Pulling In the Best Catfish Reels – Our Favorite Models For 2020 Compared

There are over 3,000 species of catfish worldwide, and among them are some of the toughest and largest of the freshwater game fish species. Fish from the bigger varieties like the flathead and blue catfish, the European wels catfish, and even large channel catfish, are strong and heavy enough to demand specialized gear. Stout rods are required, and reels take a lot of abuse during the hunt for big catfish. It is generally accepted that traditional round bait casters make the best catfish reels, but some of the modern heavy saltwater reels are gaining in popularity.

8 Best Catfish Reels - Comparisons

Features of a Good Catfish Reel 

A catfish reel has to have a tough gear train and tight components in order to handle casting big weights and large baits on heavy line. Particularly for river fishing, the terminal gear together with currents and the occasional snags are going to put a lot of strain on a reel even when you are not catching fish. A positive bait clicker is essential for detecting when a fish is moving with the bait. The drag has to be smooth and strong enough to hold up to long fights. Overall strength is probably more important than casting ability in a cat reel, but bank fishermen will need to be able to make long casts. Reel gear ratio should generally be 6:1 or at least 5:1 or it will be difficult to get a big fish to shore. Finally, many catfishermen like the advantages line-counter reels offer when it comes to dropping baits back into a good spot behind the boat or making accurate distance casts from the shore.

The Best Catfish Reels on the Market 

There are a lot of good catfish reels on the market today. In this review, we take a look at some of the best catfish reels for the money in both bait casting and spinning categories. 

8 Best Catfish Reels – Reviews 

Shimano Tekota TEK800 Trolling Reel

If you are ready to get into the high end, the Shimano Tekota 800 is a super-smooth, bomb-proof saltwater trolling reel that makes the ultimate big river catfish reel. The Tekota is a level-wind line-counter reel that is made to stand up to fish in the 50lb+ range with ease. The Tekota has a machined aluminum one-piece frame and full metal and metal-backed graphite side covers. The reel feels incredibly solid in the hand, but still has that Shimano smoothness and refinement. The TEK800 can spool 640yds of 80lb Powerpro braid or 370yds of 40lb mono and deal it back out under 24lbs of drag brake pressure. All the controls on this reel are outstanding. The clicker is positive and loud, and the clutch lever is easy to work in all conditions. The TEK800 is compact enough to palm, but powerful enough to take on 100lb blue cats. The beefy handle lets you bring in 33 inches of line per crank. We love having saltwater power and durability on our side when fighting big catfish, and the Tekota is our top pick among the bait casting reels.

What we liked

  • One-piece aluminum frame
  • Saltwater toughness
  • Smooth 3-bearing action

What we didn't like

  • High price point

2. Team Catfish Gold Ring 400 Casting Reel

Team Catfish Gold Ring 400 Casting Reel

The Team Catfish Gold Ring 400 is a specialized 6:1 fast retrieve catfish reel that brings a lot of features to the table at a quality level similar to the Shimano TEK800. It has the aluminum one-piece frame and aluminum side plates, instant anti-reverse, and an extra-heavy reel foot that really locks things in place. The aluminum spool winds on 120yds of 20lb test mono and will take more than that in braid. This reel casts amazingly well for a catfish reel, probably because it has the magnetic thumb-switch cast control system found on high-end bass casting reels. Detail touches like the metal-lined level-winder, the low-profile bait clicker, and the windage dial for fine-tuning casts with large baits show the thought that has gone into dialing this reel in for catfishing purposes. Five stainless steel bearings keep the reel smooth under load, and the handle lets you put plenty of power on. The Gold Ring 400 is a great catfishing reel that offers a lot of features at a price point that places this reel as our top value for the money pick.

What we liked

  • Sleek, trim profile
  • Long casts

What we didn't like

  • Drag only goes to 12lbs
Penn Spinfisher V 6500LL Spinning Reel

The Penn 6500LL is a spinning reel that will work well on catfish. This handsome reel is designed to handle the rigors of saltwater fishing with water-tight construction and over-built components. At this same time, it is not too bulky for mounting on a catfish rod. The 6500LL has a full-metal body and rotor, a machined aluminum spool, and a heavy-duty aluminum bail. All-metal lubricated gears and 5 shielded stainless steel ball bearings provide smooth, powerful action. The spool is superline-ready, so no mono backing is needed for winding on up to 430yds of 30lb braid. The HT-100 carbon drag can lay on 30lbs of pressure, and the reel has a fast 5.6:1 retrieve that cranks in 39 inches of line per turn. This makes it ideal for handling a lot of line when drifting baits or fishing deep. We liked the line capacity marks on this reel as they are also very helpful when free-lining bait. This is a nice spinning reel with a feel that is nearly as sturdy and powerful as the best round reels. It is our top pick for a catfish-capable spin rig.

What we liked

  • Waterproof housing
  • Tough build
  • Excellent handle

What we didn't like

  • Reel foot should be larger
  • Not well-balanced on shorter heavy rods
Abu Garcia Ambassadeur C3-7000 Catfish Fishing Reel

For a specialized catfish reel from Abu Garcia, go with the Ambassadeur C3-7000 Catfish Special. This reel is the choice of many professional catfish guides, and it is built on the time-tested C3 round reel platform. This is a heavy reel at 21.5ozs, but it is made big to handle 300 yards of 20-pound mono or 600 yards of 30-pound braid and slam on 20lbs of carbon drag to slow down fish in the 100lb range. The Catfish Special is geared low at 4.1:1 so you lose a little speed on the retrieve but gain in torque to work with heavy weights and big fish. All of the operating controls on the catfish special are made to work easily with gloves on or at night. The bait clicker is great on this reel – so loud you can hear it all over the boat, or even if you are napping on the bank. We also like the knurled take-down screws that make it possible to work on this reel in the field in case of bad tangles or immersion in mud and water. This is an excellent reel that will stand up to tough use.

What we liked

  • Durable, practical construction
  • Made to handle with gloves on
  • Swedish-built

What we didn't like

  • Clicker lever is somewhat flimsy
  • Casting far takes some practice
Abu Garcia C3-6500STSPC Ambassadeur Striper Special

Abu Gracia bait casting reels always offer consistent performance and quality and the Ambassadeur Striper Special does not disappoint. Made for trolling saltwater for striped bass, the Striper Special makes an excellent catfish reel for boat fishing applications. The reel runs very smoothly on 3 stainless steel ball bearings and 1 roller bearing. A carbon fiber drag system puts on 15lbs of smooth pressure. Casting this reel with braid is a breeze. It is very controllable as far as accuracy goes, and the level wind system lays the line back on perfectly. The overall feel of this reel is right up there with the Shimano for precision and a well-crafted feel. The reel is solid when fighting fish, and the handle is comfortable. This is the type of reel needed for working with big blue and flathead catfish. The only complaint we have with the Striper Special is the shoulder-mount clutch system. It works fine, but we just prefer the large levers for operating with gloves on.

What we liked

  • Abu Garcia quality
  • Precision feel
  • Easy to cast

What we didn't like

  • Shoulder-mounted clutch
  • Reel foot should be beefed up a bit
Daiwa Black Gold BG20 Saltwater Spinning Reel

The Black Gold is another saltwater spinning reel that has the solid construction needed to take on big catfish. The Black Gold is very rigid and study for a spinning reel, and it has a well-established reputation among surf fishermen for simplicity and dependability. The 4.8:1 gear ratio offers enough torque to winch in big fish while still retrieving a reasonable 34 inches of line per crank. The Black Gold can hold 150yds of 17lb mono on its machined aluminum spool, and the Teflon/stainless steel drag goes up to 17.6 lbs. The oversized reel foot provides a solid foundation, and we liked the big handle with its wooden cranking knob. This reel has an old-school look to it and nothing fancy about it – it just works. If you need a good spinning reel for catfish but want to stay at a lower price point than the Penn Spinfisher, consider the Diawa BG20.

What we liked

  • Very sturdy reel foot and support arm
  • 25-year performance record
  • Smooth retrieve

What we didn't like

  • Clicker should be louder
  • Reel foot may not sit tightly on some rods
Zebco Big Cat XT 30 Conventional Reel

Although Zebco build quality has suffered since production went to China, the Zebco Big Cat XT reel performed well and looked to have what it needed for durability at a very reasonable price point. It is built to handle trolling applications and can wind 225yds of 30lb mono or 767yds of 30lb braid on its oversized aluminum spool. A graphite frame holds everything together and a 2-bearing system keeps casts and retrieves reasonably smooth. The Big Cat does not have the positive feel of a 3- or 5-bearing reel, but the price is far more friendly to the budget-conscious fisherman. The side-mounted clutch lever is easy to operate, we like the large, powerful crank handle, and adjusting the drag while fighting is simple. The Big Cat XT performed without a hitch in our test, and it is a good choice for those wanting a lower-priced reel.

What we liked

  • Large, easy-to-operate controls
  • Sturdy build
  • High capacity

What we didn't like

  • Heavy at 18.4oz
  • Quality is hit and miss
Daiwa Round Profile Millionaire Classic 10oz Baitcast Reel

While not a specialized catfish reel, the Diawa Millionaire is a classic round bait casting reel that has proven its worth on big fish in both fresh and saltwater environments. It is a solidly-built reel with high-strength alloy gears, a machined aluminum spool, and aluminum housings. The multi-disc drag comes with felt discs and has a smooth braking action, but upgrading to carbon-fiber discs would be a good idea for fishing big river fish. The casting clutch is mounted on the shoulder of the reel – not our favorite but easy to use. The Millionaire has a level wind function and handles braid well. It is rated for 260yds of 14lb test, but we wound on 30lb braid with no problem. This reel is a solid performer all around. It does not cast quite as far as the newer thumb-controlled baitcasters, but it makes up for that in durability and line capacity. For getting into fish 30-50lbs on a steady basis, we would like to see the option of a power cranking handle on this reel. That is about the only downside we found on a solid reel that is likely to last for years.

What we liked

  • Classic looks and feel
  • Strong build
  • Very smooth under load

What we didn't like

  • Casting clutch takes some getting used to
  • Handle is on the small side

Choosing the Best Catfish Reel 

These reels are all in the best of breed category, and any one of them makes a good catfish reel. The differences among them offer opportunities to dial in your reel choice according to the budget you are working with and most importantly, the species and size of catfish you will be targeting the most often. Going for trophy-size blue or flathead catfish from a boat is a completely different sport than everyday bank fishing for average-sized channel catfish. Another thing to be considered is the fact that catfisherman often work with multiple rigs. That means buying multiples of everything. Spending some time putting together the right rod and reel combo for your specific purposes will pay off in the long run, and we hope this review was helpful to that end.

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David Valle

I started this blog to provide advanced material, guiding you towards a better and more comfortable fishing experience. I deliver more than fishing gear guides, and motivate people to hit the water!