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Choosing A Catfish Reel

catfish reels

I recently added the choosing a catfish rod page and the tackle page so I wanted to follow up with a reel page and information on choosing a reel, what to look for in a catfish reel and how to chose the best reel for your style of catfishing.

This is fortunately going to be much shorter and not near as involved as the rods page because choosing a reel is a much simpler process.

I get questions all the times about reels and what is the best from people who are wanting to catch everything from big cats to smaller “box” fish (one to ten pound fish). It seems there is a lot of confusion about choosing reels and what the best options are.

Just like I mentioned in the rods page I will ultimately be adding reviews on some of these products and more information as they are added we will add links to this page so they can be easily found. Before you start make sure you check in here often and get the latest and greatest information.

Spinning  Vs Baitcasting Vs Spincasting

The first thing you need to do is make a determination on what type of reels you want, generally your options are:

  • Spinning Reels
  • Baitcasting Reels
  • Spincasting Reels

Before going into suggestions about choosing, let’s cover some highlights on what type you should use. For this purpose I am talking specifically about the techniques that I use which doesn’t include any distance casting like fishing dam tailraces.

  • Spinning Reels – These have a small following among serious or experienced anglers while there are some that use them, they don’t have a huge following. Spinning reels are generally considered to be less durable than baitcasting reels and are generally not needed in most catfishing applications. The primarily reason that spinning reels are used by anglers is they are very effective for casting in heavy cover and in tight spaces, but this is not a common consideration for most techniques for catfish. The biggest advantage of using a spinning reel is that when spooled properly there is not a problem when backlashing the line like with a baitcaster. I have never been a fan of spinning gear and they just don’t work well for me and my style (plus I find them very cumbersome when trying to fish with fishing rod holders and cumbersome to cast).
  • Spincasting Reels - Like that old Zebco Original 33 you used as a kid. You remember, the one with the push button. These might be a good choice if you plan to take a very occasional trip and plop a couple of baits down in the water and catch a couple of one top two pounders or just go fishing for  channels now and then but if you plan on getting into serious catfishing action and trying some of the techniques we are starting to outline like drift, cormorant, or structure fishing then spincasting reels are not a good choice. I do own a couple of these that I have kids use from time to time but as a general rule they don’t get used very often.
  • Baitcasting Reels – The grandfather of all, and what most people consider the “go to”. Multifunction and can be used for catching smaller and bigger catfish alike. If you are going to start trying some new things like the techniques we cover then the baitcaster is probably the choice for you. The downside is you have to know or be willing to learn how to cast with one but it should take you a very short period of time to properly set the drag, properly set the spool tension and learn how to cast. Sure you will deal with the “dreaded backlash” every know and then (no matter how good you are at casting with a baitcaster) but ultimately you will get the process of casting and picking out backlashes (also known as a professional overrun)  quickly where you will be a pro, and it only takes  a little practice. Every reel I carry on my guide trips is a baitcasting reel.

What To Consider When Choosing

Line Capacity - Line capacity is an important consideration, especially if you are considering techniques like drift fishing,  or fishing for big cats. The higher the test strength of the fishing line the larger the diameter. The larger the diameter the line is the larger spool you need to accommodate that line. If you are using line like twenty lb test or thirty lb test fishing line like Offshore Angler Tight Line then you will need a large line capacity reel. In addition if you plan on fishing deeper water, making long casts or drifting you will need a reel with a line capacity large enough to hand the correct strength fishing line but also to have extra fishing line for when you get hung up and break off. That way you are not respooling every time this happens.

Braking - Braking is a system that has been developed that uses magnets to help stop or slow down the speed of the spool turning. Backlashes (also know as professional overruns) occur when you cast and the spool spins faster than the speed of your line. A reel operating in “free spool” or not having a braking system allows the  spool to rotate completely free which allows for greater casting distance and ease of casting.

Counter Balance - Most modern high quality gear has counter balance. This is usually a knob that allows you to make adjustments to the rotation of the spool to compensate for more or less weight as needed. The more weight you have on the line the faster the spool will turn therefore increasing backlashes or chances of backlashes. The counter balance (also sometimes called a spool tensioner) allows you to make adjustments to compensate for more or less weight.

Drag - When you hook a fish there is a lot of force that takes place when you set your hook, especially on a big one. Drag effects your line when you start reeling it in. Drag allows the fish to be able to pull freely on the line, allowing you to land that big one. Drag is what makes it possible to land that 100 lb catch on 20 lb test line.  Drag also helps to tire them out so you can reel them in more easily. Drag is what happens when you get that big catch to the side of the boat and it makes a hard run and starts stripping line, drag is when you look down at your reel when the fish is pulling and the spool is turning away from you instead of towards you. Most every modern reel comes equipped with a star drag system which allows you to easily make adjustments when necessary. (Read more on drag and setting drag)

Retrieve Ratio - Retrieve ration determines how fast and how much line is reeled in per turn of the reel; handle. The higher the retrieve ratio the more line is reeling in with each turn of the handle.  A reel with a retrieve ratio of 6:1 reels in line faster than a reel with a ratio of 5:1. Since you can often be casting long distances or in deep water being able to reel in line quickly is an asset. Slower retrieve ratios are primarily geared towards different lure presentations like used when bass fishing.

Line Alarm / Bait Clicker - You will hear bait clickers referred to as line alarms and bait clickers also. This is a function that allows the spool to operate in free spool and creates a clicking noise when the fish starts swimming away with your bait. Bait clickers are used in many applications but especially when anchored with slip sinker rigs. The bait clicker is an important feature. (Read more on bait clickers)

Bearings and Bushings - Reel bearings are what allows the reel to turn when you cast. The more or higher quality bearings there are the easier it will be to cast and the further you will be able to cast. Some have bushings instead of bearings and therefore do not cast as well as.

The Best Choices

Taking all of these factors into consideration there is no doubt that the most popular reels are round baitcasters. There are a number of options available and most of these will have most of the features (if not all) listed above.

Let’s walk through some options.

How much you are willing to invest will play a big part of the decision making when choosing. Like anything else, you get what you pay for.  If you are just an occasionaly fisherman and won’t be putting your gear through heavy use then one of the cheaper models is probably an OK choice for you but if you will be chasing big cats or putting your gear through heavy use then you probably should go with one of the higher end reels. We will start at the bottom and work our way up.

This is not an all inclusive listing, I am just providing you with some of the most popular options and what I can personally suggest based on experience I have gained through my years as a guide.

Let me preface my information by saying that I strongly encourage everyone to check out ebay especially when looking for Abu Garcia models. You can click this link to pull up a search on ebay and click this link to pull up a search of Abu Garcia on ebay.

Bass Pro Shops MegaCast Metal Round Baitcast Reel – This is a three ball bearing baitcaster and has plenty of features to make it a good option on the low end of the price scale. I have not personally used this product but know several guides that use these because they are cost effective and have all of the needed features. I have heard good feedback on them and that “for the price” they are good, but again I don’t have first hand experience. I am going to pick one up one of these days and see how well it performs (and how long it lasts). If you planning on heavy use or a long term investment I would keep going down the list to the other models but if you want to get setup with a rig as cheap as possible then I would take a look at the Bass Pro Shops MegaCast.

Product Link: Bass Pro Shops MegaCast

Bass Pro Shops CatMaxx CMX-3 Round Baitcast Reel
– This is another Bass Pro Shops model. Plenty of features and a good “middle of the road” model. I wrote a review of the Catmaxx Baitcaster so you can check it out and get more information. This is good choice for a moderate price point for low to moderate use.

Product Link: Bass Pro Shops CatMaxx CMX-3

Abu Garcia BCX Baitcast Reels
- This is very similar to the next three Abu Garcia models I have listed but are made in China instead of Sweden where Abu Garcia is traditionally made.  I have not personally fished with any of the Chinese made Abu Garcia models but I know several people who are using them because the pricing is about $25 cheaper than the other models I have listed. I have heard some good reviews and some grumblings about quality but the “grumblings” may just be because they are new and are not the usual made in Sweden reels. I wouldn’t hesitate to use these reels for moderate use if you want to save a few bucks over one of the higher end Abu Garcia’s.

Product Link: Abu Garcia BCX

Abu Garcia 6600 CL Rocket - This was sold through Wal Mart for a number of years and was a really great model. These are very similar to the 6500 C3 reels but were a flashy orange color and had a thumb bar instead of a push button on them. You can often times find some great deals on the 6600CL Rocket on ebay. My clients “donated “several  of these to the lake and I really wish I had them back. I have had difficulty finding these in recent years but have had some guide friends who have had success finding them on ebay. Click here to search for them on ebay.

Product Link: search Abu Garcia on ebay

Abu Garcia 6600 CB - This is very similar to the 6600 CL rocket that is sold through Cabela’s. If you prefer the thumb bar over the push button then the 6600 CL is a great option. I own several of these and love them. They have been really great and I really like the addition of the thumb bar. This is often available  on ebay and you can search here for them.

Product Link: search here on ebay.

Abu Garcia Ambassadeur C3 – the gold standard. There is no telling how many millions of catfish have been caught on Abu Garcia 6500 C3 Baitcasters. They have been around for years and have become the “grandaddy” for years. I have a whole fleet of these that I use and of all the guides I know this is the absolute most popular model hands down.

Product Link: Abu Garcia Ambassadeur C3

This article is part of the tutorial on catfish reels, click here to visit that page and read some more in depth information on choosing a catfish reel and setting it up for use.

You can also get much more information on catfish rods and reels and everything else you need to know about Catfish Gear in the free Catfish Gear 101 eBook. This eBook covers everything you need to know about choosing rods and reels for catfish and setting them up for use. Just click this link to get started or enter your email address below.

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About Chad

Chad Ferguson is a professional catfish guide and founder of Learn To Catch Catfish. Click here to subscribe for more exclusive catfish fishing tips by email and then follow on Twitter or Google


  1. i have a cheap real i just started using baitcasters and didnt want to drop a load on it if i didnt like the i just wanted to know if you had any thoughts on it. Its a shakespeare TW30L (tidewater). It was about 40$ at walmart i hope to gget a chance to use it soon. If you know nothing of it when i Try it ill post something for another low-end reel.

  2. I have never used them. I know some people that have tried them and have heard mixed reviews. For a lower end reel I would look at the Bass Pro Shops MegaCast Metal Round Baitcast Reel (see link above).

  3. I noticed that your preferred reel doesn’t match with your preferred line (20lb monofilament) the link brings to a product page that has a max 14lb. is that just a guide for lenth, or are you putting a stronger line than recommended by the manufacturer? just curious.

    • Read the article I posted about choosing a catfish rod. I ignore all manufacturers suggestions on line and sinker weights for gear, and have never have had an issues.

  4. Hi Chad,

    A question about reel selection. I have a couple of Shimano Corvalus 400 reels from my saltwater days. They seem to be about the same size and quality as the venerable 6500 C3. Do you have any experiance with these reels? Any comments would be appreciated.


    • I have used some Shimano’s in the past but not that specific model. Shimano makes an excellent reel. I pulled it up online and it looks like it has all the features I would look for in a catfish reel. I couldn’t find anything on line capacity and looking at the pictures it looks like line capacity may be less than a 6500 C3 but I am not 100% sure. If I had them laying around I wouldn’t hesitate to use them at all based on what I could tell from the photos.

  5. Thanks for looking into it Chad. Just for your own info the line capacity is 17/220, 20/165 the gear ratio is 5.2:1 and it has 3SS + 1RB. They cast really well and have a decent drag. I was running braid on them but I think I will change over to 20# mono.

    I’ve also got an ABU 5600 C4, I guess that could be my punch bait reel!

  6. Chad dont forget if you like and or use Spider wire. You dont need the 6500 series spool, 5500 and even 4600′s will hold plenty of 30# test. I just won a couple more Rockets in 5600 on E-bay alot easier to find than the 6500′s. This will also help if you use the C4′s with the vented spools, even expands capacity the vented spool Records.

    I like braid to the barrel and mono for leaders after that.

    • Yes this is a good tip. I probably should have clarified that in the original article. I don’t use braid so I stick with the larger reels.

      • Why don’t you use braid? I’ve never used braid and was going to try it, but you said you preferred mono.

  7. whats your input of the abu 7000 c3i im lookin to get one

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