Choosing the best catfish reel for your setup will largely depend on how big the cats are that you are targeting.
Larger cats can wreak havoc with a reel that has a subpar drag system and you may well regret not investing in some decent gear.
Not all catfish are created equal and in the same way not all reels are equal either.
A bad reel will likely result in snapped line, a good reel if looked after should last years and outlive most of your rods.
Smaller channel cats can be caught on a lighter spinning setup but if you are going to be targeting larger blues or flatheads then a baitcaster starts to make more sense.
That being said there are some die hard anglers out there that use a big saltwater spinning reel when chasing that cat of a lifetime and it works just fine for them!
Baitcaster vs Spinning Reels for Catfish?
Most anglers start out fishing as a kid with a spinning setup or a spincast combo.
Both are easy to learn and will be a lot less hassle than a baitcaster for young people.
Whereas most anglers will leave the spincast behind as they get older some will use a spinning reel all their life and never make the effort to learn how to use a baitcaster reel.
As a catfish reel both spinning reels and baitcaster reels are perfectly acceptable unless you are looking to cast very heavy rigs in pursuit of trophy catfish.
Catfish Spinning Reels
The majority of reel manufacturers are not making freshwater reels that can realistically withstand the type of punishment that a large catfish is likely to subject a light spinning reel to.
Saltwater spinning reels however are mush more suitable for as a reel for catfishing and assuming that you size them in the correct size and with a powerful enough drag you should be good.
Manufacturers like Penn, Daiwa and Shimano have well earned reputations of building high quality larger spinning reels that are capable of handling a lot of weight.
Large spinning are a little limited in some ways when compared to a really good baitcaster.
Baitcaster are designed for casting heavy bait rigs a long distance they also have an added advantage in that you will have a much larger choice of catfish rods available to you.
If you take the time to learn how to use a baitcaster it will actually give you a much more varied approach to catfishing.
Baitcasters will generally have a larger line capacity, more durable drag system and have a wider availability of the various gear ratio's when compared to a spinning reel.
The low-profile baitcasters that are so popular in the bass fishing world are not generally suitable as a catfish reel.
Old style round baitcasters are built a lot tougher and are more suited to hauling a stubborn catfish up from the depths.
Best Catfish Reels
Abu Garcia C3 catfish reels are a specialist model based on their much loved and respected C3 series of round baitcasters.
The best catfish baitcaster reel ? For blues and flatheads, absolutely.
If you are using lighter line techniques for channel cats then a smaller normal C3-5500 is a better option.
There are two models available the C3-6500 and the C3-7000.
The 6500 gets 3 stainless ball bearings and 1 roller bearing whereas the 7000 gets 2 main bearings and 1 roller.
Both come with a Carbon Matrix drag system, a 6 pin centrifugal brake and a synchronized level wind system.
The 6500 can hold 320 yards of 12 lbs mono or 225 yards of 17 lbs mono.
It has a higher gear ratio at 5.3:1 and a retrieve rate of 26" per turn of the handle.
The 7000 can hold 325 yards of 17 lbs mono and 230 yards of 25 lbs mono.
It has a lower gear ratio of 4.1:1 and a retrieve rate of 22" per turn of the handle.
Clearly the C3-7000 is aimed at trophy fish whereas the C3-6500 is much more of a general reel that will be suitable for most anglers.
So how do they differ from the normal C3 reels? Appearance wise they have a bright metallic orange finish and a catfish image embossed into the finish.
Just bare in mind that the finish has changed somewhat since it initially launched.
Functionally they are essentially the same reels but they come with a power handle as standard and not the smaller dual handles.
Most anglers when choosing a catfish baitcaster will always opt for the power handle as it gives you a bit more torque when reeling compared to the smaller dual paddle handles.
The C3 line are considered to be one of the easiest round style baitcasters to learn to cast on so if you are making the switch from a spinning reel to a baitcaster then with a little practice the C3's will have you getting the 'knack' of using a casting reel in no time.
I personally pair these with a 7' foot whisker seeker rod and find the pairing to be an exceptional combo.
Spool them up with 15 lbs mono and you are pretty much ready to go once you adjust the drag setting and spool tension-er.
In a size 4500 the BG makes a fine match for any small to mid-sized catfish.
It will hold 280 yards of 17 lbs monofilament and 340 yards of 40 lbs braid.
If braid is your preferred choice of line then the spool on the BG is braid ready making it easier to spool up.
The reel housing is made from anodized machined aluminum combined with a dynamic cut aluminum ABS spool and carbon drag system make for one very smooth reel.
On the size 4500 or higher there is an infinite dual anti-reverse system and a manual return bail.
They come with 6 main bearings and 1 reverse bearing.
A carbon drag system with a max drag setting of 22 lbs is more than enough to handle most catfish.
A very solid spinning reel for catfishing!
If you aim is to target smaller channel catfish and smaller blues or flatheads then the C3-5500 is the best catfish reel for the money.
Pretty much ever serious catfish angler I know has or still uses one of these reels and once taken care of correctly they will last decades if not a lifetime of use and abuse.
They are a smaller model to the 6000 and 7000 series but do not comes with a bait clicker.
The 5500 will hold 240 yards of 12 lbs monofilament which is the best line to use if you are looking to use lighter techniques, bait rigs or bobber fishing for channel catfish.
With the drag set correctly you can easily land a 25 to 30 lbs catfish even though you are only using 12 lbs line assuming that you are not near any snags of course.
You can only get the 5500 with the dual handle and not the power handle that is available on the larger handles.
For smaller cats this is not really an issue.
They have the same Carbon Matrix drag system and 6 pin centrifugal brake that comes on the higher end models.
So if you are planning on buying a dual purpose spinning reel for catfish and some saltwater use then the Spinfisher is one of the best options available.
A size 4500 is a good option for lighter bait rigs and a size 5500 will give a great balance of performance and power for larger catfishing.
The 4500 will hold 235 yards of 12 lbs mono and the 5500 will hold 230 yards of 15 lbs mono.
Both come with a HT-100 carbon drag washers, CNC internal gears, fully sealed reel housing, Superline spool, instant anti-reverse and are available in left or right hand models.
Penn have built one of the best reputations in the fishing reel industry and the Spinfisher VI is considered it's premium all round spinning that is suitable for use in both freshwater and saltwater.
There are also live liner and bail-less models available that are denoted with an LL and a BLS model number although I have yet to see anyone use the bail-less models.
If you are aiming to land that trophy catfish of a lifetime then the gold standard of catfish reels is the Ambassadeur 7000.
Thousands of large blue and flathead catfish have been caught on the 7000 series as they are a complete workhorse of a reel designed for cranking against really big fish and casting larger rigs and weights.
The have a bigger line capacity and come with a power handle as standard which makes cranking that little bit easier than on the smaller 6000 sized models.
A low gear ratio of 4.1:1 and a retrieve rate of 22 inches per crank means they are squarely geared towards pulling big numbers.
Super solid brass internal gears and a multi disc drag system combined with a 6 pin centrifugal brake system makes for a very smooth operating reel built to a very tough standard.
They also come with a loud bait clicker as standard so if you have several lines spread out along a river bank you will be sure to never miss a bite again.
It will hold 325 yards of 17 lbs mono or 230 yards of 25 lbs mono.
If you are spooling braid then it will hold 360 yards of 50 lbs braided fishing line.
As we discussed earlier choosing a catfish reel will mostly be based off of your preference for either spinning reels or baitcasting reels.
Either way you still need an appropriately sized reel and one that has a robust enough drag system to handle large catfish.
Baitasters are generally though of as the superior choice when going after big fish regardless of whether that's in saltwater or freshwater.
They are capable of handling heavy forces on the internal gears in a much better way than spinning reels and that is in part down to the design.
Spinning reels do have their place though and if targeting smaller fish you will get a more accurate cast when using lighter rigs or even when float fishing.
This is because when using lighter weights the line will fall off of a sponning reel spool much easier than off of a baitcacter.
A baitcaster needs a minimum weight to get the spool to run up to speed when casting.
With a spinning reel you can don't need that much weight.
Regardless of your choice you do need to match your rod and reel so that you get the best possible performance out of both.
A spinning reel should always be used on a spinning rod.
The line falls off the spools in a circular manner, that is why the lower line guidess on a spinning rod are so wide.
If you used a spinning reel on a casting rod the line would cause a lot of friction on the first line guide.
A baitcaster more or less runs off in a straight the reel so the first guide on a casting rod can be much smaller and more uniform up along the rod blank.
What Size Reel for Catfish?
If you are looking at a spinning reel for catfish then a size 4000 would be the absolute minimum. A baitcaster for larger rigs and heavier line a size 5000.
Small reels will really not cut it when you are fishing for catfish. You would want a lot of line that is 30 lbs minimum for mono and 50 to 60 lbs for braid.
A high quality spool is clearly a must on any reel but when using a lot of heavy line then it needs to have a wide arbor to be able to accommodate all that line.
The bigger the spool the less prone your line will be to knotting or getting a memory or overly coiled when it is being stored in the winter.
When fishing for crappie or any other panfish sized fish your drag won't be that important.
However taking the step up to catfishing and your reel particularly the drag will need to be top notch.
Most high quality reels will have a very good drag.
On lower priced cheap catfish reels it is the drag that is often the first thing to break once it is put under any kind of serious pressure.
Ultimately the your choice of catfish reels will be determined by what size catfish you will be aiming for and whether you want a spinning or casting setup.
What is the best gear ratio for catfishing?
A gear ratio of between 5.3:1 and 6:1 is best for a catfish reel as it gives you enough torque combined with a decent retrieve rate.
A higher gear ratio allows you to pick up more line per turn of the handle but it does so at the expense of power.
A lower gear ratio allows you to really put a lot of power through the reel but you do loose some speed when you need to reel in quickly