. The stainless steel ball bearings ensure a smooth retrieve.

The braking system lets the line feed off the spool at the same speed rate as the cast. It’s very easy to cast long distances. We also like the synchronized level wind system and durable aluminum build.

The extended bent handle gives you a better grip when you’re pulling in catfish with big lures. Remember, more weight on the line means you need to increase the spool tension on your reel. If you’re interested in a reel made for targeting catfish - and you’re willing to pay more - this Abu Garcia is a great choice.

4. Penn Fishing Spinfisher VI

Penn Fishing Spinfisher VI

If you’re concerned about saltwater getting in your reel, you’ll appreciate the features on our pick for the best catfish spinning reel. It features an IPX5 sealed body and spool design. The HT-100 drag washers (made from carbon fiber) are fully sealed and protected.

They ensure a smooth performance. Depending on the model you get, the drag starts at 15 pounds and goes up to 50 pounds. The CNC gear system stays in perfect alignment thanks to the reel’s Full Metal Body and sideplate.

What else does this reel have to offer? There’s a 5+1 sealed stainless steel ball bearing system, Superline spool, and line capacity rings. Sizes 6500-10500 have a manual bail trip, while the 2500-5500 sizes have an automatic bail trip.

It comes in Bail-Less, Long Cast, and Live Liner models. There is no braking system on this reel. Love spinning reels? Click here for our guide on the 10 best spinning reels in 2020.

5. Okuma Classic CLX Levelwind

Okuma Classic CLX Right

Our second value pick is in the running for the best catfish reel under $100. The spool is graphite, so it’s resistant to corrosion and appropriate for saltwater fishing.

The ported frame and sideplates are also corrosion-resistant and lightweight. For strength, there’s a stainless steel reel foot. The reel also features a multi-disc drag system and self-lubricating gear system, giving you a dependable and smooth performance.

The level wind system is stainless steel. A level wind system makes the line wrap on the spool evenly as you reel it in. Speaking of turning, the handle on this reel is an aluminum power handle with T-style knobs. Instead of ball bearings, this reel uses a bushing drive.

6. Abu Garcia C3 Catfish Special

Abu Garcia C3 Species Special

This reel from Abu Garcia is one of the best baitcasting reels for catfish in terms of sheer power. It’s built to last and built to perform. If you’re targeting the biggest, strongest fish in deep water, this is the reel you want.

It comes in two sizes: 6500 and 7000. The 6500 features three stainless steel ball bearings, one roller bearing, and a gear ratio of 5.3:1. The 7000 size, which is the one you want if you want to prioritize power, has two stainless steel, one roller bearing, and a 4.1:1 gear ratio.

Both sizes have long bent cranking handles and oversized power knobs, giving you great torque and leverage with large fish. The Carbon Matrix system is smooth and dependable, while the 6-pin centrifugal brake gives you great accuracy when casting. The synchronized level wind system also helps with casting and line lay.

7. Lew’s Speed Cast Reel

Lew's Fishing Lew's Speed Cast SC600

This heavy-duty catfish reel is built to handle big catfish. It has a brass main gear and crankshaft, so rest assured that this reel is sturdy. The frame and sideplates are anodized aluminum, a great material.

The carbon fiber drag system provides smooth and strong performance. You can expect a maximum of 15 pounds on the drag system. The reel weighs about 12 ounces and offers a 5.3:1 gear ratio. Choose between a right or left-handed model.

Other features include a 5-bearing system with stainless steel bearings and a Zero Reverse one-way clutch bearing for its anti-reverse system. This means that whenever the spool starts spinning in that direction, the clutch bearing stops the spool from turning.

For great grip, we appreciate the over sized EVA grip on the power handle. The reel is pretty affordable at around $100.

8. Shimano Sedona FI Spinning Reel

Shimano Spinning Reel 17 Sedona 2500S

The original Shimano Sedona was nice, but the upgrades on this version make it worth talking about. It’s now lighter, stronger, faster, and more durable. It uses a lightweight G-free body and Magnumlite rotor, which also gives a smooth performance.

The frame includes cold-forged Hagene gears for strength. All sizes (except the 1000) also have higher gear ratios and better drag power. The 1000 has a 7-pound drag with a 5.0:1 gear ratio, while the larger sizes start at a 20-pound drag with a 6.2:1 gear ratio.

The 3+1 ball bearing system isn’t too different than the original, but it’s now created to handle more water environments.

If you were a fan of the original Sedona FI, you’ll like this one even better. Because of its great features and affordable price, this Shimano is one of the best spinning reels for catfish. It works for both inshore and offshore fishing applications. For more inshore spinning reel options, check out our guide.

9. Catfish Sumo Heavyweight

Heavyweight Champions Catfish Baitcaster Reel

This versatile catfish casting reel from Heavyweight Champions is a baitcaster, so it’s designed for long casts. The centrifugal brake system and spindle brakes keep the line from bundling up. There’s an anti-reverse system, as well, and a carbon disc drag with 20 pounds of drag. Made of brass, the gears have a ratio of 5.3:1.

For strength, there’s a steel mount plate and thickened aluminum sides. The materials are high-quality, so - as the name suggests- it’s designed to bring in monster trophy catfish. Another important concern is how much line a reel can hold.

The Heavy Champions Catfish holds 300 yards of line. Because of its durability, it can be used for both freshwater and saltwater fishing, like surf fishing.

Ready for catfish surf fishing? It’s often so easy to catch catfish while surf fishing, you can find articles on how to avoid catching them. You’ll need the right reel. For surf fishing reels, click here.

10. Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Blue Yonder

Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Blue Yonder

This Abu Garcia reel may be our last pick in this guide, but it’s certainly not the least. As a round baitcaster, it’s better for larger fish than a low profile model. It offers an open CT frame, so it’s easy to access the line.

The stainless steel ball bearings (there are two) and single roller bearing are smooth. For great casting control, there’s an adjustable MagTrax brake system and Duragear brass gear.

You want leverage when reeling in larger fish, so you’ll like the extended bent handle with power knobs. The Carbon Matrix drag system also helps bring in fish that fight. The anti-reverse bearing is corrosion resistant.

Things to Consider When Buying Catfish Spinning reels

What factors should you keep in mind when searching for the best catfish reel? Here are seven important buying considerations:

Reel type

There are three main types of reels: spincast, spinning, and baitcasting. They each have their pros and cons. Spincast reels are easy to use, so they’re great for those just getting into fishing.

They’re also the most affordable type of reel. You do miss out on accuracy and casting distance. Spinning reels are the most popular type of reel and easy to cast. They’re also more accurate. The downside is they don’t work that well with heavier lines.

Spinning Reel Parts Infographic

Baitcasting reels are designed for people with more experience. They have great accuracy, distance, and power, which makes them ideal for targeting stronger, bigger fish.

Baitcasting Reel Parts infographic

They are the most expensive type of reel. All three of these reel types can work for catfish, depending on the specific species and your skill level. To see what we believe works best for catfish, keep reading to the frequently asked questions section.

Construction material

The durability of your reel matters. It needs to be able to hold up in the elements, which can include corrosive saltwater. Stainless steel, aluminum, and graphite are common materials.

Metals like stainless steel and aluminum have the benefits of being stronger, but they corrode more easily. Graphite works better for saltwater fishing. It also tends to be cheaper. For ball bearings, stainless steel is best.

Line capacity

As the name suggests, the line capacity of the reel refers to how much line the spool can hold. With catfishing reels, you’ll want ones with large line capacity. This is because you’ll often be depending on heavier fishing line. Catfish can be very heavy and strong.

Heavier line takes up more space on the spool. Having a big line capacity also lets you use a variety of catfishing techniques. You’ll want to be able to make long casts and fish in deep water, where catfish often like to hang out. In general, baitcasters have bigger line capacities.

Drag system

Drag systems help you tire out big, fighting fish while you’re slowing reel them in. This is important for catfish. A good drag keeps the line and other pieces of tackle from breaking. Pretty much every decent-quality reel will come with some kind of drag system, but the cheapest reels will fall short.

If you’re going after large catfish, you’ll want to invest in a reel with a great drag system, which includes drag washers. Ideally, drag washers should be made of metal - not plastic - so they're built to last.

Gear ratio

Gear Ratio Infographic

Gear ratio determines how much line (and its speed) moves around the spool when you turn the handle. With a higher ratio (like 6:1), you get more line retrieved faster with each handle turn. This is important when you’re pulling in bigger catfish, especially if you cast a long distance and have a lot of line to bring in.

The spool tension should be increased, as well. You should also think about the lure you’re using when selecting gear ratio. As an example, deep water crankbaits work best with lower gear ratios while jigs or jerkbaits need higher ratios.

Ball bearings

ball bearings and fishing reel smoothness

The best reels feature sealed ball bearings on their rotating parts. These give you smoother, sturdier performance. As we mentioned earlier, stainless steel is the best material.

Cheaper reels use bushings because they’re cheap and easy to manufacture. If quality is important to you, always get a reel with ball bearings. The best catfishing reels will feature a good number of ball bearings. In general, the more the better, unless they’re low quality.

Weight

How much your reel weighs is always an important buying consideration, regardless of the fish species you’re targeting. If you’re fishing for big catfish, you’ll need a heavier reel to support them.

The size of the rod should match the reel. Balance is essential. If you have a big reel with a short, light rod, you won’t find much success. Choose your reel/rod weight and size based on the size of catfish you’re going after. Fishing for smaller catfish? Here are the best ultralight spinning reels.

Power handles

Power handles are larger knobs on the reel, which give you better grip and torque. They are useful when you need more leverage to pull in a large fish. If you’re targeting big catfish, these handles are definitely worth considering.

You can find them on some fishing reels (like Lew’s Speed Cast Reel, our pick for best strength), but quite often, they’re something you buy separately.

Frequently Asked Questions about Catfish Reels

You probably still have some questions about catfish reels. Here are some of the most frequently asked ones:

What is the best reel type for catfish?

As we mentioned earlier, there are three main types of reels each with advantages and disadvantages. As a review, spincast reels are easy to use, affordable, and good for beginners.

They aren’t great with heavier lines, though, which is an issue if you’re targeting heavier catfish. Spinning reels are a better choice, but don’t just go out and buy just any spinning reel.
 
We think baitcast reels are the best reel type if you’re purchasing a reel specific to catfishing. Most catfish anglers prefer them because they work for all catfish species and fishing techniques. Baitcast reels also come in a wide range of prices.

If you’ve never used one before, they can take a bit of practice, but it’s worth it. If you’re targeting heavier fish, skip the low profile baitcasters and go with a round reel.

What rod should I pair my catfishing reel with?

Your fishing rod is a very important piece of tackle. The right one depends on a number of factors such as the size of your reel. When considering a rod, ask questions like:
 
“What species of catfish am I hoping to catch?”
 
“How big can this species get?”
 
“What techniques do I want to use?”
 
You should also be aware that rods come in two styles: spinning and casting. They need to be paired with the appropriate reel, i.e. a spinning rod needs a spinning reel. No matter what type you get, it should be on the long side. That’s because catfishing requires long casts.

Longer rods also give you more leverage, which is important when you’re fighting a big catfish. For more information on choosing the best catfish rod, check out our guide on the 10 best catfish rods in 2020.

What is the best gear ratio for catfish?

For catfish, you need higher gear ratios. These give you more speed and power. A good range is between 5:1 and 6.5:1. With a gear ratio on the higher end, you get more line in per handle turn, but you do lose some power as a result. With lower ratios, you get more power, but less speed.

Do you need a leader for catfish?

We recommend using a leader for catfish. Mono or fluorocarbon is the best material. With mono, you get more stretch.

It’s also easier to break if you get a hook stuck in areas with lots of vegetation or other obstacles. Fluorocarbon is a popular choice for leaders because it’s very resistant to abrasions.

When targeting catfish with especially good eyesight (like channel catfish), the clearness of fluorocarbon is a plus. This type of line is significantly more expensive than mono. If you aren’t sure about spending the extra cash, start out with mono and see how you like it.

What bait should I use for catfish?

There are lots of recommendations on catfish bait. What works best? It all depends on the species. Flathead catfish like live bait, while blue catfish will eat fresh or frozen oily fish. Channel catfish like “stink baits” because they’re scavengers.

When targeting big freshwater catfish, many anglers keep their bait near the bottom. If you go with this technique, you’ll need the right tackle. Check out the best conventional reels for bottom fishing.

Conclusion

Man with 20lb catfish in his arms caught on a fishing trip

Whether you’re targeting small catfish or monster blue catfish, you want the right reel. There are many to choose from, including spinning and baitcasting reels. We decided that baitcasting reels are the best because of their versatility, but spinning reels can work just as well.

To choose the catfish reel that works best for your needs, be aware of buying considerations like construction, line capacity, drag system, and gear ratio. If you’re targeting big catfish, durability and excellent drag systems will be a priority.

For smaller fish, a lighter, spinning reel to match a lighter rod will work. Whatever species or technique you’re interested in, there’s a reel out there for you.

FishingRefined is a participant in several affiliate programs. When you buy products through the external links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commision. Learn more.