Fishing reels for catching catfish are often a topic of great debate and the place that new catfish anglers waste the most money.
With a little understanding of what features you need in a catfish reel and the demands the reel will be put through you’ll save a lot of time, money and headaches long term.
It’s important to have a clear understanding of the catfish species you’ll be targeting and whether you plan on targeting one species of catfish, multiple species, “box fish” (smaller one to ten pound catfish), trophy class fish or a mixture of all of these.
Blues, channels and flatheads are all very different in many ways and the needs of an angler that’s fishing for one to five pound channel catfish with prepared baits (stink baits) are much different than those of an angler that’s fishing exclusively for trophy class blue catfish or flatheads.
The right catfish reel paired with the right catfish rod is something that will help you catch more fish and will last for years to come.
The wrong catfishing gear will put the fish at an advantage and won’t stand up to the abuse of catching catfish, especially if you’re fishing for monster trophy class cats.
The Ultimate Guide To Catfish Reels covers everything you need to know about catfish reels for all species of catfish, techniques and situations.
Make sure you check out the Ultimate Guide To Catfish Rods also to make sure you choose the right fishing rods for catfishing (link at the bottom of the page).
Types Of Reels For Catfish
There are three types of fishing reels, spin cast reels, spinning reels and bait cast reels.
The basic concept is the same, you turn a handle, fishing line is pulled in and you catch fish.
Beyond the basics they’re each different in many ways.
If you’ve got rods and reels now, use what you have and make it work but use this as a guide for the future to make the best decisions and assure you have the right gear.
Understanding the different types of reels and buying based on your specific needs for catfish will help you can make an informed decision before you buy and get the very best option for you and your fishing techniques and target species.
Spin cast reels are the most basic fishing reels. These are the type of reels that almost everyone learns to fish with. You push a button, cast and reel in and beyond that there’s not much to learn or know.
Spin cast reels work fine for basic catfishing (especially for channel catfish) or targeting smaller fish. Anything more than dropping a bait off the side of the boat or shore though and you’ll probably find it difficult.
Spin cast reels have limited line capacity so using heavier weight fishing line becomes a problem. Larger diameter fishing line that’s commonly needed for catfish will fill the reel quickly limiting the amount of line available. You’re also likely to encounter performance problems when casting with heavier line also.
Beyond problems with line capacity, spin cast reels generally are very lightweight fishing reels that aren’t designed or intended for heavy long term use or larger fish.
Some of the other problems include:
- Poor drag systems
- Gear ratios that aren’t intended for pulling in heavier fish or long lengths of fishing line
- Lack of bait clickers or line alarms or poorly designed options
- Lightweight builds and plastic gears
Spin cast reels work great for targeting smaller channel catfish and the most basic form of catfishing but beyond that, they’re typically a poor choice for anything beyond an occasionally recreational angler.
There’s been many a big fish “accidentally” caught on them over the years but beyond that you’re bringing a knife to a gunfight.
I’ve seen a few big catfish turn them into a mess of melted plastic over the years and even seen one that literally had smoke coming out of the reel.
You can “get by” with them for smaller channel catfish but outside of that you’re asking for trouble and will have difficulty with these reels with long term use.
They’ll also limit the techniques you can use for catching catfish.
Spinning reels have a wire bale across the top that you flip back and forth when casting. Many anglers use these because they think they can’t learn to cast with a bait cast fishing reel or because they’re more comfortable using them.
Lightweight freshwater spinning reels are a poor choice for anything beyond targeting smaller catfish.
Heavier saltwater spinning reels are a good fit in many ways as they’re larger, made to handle heavier weight fishing line and often have good drag systems and heavier features for light saltwater fishing.
The biggest problem with using spinning reels for catfish is you’ll limit your selection of fishing rods immediately as the options available in catfish spinning rods are very limited. Many manufacturers make spinning rods but they limit the models they’re produced in and they’ll be much less readily available through retail outlets.
Common complaints about spinning reels for catfish include:
- Limited selection of catfish rods
- Awkward to use in rod holders (reaching down and under the rod)
- Limited selection of heavy reels
- Long term durability of reels can be a problem
- Availability of parts can be a problem
- Limited selection of bait clicker reels
In the past few years there’s been a growing list of manufacturers completely abandoning spinning rod models for catfish or at minimum limiting the selection.
Again, use what you’ve got, especially if you have heavier saltwater spinning reels but when purchasing new catfish reels you’re best bet is to choose a bait cast fishing reel.
If you’re using spinning reels now because you “can’t cast a bait cast fishing reel” you’re wrong. You can cast with an open faced bait cast reel you just need to set the reel up correctly and spend a little time practicing.
Bait Cast Reels
Bait Cast reels are preferred by most catfish anglers and without argument most widely used. Take a look around online or at your local lakes and rivers at the catfish anglers. Keep an eye on the catfish guides and the anglers fishing in catfish tournaments and you’ll find very few of them using anything other than bait cast fishing reels.
These are the “go to” catfish reels for most experienced anglers.
They’ll work for all species of catfish and all techniques. They can be used for finesse fishing smaller fish and landing monster trophy class cats and everything in between.
They’re available in a variety of price ranges as well and even the least expensive models will have the features you need for catfishing.
The benefits of a bait cast fishing reel for catfish include:
- Good line capacity, capable of holding large amounts of heavier fishing line
- Gear ratios properly suited to fishing for catfish and pulling in long lengths of fishing line
- Heavier builds meant for targeting larger fish
- Line alarms or “bait clickers” used by many for catfishing (though less important if using circle hooks)
- Sophisticated drag systems designed for landing catching larger fish
- Good selection of catfish rods available for bait cast reels
Bait cast reels are without question the best choice for catfish reels, having the features you need, capability of landing larger fish and using a variety of techniques.
Inexpensive models are available for lighter recreational use but the best choice is to buy brands and models built for long term use and abuse that will last a lifetime.
You Get What You Pay For
After over fifteen years as a catfish guide and countless years prior to that as a hardcore catfish angler, I’ve seen the same mistake made over and over again.
If you’re buying fishing reels for catfish, invest in good quality fishing reels from a reputable manufacturer.
There’s inexpensive options on the market but you’ll get exactly what you pay for.
Inexpensive catfish reels won’t last long and you probably won’t be able to find parts or repair them when they break (and they will break).
There’s many options that might look very similar to the popular catfish reels. Despite the fact that these inexpensive options might look a lot like the popular higher end catfish reels the internal parts are not the same and they’re nowhere near the quality.
Each and every single one of these cheap fishing reels does the same thing. They’ll break with minimal use and when they do you’ll have no other option than to throw them away.
You’re best choice for a catfish reel is the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur fishing reel. The cheaper alternatives claiming they are “just as good” as the Abu Garcia reels simply aren’t no matter what you may have heard. Cheap reels are not the same quality and they won’t last.
The Problem With Cheap Catfish Reels
When cheap fishing reels break and you take them to be repaired, the repair shop will tell you that it’s junk, they can’t get parts and you need to throw it away.
When you go to the “big box store” that slapped their name on the side of the reel and sold it to you they’ll either tell you you’re out of luck or you’ll be forced to send it out of town for repair where it will stay for months (if you’re lucky).
If you are going to spend money on catfish reels do it right the first time and buy good quality fishing reels.
Get something that is going to work and also going to last.
Quality Catfish Reels
Here’s what to expect from a quality catfish reel:
- It will work correctly under heavy long term use.
- It will retain it’s value for years to come.
- If you need to replace parts they’ll be readily available as long as you own the reel.
What To Look For In a Catfish Reel
Here’s the features and specifications to look for in a good quality catfish reel.
Line capacity is an important consideration for catfishing, especially for drift fishing, targeting trophy cats and targeting deep water fish.
In most instances you’ll be using much heavier fishing line than commonly used for freshwater fishing. Larger line takes up more space and fills the reel faster. The higher the test strength of the fishing line the larger the diameter is. This means the heavier the fishing line is the less line you’ll be able to fit on the spool of the reel.
If you attempt to use a low profile fishing reel with a small spool (like popular freshwater fishing reels) and fill it with twenty to thirty pound test fishing line you’ll be stripping and replacing the line all day while fishing. One or two line breaks will leave you without enough line to fish.
There’s a wide variety of catfishing techniques you’ll be using. Fishing in deeper water, making long casts in deep or shallow flats or drifting for cats require a lot of fishing line so you can make long casts or get your baits to the right locations.
You need a catfish reel that’s large enough to handle larger diameter fishing lines, hold enough of that line to use a wide variety of techniques plus “extra” fishing line for when you get hung up and break off.
This is one of the many reasons that round bait casting reels are the best options for cats.
Braking or brakes use 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 (Spool Tension)
Most modern high quality gear has counter balance which also commonly referred to as a spool tensioner. This 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. Decrease the weight and you’ll have difficulty casting.
Adjusting the spool tensioner compensates for the amount of weight you’re using, the size fishing line and overall efficiency of casting and operation of the reel. More weight on the line requires increasing the spool tension and less weight requires decreases.
Keep reading and we’ll walk you through the process of setting the spool tension for success (and less backlashes).
Good Drag Systems Are Critical For Catfish
When you hook a fish there’s significant force, especially on a big cat. It’s like a shock going through the fishing line and every single piece of tackle you’re using.
Drag affects your line when you start reeling it in. It 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 pound catch on 20 pound test line and also helps to tire fish out so you can reel them in more easily. If you don’t have a drag system on the reel or don’t have the drag set correctly the line will snap.
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. Look down at your reel when the fish is pulling and the spool is turning away from you instead of towards you, that’s the drag working.
Most every modern reel comes equipped with a star drag system which allows you to easily make adjustments when necessary.
It’s essential that catfish reels have a good quality drag system that’s functioning correctly and operates very smoothly. Many of the cheap reel options don’t have a good quality drag systems and that will cost you fish.
Getting a reel with a good quality drag system and learning to properly set and use it is one of the most important things you can learn about fishing. The larger the catfish are that you target or catch the more important this becomes.
Drag washers are the “backbone” of the drag system and come in varying degrees of quality. Carbon fiber drag washers are the most popular and efficient option available today and what you’ll find in most quality products.
Keep reading and we’ll walk you through how to properly set the drag system and use it correctly.
Gear Ratio Really Matters
Retrieve or gear ratio determines how fast and how much line is reeled in per turn of the handle.
The higher the retrieve ratio the more line comes 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.
Reeling in large amounts of line and pulling in larger catfish requires a faster retrieve ratio. This is what not only allows you to pull in these large amounts of line quickly but gives you good power to “winch” in big cats.
If yo’ve got large amounts of line out or are tangling with a monster cat and every turn of the reel handle pulls in a minimal amount of line you’ll be shopping for a new reel.
Most of the large round bait casters will have appropriate gear ratios for catfishing. If you decide to venture out from the list of suggested models we’ll provide make sure you pay close attention to gear ratio.
Line Alarms Or “Bait Clickers”
Bait clickers (also referred to as line alarms) allow the spool to operate in free spool and creates a clicking noise when the fish starts swimming away with your bait.
You’ll cast your bait into the desired location, reel in slack, turn the line alarm on and then press the spool release button so the spool will move freely. When a fish comes along and takes a bite they can run freely with the line and the clicking sound will alert you to the activity.
Bait clickers are used in many applications and catfishing techniques but especially when anchored with slip sinker rigs or other similar catfish rigs.
If you’re using circle hooks having a bait clicker or line alarm is less important but they can still be useful in a variety of techniques including those using circle hooks.
It’s definitely a good feature to look for and again will be a standard feature in most reels though the quality of the line alarm system will vary greatly in cheaper reels.
Bearings and Bushings In Fishing Reels
Reel bearings are what allows the reel to turn when you cast and in all aspects of operation.
The more or higher quality bearings there are the easier it will be to cast and the further you’ll be able to cast. When you look at specifications of fishing reels the number of bearings will be listed. The basic rule of thumb is the more bearings there are the smoother the reel will operate and the further you’ll be able to cast.
Like everything else, quality matters also. Two good quality bearings will outperform four cheap bearings of low quality in most cases.
Some have bushings instead of bearings and therefore do not cast as well as.
The general rule of thumb is to choose bearings over bushings and the more bearings there are the better the reel will perform.
Level wind reels have a mechanism that moves back and forth across the reel as the spool turns. When retrieving fishing line and turning the handle of the fishing reel a level wind moves back and forth and distributes the line on the spool evenly while you retrieve.
Reels that lack the level wind function require the angler to guide guide the line back on the spool while retrieving. This is typically done with the thumb while reeling.
Most reels in the suggested size for catfish will have level wind functions and all of our suggested models are level wind reels.
Level wind reels are typically preferred for catfish. Reels without the level wind function are typically used for heavier saltwater fishing or surf fishing.
Standard or Power Handles
There’s two options:
- Standard “traditional” handle with two knobs.
- Larger “power” handles with a single larger knob and counterbalance.
Large heavier reels that are often used exclusively for trophy cats typically come equipped with power handles.
Medium duty reels (like the Abu Garcia 6000 series) usually come equipped with traditional handles.
The type of handle really boils down to personal preference. Some anglers prefer the larger power handles for trophy catfish as it feels more comfortable to them and gives the feel that they have more cranking power.
There’s others that use the standard handles and catch tons of monster cats with them and never think twice about using or needing anything different.
In the end you just need to determine what feels best to you. If the reel you choose doesn’t come equipped new with your preferred handle you can always change it out for the handle you prefer.
The Abu 6000 series is the most popular catfish reel among catfishing circles and comes equipped with a standard handle. You can order power handles direct from Abu Garcia to replace standard handles on many of the popular catfishing models.
Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Fishing Reels
Abu Garcia Ambassadeur series fishing reels are the “gold standard” when it comes to catfish reels.
There’s other options available but Abu Garcia Ambassadeur reels are used by more catfish anglers than any other reel. If you do a quick survey in catfishing circles or look around at catfish guides or tournaments anglers you’ll find that the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Series fishing reels to be the primary reel in most catfish boats.
The Abu Garcia Ambassadeur reels have been in production since the 1940’s and are not only the most popular catfish reels but also the most popular fishing reels of all time, and it’s for good reason.
If you’re looking for a workhorse catfish reel that will handle catfish of all sizes and is built to last then this is the catfish reel you want.
The Ambassadeur reels will last a lifetime. I’ve got reels that have been used and abused for my own personal fishing and with my guide clients for over two decades and they still keep going.
If you make even minimal effort to take care of these reels:
- They’ll last longer than you’ll ever be able to fish with them.
- They’ll retain their value for years after you buy them.
- You’ll always be able to find parts for repair or replacement.
- You’ll never walk into a reel repair shop and find someone who won’t work on Abu Garcia Ambassadeur fishing reels.
There’s very few pieces of fishing equipment that I’m this passionate about. I’ve had nothing but incredible results from these reels over the years and they’ve never disappointed me.
The bottom line is you can run to your local retail store and buy a couple of “knock off” fishing reels that look like an Abu Garcia Ambassadeur and you’ll spend $40 to $50 per reel. Once you use them for a while they’ll break.
How long that takes depends a lot on how much you use them but I often hear about cheap fishing reels breaking within the first six months with minimal use. You’ll be left with junk that has to be thrown in the trash and will go looking for a better quality reel that will last.
Rather than waste the money on the cheap reels just bite the bullet and buy the right product that’s built to last the first time. If you decide you don’t want or need the Ambassadeur reels later you can easily sell them and get 70%-80% of the original value if not more.
Reels For Channel Catfish
The Abu Garcia 5500 C3 is the best choice if you plan on targeting smaller channel catfish, fishing for “numbers of fish” and using finesse fishing techniques.
These are slightly smaller than the 6000 series reels with less line capacity and don’t have a bait clicker or line alarm function. Other than that they’re almost the same reel as the larger 6000 series reels.
If you plan on fishing for larger channel catfish then the Abu Garcia 6500 C3 or something in the 6000 series will be a better fit (these are the same reels suggested for blues and flatheads, so keep reading).
An alternative to the 5500 C3 for targeting smaller channel catfish is a low profile bait cast reel like those commonly used for freshwater fishing for bass.
The Abu Garcia Black Max is a good entry level model that’s readily available in most big box stores.
Reels For Blue and Flathead Catfish
All reels in the 6000 series will be the same size with equal line capacities. Variations in model numbers represent different features like more bearings, different colors or features like a thumb bar line release instead of a push button.
For example the 6500 C3 and 6500 C4 models differ in the number of bearings. The C3 has three ball bearings and the C4 has four.
Popular models for catfishing in the 6000 series are the 6500 C3, 6500 C4, and 6500 CS Pro Rocket.
Reels For Trophy Catfish
If you’re plan is to target larger trophy class cats exclusively then the reels in the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 7000 Series are a good option.
The 6000 series reels are more than capable of the task of handing big cats. The 7000 series reels are larger with more line capacity and typically feature “power handles” that some anglers prefer for cranking in big cats.
Popular 7000 Series models are the 7000, 7000C3 and 7000 Pro Rocket.
All of the above mentioned Abu Garcia Ambassadeur reels are available at most sporting goods retailers and big box stores.
Line Counter Reels
A line counter reel has a device built into the reel that measures the amount of fishing line released when the reel is disengaged. Rather than guessing how much fishing line has been released you have an exact measurement.
The “old school” way of keeping track if the amount of line released was to count revolutions of the level wind on the fishing reel.
Anglers would simply determine the amount of line that was released from the reel with one full revolution of the level wind and then count from there.
For example if the full revolution of the level wind (full move from one side to another) releases 10 feet of line and you need to release 80 feet of line you’d count eight revolutions of the level wind and stop.
This isn’t nearly as accurate as a line counter reel but gets you in the ballpark.
The innovations in sonar fish finders have made a big impact on catfishing in recent years allowing anglers to locate catfish with pinpoint accuracy down to a matter of feet.
River catter’s often locate big cats on sonar, go up river from where they located the fish and then deploy baits back to the fish with the current.
Sonar allows them to pinpoint how far the boat is from the catfish that were located and the line counter reel allows them to get the baits in that area with pinpoint accuracy.
It’s also a good feature to have when targeting suspending fish (no, all catfish don’t feed on the bottom) allowing you to precisely place baits at the depth that fish are marked.
Line counters built into the reels are an added feature that adds to the expense of the fishing reel and won’t be needed by all catfish anglers. If you do need the line counter feature it’s certainly not something that’s needed on all fishing reels either.
If you’re not sure you need or will use the feature it’s probably best to avoid until you truly know that you need to have some line counter reels in your arsenal.
As an alternative you can use an external line counter that clamps on the fishing rod and counts fishing line released just like those that are built into reels.
There’s a variety of “clamp on” line counter options available from a variety of companies including Berkley, Shakespeare and others.
Good options for line counter reels for catfish are the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500 LC and Alphamar LC.
Where To Buy Catfish Reels
Most sporting goods stores are going to sell all of the models mentioned or at least most of them. It’s rare to find a fishing tackle dealer or bait shop that sells fishing reels that doesn’t have the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Reels.
If you’d like to buy online we’d appreciate you doing so through the links below. Each of these retailers will pay us a small commission on any purchases you make through these links (it helps us pay the bills and keep the servers going).
Getting The Best Deals On Catfish Reels
When faced with buying a dozen or more quality fishing reels new the price can add up quickly. This is the point that many anglers defer to shopping for the inferior knock off junk.
I can’t say this enough, if you choose this option it will cost you more money in with long term use.
If you’re not able (or willing) to run out and buy new Abu Garcia Ambassadeur catfish reels there’s some other options for you to get the right product and do so at a lower price.
This is a much better option than buying disposable junk reels.
Buying Reels on eBay
eBay can be an excellent source for purchasing catfish reels. You’ll find some good deals, but there is also a lot of junk and overpriced reels as well.
If you’re willing to buy something that doesn’t “look pretty” or even broken fishing reels you’ll find some amazing bargains.
The catfish don’t care what you’re reels look like so the appearance doesn’t matter. A little boat rash never hurt anyone.
Parts are readily available online and through many local retailers so if you’ve got the slightest bit of mechanical ability repairing a broken reel is no problem and most repairs are inexpensive. Even if you’ve got to rely on a repair facility you won’t spend much for most repairs.
When buying on eBay make sure you are conscious of what you are purchasing, what the retail price is for a new reel and make sure you establish clear parameters for yourself on what your “top dollar” is for any reel you are interested in.
Also, you’ll get much better deals and save a lot of money if you purchase during the Fall and Winter which is the “off season” for fishing in many parts of the country (though it’s my favorite time of the year to catch catfish).
It’s all about supply and demand and is very much like buying and selling boats.
There’s a lot of “fair weather fishermen” that don’t fish in the cooler months so demand goes down, therefore it is much easier to get more “bang for your buck” when there is less demand.
I rarely buy used reels anymore, but have bought many used reels on eBay in the past and have gotten some awesome buys. There has been an occasional reel I have had to pick up a part or two for and repair but even in those instances I still came out ahead.
Always make sure you pay with Paypal when buying on eBay so you have purchase protection.
One of the “tricks” to buying on eBay is to look for less popular models of these reels that aren’t as well known. Many shoppers default to the most popular models because and shy away from alternatives because of lack of knowledge.
Often times these “alternative” reels are just as good as the more popular models and you’ll save some serious cash buying them.
Here’s some tips on what to look for on eBay:
Abu Garcia 6000 Series Reels
- 6000 C
- 6000 TGC
Abu Garcia 6500 Series Reel
- 6500 C4
- 6500 CS
- 6500 Rocket
Abu Garcia 6600 Series Reels
- 6600 CB
- 6600 CL Rocket
If you’re left handed then search for models with a 1 at the end like 6501, 6601 etc. Part numbers that end in a one are the indicator that Abu Garcia uses for left handed models.
All of the above mentioned reels are good quality fishing reels that will perform if they’re in good condition.
They’re all the same size and will have the same line capacity but will have variations in appearance, number of bearings or other features.
If you’re going to buy a model other than these listed do a little online research before you buy. If you can’t find what you’re looking for feel free to hit me up on Twitter and I’m happy to help.
Search local craigslist listings for your area for search terms like “Abu” or “Abu Garcia” and you can occasionally find some good deals. Craigslist can at times be a hotbed for stolen merchandise however, so use some caution and common sense when shopping here.
Look for warning signs that someone is peddling stolen goods like ridiculously low prices, urgency in getting rid of it, limited knowledge of what they are selling etc.
If you do buy on Craigslist always meet in a public place that has a lot of traffic like a gas station or fast food restaurant. We don’t want you on the news, there’s some creepy stuff that happens on Craigslist from time to time!
I personally don’t have the time or patience to shop garage sales but know many people who do and told them years ago to check fishing reels when they came across them.
My standing order is if they say Abu Garcia on them and are round reels to buy them on the spot. I pick them up from the garage sale shoppers and reimburse them.
I’ve picked up a LOT of reels this way and have picked up some real gems over the years
I had one that I paid $10 for that I sold on eBay for $500 because it was highly collectible.
Keep your eyes open. You’ll be surprised how many nice reels get sold for next to nothing because of the sellers lack of knowledge.
This is much like the old lady who runs the ad for a Chevy for a $1000 in the local paper and the guy who goes into the old barn and finds a cherry Corvette with a few thousand miles on it that has been sitting for forty years.
The down side of buying from pawn shops is pawn brokers understand the value of everything they sell. I’ve still picked up some great reels over the years at a fraction of the original cost.
This is especially true during the cooler months when the demands slows.
The key is to understand when to target these type stores and also ASK FOR A BETTER PRICE.
Haggle a bit with the pawn shop and you can get some good deals. Try to fund multiple reels in one store and bundle them together in one purchase also. This is a great strategy for buying at pawn shops.
Local Reel Repair Facilities
Reel repair businesses are like anyone else and often get reels that are dropped off for repair and never picked up.
These reels are often sold at a deep discount to cover the costs of repair and parts (or cleaning).
Find these repair shops in your area and reach out to them. You might be surprised at what you’ll find.
Again, understand supply and demand and shop when times are slow for these type businesses, not during peak seasons (like Spring and Summer).
Other Alternative Catfish Reels
The reel I suggest in this situation is the Shakespeare Tidewater TW20B. You can find this reel in most sporting goods stores for $30 to $40 and it’s similar in features to the suggested Abu Garcia Ambassadeur reels.
You’re not likely to get significant long term use from the Tidewater TW20B if you’re using it beyond occasional recreational use but it’s a good entry level option at a lower price point.
Another alternative that’s a step up from the Shakespeare is the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur S 6500.
The Ambassadeur S reel is similar in size and features to the previously mentioned Abu Garcia models but is more of a consumer grade model built for lighter recreational use.
Many retailers offer extended warranties and replacement programs on reels and this would definitely be a good option for these purchases.
Setting Your Catfish Reel Up For Success
Choosing the right tool is a big step towards success but simply having the right tool is only half the battle. You need to know how to use the tool the right way to close the deal and help put more catfish on the end of the line.
Understanding how your catfish reel works will not only help you catch more fish but will make your fishing experience much more enjoyable.
Here’s what you need to know to set your reel up correctly and make sure you know how to use all of the features.
What Is Fishing Reel Drag?
The drag is one of the most important parts of any fishing reel and becomes even more important when catfishing because of the opportunity to catch BIG catfish.
The drag being set and used properly can make or break you when attempting to land a trophy catfish.
The drag (often referred to as a star drag) is controlled by the star shaped knob that is on the reel just inside the handle. When the star is turned clockwise it tightens and when it is turned counter clockwise it loosens.
Being adjusted tighter is referred to as “more drag” or “increased drag” and being looser is often referred to as “less drag” or “decreased drag”.
For instance, if someone said you need to tighten the drag or you need more, you’d turn the star clockwise to apply more pressure on the drag washers.
If someone said you need less drag or to loosen it, you’d turn the star counter clockwise lessening the pressure on the drag washers.
When the drag is tightened, it applies more pressure to the drag washers. When it is loosened, it applies less pressure to the washers.
What Does Fishing Reel Drag Do?
The drag functions as a “buffer” between your reel and the catfish allowing “give”, which prevents the fishing line from breaking. This is what compensates for the difference between the break strength of the fishing line and the actual amount of pull being applied to the fishing line.
If you are using 20 pound test line and catch a 1 pound catfish, the setting is not so important.
If you are using 20 pound test line and catch a 100 pound fish then properly set (and used) drag system will make the difference between having it in the boat or it being the “one that got away”.
Monofilament fishing line in 20 to 30 pound test is popular for catfish anglers. Look around at my photos and you’ll seen tons of pictures of fish that are well in excess of 20 pounds, many are double and triple that (or more).
Proper drag settings and proper technique is what makes it possible to land fish that are heavier than the break strength of the fishing line.
Here is a bit of trivia for you……..
Every Texas state record flathead catfish caught has been caught by a crappie fisherman.
Crappie fishermen use ultra light gear and ultra light line.
Proper technique and properly using the drag on the reel is what makes it possible for a crappie fisherman to land a trophy class flathead catfish one two to four pound test fishing line.
How To Set Fishing Reel Drag
Technically, the proper way to set the drag on a bait cast reel is to spool the reel with line, attach the reel to the rod, run the line through the line guides and then tie a small loop in the end of the fishing line (where the hook would normally go).
One person holds the rod, and the loop tied in the fishing line is then attached to a digital fish scale and the rod is held at a forty five degree angle.
The drag is adjusted and the person holding the rod and reel pulls back against the line (again attached to the scale).
The drag should slip at approximately 25 to 35 percent of the unknotted line strength for the fishing line.
For thirty pound test fishing line this would be 7.5 to 10 pounds.
The process is to adjust the drag, pull against the scale, notify the person holding the scale when the drag slips then check reading on the scale and rinse and repeat until you get it right.
This is the “textbook” way of setting the drag on a fishing reel.
I’m going to share a couple of very simple “real world” ways of setting fishing reel drag that are much simpler.
An Easier Way To Set Drag (But Still Technical)
If you’re concerned with the technical aspects here’s a much easier way than using a scale.
Again, you need to be spooled with line and have the reel properly set on your rod.
You’ll need a weight that’s around 35% of the fishing line strength. Since I commonly use 20 pound test line we’ll use that as an example.
35% of 20 is 7 pounds so you’ll need seven pounds of weight.
Put some rocks on a bucket, find some bricks or if you’re super fancy go to a sporting goods store and buy some weights.
Just make sure you have 35% of the break strength of your fishing line.
Here’s what to do:
- Tie the end of the line to your weight
- Hold the rod at a 45 degree angle
- Lift the weight off the ground
- Watch the reel, the line should slip and slowly lower to the ground
If the line doesn’t slip on the reel and the weight doesn’t slowly lower to the ground then decrease the drag (turn it counter clockwise) and repeat the process.
Repeat this process on all your gear and you’ll have properly set drag systems on all of them.
The Little Drag Secret Most Don’t Understand
The maximum amount of drag applied on a properly functioning Abu Garcia Ambasadeur 6500 C3 reel is 15 pounds.
That means that if you crank the drag down as tight as it will go you’re going to have no more than 15 pounds of drag applied.
If you’re using 20 pound test fishing line then fifteen pounds of drag is dangerous territory.
For thirty pound test fishing line fifteen pounds of drag is “heavy” but I wouldn’t call it critical mass.
Knowing that the max amount of drag applied is fifteen pounds you can estimate pretty easily how many rotations of the drag washer will get you within the range needed of properly set drag.
The “Real World” Way Of Setting Drag
Now that we’ve covered the technical aspects of setting drag using a scale or weights, I have a confession to make.
I’ve never once used a scale or weights to set the drag on my catfish reels.
It’s a good process to go through once so you can get a feel for proper settings based your preferred fishing line but beyond that, it’s really not necessary.
Set the drag once using the process I described with the weights and get it set correctly.
Once you’ve done this, firmly grab the fishing line three to six inches above the reel and pull the line towards the rod tip as it would move if a fish is pulling.
Repeat the process a few times and get a good feel for what it feels like when you’re pulling line and the drag slips.
It’s pretty easy to replicate this by feel once you get a sense of what it should feel like.
That, my friends, is the exact process I use for setting drag.
Grab line, pull, does it feel right, yes, move on.
Takes all of about 4 seconds.
You Don’t Get Second Chances
Drag that’s set too tight puts all of the pressure on the line (or too much pressure).
The lighter the line strength or the bigger the fish the more important this becomes.
Drag that’s set wrong will expose itself quickly.
When you hook a big catfish it’s going to snap your line so fast you are not going to know what hit you.
You’ll be left standing there, fishing rod in hand with broken line scratching your head.
If the drag is too loose, when you set the hook and begin your retrieve with the reel you are not going to gain any ground at all on the fish, the handle will turn but the spool will not.
You can always compensate for a drag being too loose by simply tightening it up a bit when you hook that monster catfish of a lifetime, about 1/4 turn at a time.
You only have one shot at getting this correct though and if it is set too tight (too much drag) you will NOT get a second chance.
When I hook a big catfish, I start my retrieve (or watch my clients) watch the drag, getting a sense for what is taking place. if it’s a big fish I want to see the drag slipping.
Even properly set drags using the most technical process get changed. Reels get bumped, clothes snag on the star drag, the list goes on and on.
You’re always better to err on the side of having less drag than more.
You can make adjustments on the fly and increase or decrease one quarter turn at a time until it looks or feels right.
Bottom line is if the fish weighs around 35% of the break strength of the fishing line the drag should be slipping.
You should never have to back off or decrease drag while reeling in a fish. Always lean towards having them too loose rather than too tight.
Major Drag Mistakes
I see anglers way too often trying to land big catfish, or any size fish for that matter and fishing with the drag set way too tight, and losing fish.
The other common mistake is getting overly confident, thinking there is too much slip to the fishing reel. Never start cranking that star down tighter and tighter until it quits slipping.
It’s supposed to slip. Thats what it’s designed to do.
It’s the fishing rod that brings the fish in, not the reel.
The reel is nothing more than a mechanism to retrieve line or hold the line.
If you hook a big catfish you use the rod to pull and bring the fish towards you.
When you move the fish with the rod and slowly lower the rod tip, reel in line on the way down then stop reeling and pull again with the rod.
The drag is supposed to slip.
Saving Drag Washers
If, after all of my advice you’re still compelling to crank down that star on the reel as tight as it will go, make sure you loosen it when you’re done fishing.
Drag systems contain synthetic washers as part of the system. The latest and greatest material is carbon fiber but older reels will have drag washers made from a variety of other materials.
When you crank drag down and tighten it this applies pressure to the drag washers and compresses them.
If this pressure and compression is left that way for extended periods of time it compresses these washers and causes them to lose shape. Ultimately the drag system will not function properly.
If you live in an area that has extreme heat in the Summer, this is even more critical. Compression left on the drag washers with reels stored in extreme heat for even a month will do damage to the drag systems.
What Is Spool Tension?
Spool tension is adjusted using a knob on the side of the fishing reel. This is typically located on the same side as the handle.
Tightening the spool tension (turning clockwise) applies pressure to the spool of the reel and allows it to turn less freely (spin slower).
Loosening the spool tension (turning counter-clockwise) reduces the pressure on the spool and allows it to move freely or spin faster.
Why does this matter to you?
Learning to properly set the spool tension is the single biggest factor to learning how to properly cast a bait casting reel without backlashes.
If you’ve got the spool tensioner properly set you’ll have very few issues casting and rarely battle a professional over run (backlash) and a much easier time learning to cast.
The more experienced you become casting a bait casting reel, the less important this will become and the less spool tension you’ll need applied to cast without problems.
How To Set Spool Tension For Casting Success
Spool your reel with preferred fishing line and tie your catfish rig on the end of the line.
The spool tension requires adjustment for different line weights and even the amount of weight on your catfish rig.
It’s not as simple as the amount of lead weight on the line but for a basic setting you can set the spool tension with a basic catfish rig. Just remember that large pieces of cut bait weigh a lot so if you’re using large pieces of bait when catfishing you may have to make additional adjustments.
How to set the spool tension:
- Stand holding the rod at a 45 degree angle (with the tip up)
- Push the release button on the reel
- Allow the weight to fall to the ground slowly without touching the spool
- When the weight hits the ground the spool should stop turning
If the spool continues to turn after the weight hits the ground slightly increase the spool tension and repeat the process making slight adjustments until it’s set correctly.
If you attempt to cast and backlash the fishing reel while casting this is a good indication you need to increase the spool tension.
Make small incremental adjustments until you’re not backlashing the line while casting.
Too much spool tension will make it difficult to cast. If you are casting and not getting much distance then check the spool tension and make sure it’s set correctly.
More experience casting means less and less concern with spool tension and less need for the spool tension. You’ll find through experience and learning the proper casting technique that you’ll ultimately require very little spool tension to cast without backlashes and in turn will have much more casting distance.
What’s a Bait Clicker (Line Alarm)?
The bait clicker or line alarm function on a fishing reel allows the reel to operate in free spool and alerts you when the line is moving.
On Abu Garcia Ambassadeur reels this is controlled with a switch on the side opposite the handle.
The bait clicker turned on (engaged) creates a clicking noise when the spool moves forward and turned off (disengaged) the reel operates as normal with no noise.
For years the bait clicker or line alarm was considered a “must have” for catfish anglers but in recent years with increased popularity of circle hooks it’s become less important for many anglers.
The bait clicker feature is still nice to have and is standard in most of the larger round bait cast reels. I still use the function from time to time but primarily when fishing for flathead catfish.
If you’re not using circle hooks (that set themselves) you’ll probably rely on the bait clicker function when catfishing and fishing on anchor.
Using the line alarm the reel can be disengaged with the clicker engaged. This allows the spool and line to move freely so the fish can run and alerts the angler when there’s activity on the line.
The advantage is the fish not feeling resistance when it picks up the bait and runs and alerting the angler of activity.
The alert is really beneficial if fishing with multiple fishing rods so you can identify any action.
All of the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur round reels in the 6000 and 7000 series have a line alarm function and most other quality reels in this size will as well. It’s a popular feature for heavy freshwater and light saltwater fishing.
How To Use A Bait Clicker (Line Alarm)
It’s important to understand how to correctly use this feature. Used incorrectly it won’t do you any good and might even cost you fish. It will also cause unnecessary wear and tear on the fishing reel if not used correctly.
Fishing with a bait clicker:
- Cast your bait into the preferred location
- Reel in line until the line is “tight” (remove all slack)
- Engage the line alarm (up position on most reels)
- Disengage the fishing reel spool (push the button in)
When a fish strikes they’ll be able to pull line off the reel with minimal resistance and you’ll hear a distinct clicking noise.
Engage the fishing reel (turn the handle) and set the hook.
Make sure you turn the bait clicker off (down position on most reels) before reeling in and make sure it’s off before casting also.
Leaving the function engaged when casting and reeling in will cause wear on the clicker and it will eventually start to make less noise and will ultimately quit functioning.
Reel Maintenance Basics
Quality catfish reels will last a lifetime if they’re cared for. How much care and maintenance they need varies greatly from person to person based on how they treat them while fishing and the amount of use.
Heavier use will require more maintenance and cleaning on a frequent basis (once a year or more depending on use).
Here’s a few tips for keeping your gear in good shape:
- Keeping reels clean and dry is rule number one for care.
- Keep them out of the water at all times and never submerse them in water.
- Keep them out of sand or dirt.
- Keep the exterior clean. Wipe free with a clean soft cloth on occasion.
- Apply a single drop of oil to the exterior moving parts on occasion.
- If the reels not working correctly or making noise, it needs to be cleaned and may need additional repair.
Most important is to keep the level wind system of the reel clean and free from debris. Getting dirt or debris inside the level wind worm drive gear is the fastest path to problems with your reel.
Learning To Cast Bait Cast Reels
If you’ve never used a bait casting reel before or aren’t skilled in casting one there’s some simple tips to help get on the fast track to success.
Most anglers that struggle with casting these type reels or have avoided using them have issues doing so because they’ve failed to set the reel up correctly or learn the basic mechanics.
If you’ll follow these simple tips and steps you’ll be casting a bait cast reel like a pro in no time!
- Set the reel up correctly by adjusting the spool tension. This is the single biggest factor in adjusting the reel and reducing or eliminating backlashes.
- Spool tension needs to be adjusted every time you change weights or add weight.
- If you’re having trouble casting and backlashing increase the spool tension. You’ll get less casting distance but fewer backlashes. You won’t hurt anything by increasing the tension even to the maximum amount.
- Once you have the feel for casting and when to stop the reel spool decrease the spool tension in small increments and keep practicing.
- Use heavier line when learning. Thirty to forty pound test will backlash less and will be easier to remove backlashes from when they do happen. When you’re skills improve you can begin stepping down to lighter weight fishing line.
- Make short casts and slowly increase the casting distance. It’s all about getting the “feel” for what’s happening and when to put your thumb in the spool to stop it. If you start out trying to cast as far as you can you’ll just get frustrated.
Backlashes (Professional Over Runs)
Every angler that uses bait cast fishing reels experiences “that moment”.
It’s that cast you make to get in just that “right spot” to land the next fish and then PUH-POW your fishing reel is a big mess with a gnarly backlash.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve been using these reels for dozens of years or are just a beginner, it just happens.
The more experience you have, the less it happens, but it still happens.
Maybe you’ve never used a bait cast reel because of fear of backlash?
Maybe you’ve tried and it just didn’t work for you?
Maybe you’ve have seen your fishing buddies fighting with a fishing line backlash enough to know that you don’t want any part of it.
We’re going to fix that by making sure your reel is setup properly and by understanding what causes a backlash and how to quickly and easily correct it when it happens.
What Causes Backlash?
Backlash occurs when the spool of the fishing reel is turning faster than the fishing line is moving. This causes the line to wrap around the fishing reel spool in the wrong direction creating a tangle.
This is usually caused by:
- Not understanding how a bait cast reel works and what causes a backlash. Half of the battle is understanding the problem!
- Having old fishing line on your reel with a lot of memory or bad fishing line.
- Using fishing line that’s too heavy for the application.
- Not having the spool tensioner on the reel set correctly.
- Not understanding when you need to stop the spool from turning at the end of the cast.
How To Avoid Backlash
If you follow these steps casting will be easy and you will have minimal backlashes on your fishing reel when casting.
- Keep good fresh fishing line on your reel. If the line has memory (it coils and stays that way when it does not have tension on it) then replace the line with fresh fishing line or treat it will Real Magic.
- Set the spool tension before you use your fishing reel (explained in the beginning of this post).
- When casting allow your thumb to lightly skim across the spool of the fishing line. When you feel the line start to slow down push your thumb on the line and stop the spool from turning. In the beginning do this earlier than you think you need to so you can get the feel of it.
- Make sure the fishing line you’re using is properly matched to technique. Heavier line needs more weight to cast. If you try to cast forty pound test fishing line as hard as you can with a split shot weight on it you’re asking for problems. Light rigs or lures means using lighter line.
How To Easily Remove A Backlash
Again, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to fishing line backlash.
The best plan is to learn to cast and set your fishing reel up correctly and avoid the problem as much as possible.
No matter what you do, you’re still going to backlash now and then.
Start with these tips for removing backlashes.
- Many people head straight for the scissors or a pocket knife when they have a backlash and this is rarely necessary.
- With a little practice you can quickly and easily remove a backlash you just need to know what to look for and how to remove the backlash.
- Rule number one is that pulling on the line as hard as you can is always the wrong approach and will just make it harder to remove.
- Think of the backlash as a knot. If you’re going to untie a knot the last thing you would do is grab it tighten it up before trying to remove it.
- Slow, deliberate and gentle is the best approach when dealing with removing fishing line backlash.
Here are the two easiest ways to remove a backlash from your fishing reel.
Option 1: Look For Loop
Since much of my catfishing is done with heavier line (twenty pound test) I tend to use this method. This is the technique I prefer and I find most of the experienced anglers I know use the same technique.
The backlash is created when the fishing line spools on the reel in the wrong direction because the reel spool is moving faster than the line.
This creates a loop in the fishing line and what causes the backlash and locks the reel up.
Getting to this “loop” and removing it is what frees up the backlash.
This technique for removing a backlash is very simple as well once you get a little practice.
1. Disengage the fishing reel (push the button in).
2. Gently pull on the line above the reel until you meet resistance. As soon as you meet resistance stop pulling.
3. Pay attention to where the line stops on the spool, this is usually where the tangle is.
4. When you meet resistance use your fingertips to gently pick the line back and try to free the obstruction, looking for the “loop” where the line is running in the wrong direction on the spool.
5. Once you pick some of the line back, gently pull on the line above the reel again often times simply loosening the line on the spool will fix the problem.
6. If you meet resistance again when pulling the line stop and go back to the spool and start picking the line back again, still looking for that loop in the fishing line.
7. You may be able to pull a few feet of line off the spool and meet resistance again and have to repeat this process several times. It all depends on the severity of the backlash.
#2 – Thumb The Spool
You’ll probably find that line that is over ten to twelve pounds this option works great but it may not be as effective with heavier fishing line.
This technique also works better with minor backlashes. If you have a serious “professional” backlash defer to the first technique.
This technique is very simple:
1. Engage the fishing reel (turn the handle). Take your thumb and push firmly down on the spool of the reel towards the center.
2. Turn the handle between one full turn (depending on the reel and the retrieve ratio you may need to turn one to two full turns) while firmly pushing on the center of the spool with your thumb.
2. Disengage the reel and grab the fishing line above the reel and gently pull on the line until all of the line is free.
3. When/if you meet resistance engage the reel again and repeat the process thumbing the spool and turning the handle.
Often times this takes several attempts and will remove the backlash from the reel.
Part of using any tool is learning to use it correctly and learning to repair it when there’s problems.
Reducing the number of problems casting goes a long way to saving you’re valuable fishing time when on the water.
Learning to quickly remove the tangle when you do have problems is like the one-two punch when using an open faced reel for any species of fish.
Getting The Right Combination
Finding the best option for your target catfish species and size is a giant leap into the world of catfish gear.
Pairing the right reel with the right catfish rod creates a deadly combination and opens the doors to using a variety of techniques for catching whiskered fish.
Be sure to check out the Ultimate Guide To Catfish Rods and my Chad Ferguson Signature Series Catfish Rod from Whisker Seeker Tackle to learn everything you need to know about choosing the right catfish rod.
To get more information on catfishing techniques and get on the fast track to success catching cats be sure to check out the Catfish Edge products.
It’s like a guided catfish trip with me at a fraction of the cost of being on the water on a guided catfish trip.