Growing up in Indiana, my best friend and I used to fish a farm pond. We brought our sleeping bags and fished sun-up to sunset and then through the night. After dark we’d settle into our catfishing routine. We knew that pond and its fish so well that we gave some of them nicknames.
Our gear was anything but high-tech. While that pond was good to us, we probably missed out on fish because of our gear, which was cobbled together from whatever we could get our hands on.
Catfishing equipment has progressed a long way since then. These days we have access to so many well-designed products that assembling an ideal catfish rod and reel combo can require a bit of knowing where to start. That’s where these experts come in. Here’s a look at what some top catmen are using.
Guide Brad Durick favors Abu Garcia’s Ambassadeur 6500 reel for winching channel cats from the Red River of the North. He also uses the Ambassadeur 7000 or Alphamar 12 when he’s targeting bigger fish. He primarily uses circle hooks and likes a soft-tipped rod so the fish don’t feel too much resistance before they make a run. If they feel pressure from a stiffer rod tip, they tend to reject the hook before it turns in their mouth and embeds. You also need enough backbone to handle big fish. The right rod-reel combo has taken Durick more than seven years to find.
“In 2008, I discovered the 8-foot Eagle Claw Water Eagle (2-piece) rod,” Durick says. “It has an almost perfect action and the blank is tough. It’s sensitive enough to catch a 2-pound channel catfish and stout enough to land a 25-pounder.”
Recently, Durick has been using Blackhorse Custom Rods made in Eolia, Missouri, by Lyle Stokes. He likes the 8-foot 10/25 medium one-piece custom. The one-piece rod is stronger and more sensitive. It also features strong stainless braced eyes. Durick has additional eyes added so the force of a fighting cat is distributed more evenly across the blank. And with additional eyes you don’t have to worry about braided line cutting into the blank.
In heavier current, he opts for the 8-foot 15/30 MH Blackhorse Custom. While this rod doesn’t have the tip sensitivity necessary to hook smaller cats with circle hooks, it does have enough backbone to fight large fish in current. If you’re not using circle hooks, the 15/30 MH is an excellent choice, especially if you’re targeting bigger fish.
Upper Mississippi River Guide Brian Klawitter also likes the Abu Garcia 6500 reel for channel cats. He spools with Team Catfish 20-pound-test Tug-O-War Electric Lime mono. For several years, he’s been setting hooks with graphite rods, but last season he switched to the 71⁄2-foot Team Catfish I-Cat Medium Heavy Carbon Fiber Rod. Since he also fishes flatheads and lake sturgeon, often on the same trip as channel cats, he needs a versatile rod capable of handling all three species. The I-Cat is light enough to make fighting channel cats challenging, but it has the backbone to tackle bruiser flatheads. Also, the I-Cat rod has a sensitive tip that is especially important when fishing for lake sturgeon, which are known for light bites. With stainless-steel guides and a hook keeper large enough to hold a 10/0 catfish hook, the I-Cat is made for catfishermen.
Klawitter says holding the I-Cat, rather than placing it in a rod holder, can improve catches at times. Watching the rod tip can make light-bite detection difficult. But holding the rod, which features improved sensitivity due to the through-the-reel seat blank, helps detect bites.
In-Fisherman Managing Editor Rob Neumann likes Shakespeare’s Ugly Stik line of rods for most of his catfishing. For small- to medium-size channel cats, the Ugly Stik 71⁄2-foot CAL 1100 ML and 7-foot CAL 1100 M have soft tip sections for circle hooks, yet enough backbone to set hooks when using J-hooks and for fighting fish in current.
One of his favorite rods for float-fishing for channel cats is the Ugly Stik Lite MDS1186 MH, an 81⁄2-footer with good reach for dabbling float rigs around wood, and for mending line in current to help keep floats in place in eddies at a distance. While round reels match these rods well, low-profile bass casters, like the Pflueger President or Abu Garcia Toro, are light and comfortable and offer plenty of power and line capacity, especially on the wide spool models.
Klawitter also uses the Team Catfish I-Cat Medium Heavy Carbon Fiber rod for flatheads. The draw for him is the rod’s backbone. And there are times when the sensitive tip also is a plus for flathead fishing.
In early spring, when he’s searching for flathead spots, he matches the I-Cat with Team Catfish 80-pound-test Tug-O-War braid in Nuclear Yellow for added sensitivity. “The sensitivity of braid combined with the sensitivity of carbon fiber serve as my underwater eyes that transmit the feel of structure and cover, like wood, mud, rock, and sand,” he says. “By casting a hookless rig, this setup tells me if that’s an area I want to fish. If there’s too much wood, for example, I might not fish it because the bait often gets tangled before a fish is hooked. If the rocks are too large, the bait hides in the cracks and crevices and fish often can’t find it.”
Taken from Elk City Reservoir, Kansas, on May 14, 1998, the fish stretched the tape a whopping 61 inches and sported a pleasantly plump, 42¾-inch girth. Paulie was crappie fishing at the time, and hooked it on a jig-and-minnow. Like many world records, it was not without controversy. It was verified while alive by Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks fishery biologist Sean Lynott. But details of the catch—such as the relatively light tackle Paulie was using, and his statement that it didn’t put up much of a fight—raised eyebrows in the cat community. Still, the record stands to this day as a testament to the immense proportions flatheads are capable of attaining.
The added sensitivity also helps when fishing livebaits. If vegetation or other debris collects on your bait and hook, it won’t get bit. With this combo you can feel if something isn’t right, so you don’t need to pull the bait to check it as often. The longer your bait is in the water, the more fish you’ll catch.
Klawitter pairs the I-Cat rod with an Abu Garcia 7000, which has plenty of winching power to pull big flatheads out of thick snags. He also likes the clicker on this reel for fishing livebaits.
In-Fisherman Contributor Kirk McKay uses several rod-reel combos for flathead fishing. Two mainstays begin with saltwater rod blanks. The lighter setup (for 60-pound-test line) is built on a 7-foot Truline VBG-7 blank. He custom wraps stainless-steel guides and adds a carboloy tip guide. He finishes it by wrapping the butt section with adhesive backed cork tape. For 80-pound-test line, he uses a 6½ foot Calstar 665XH blank.
McKay adds a Penn 4/0 Senator reel spooled with 60- and 80-pound-test Berkley Trilene Big Game line. This reel comes with a rod clamp and can be set anywhere on the cork to fit your build. Clamping a reel also reduces weight since there is no reel seat. He recommends wrapping the blanks with oversized shrink tape at the location where you plan to clamp your reel. If you’re not into custom rod-making, the Penn Senator paired with a 71⁄2-foot medium-heavy or heavy Quantum Big Cat rod can winch a bruiser flathead out of the gnarliest logjams.
When fishing for giant fish with oversized baits, such as 2- or 3-pound carp, McKay uses the Shimano TLD 15 lever-drag reel. “There’s no way to keep the bait in place with just clicker tension,” he says. With a lever drag, you can engage the clicker with the additional tension applied with the drag slightly on—just enough to keep the big baitfish in place until you get a strike. Then, turn he clicker off, back off the lever drag and let them run, and then slam the lever drag forward and set the hook.”
For flatheads and blues, Neumann likes the softer tip and winching power of the Ugly Stik Custom USCC 2270 M or MH. Whether to use the medium or medium-heavy depends on a combination of cover conditions and expected fish size. Either way, these 7-footers are tough enough to drag a combine through corn, and the oversize grips offer plenty of room for hand positioning for maximum leverage. The Shakespeare Tidewater TW20B reel is an economical workhorse, a good match with these rods. The oversize rubber paddle handle is a bonus. Penn International 975 and International 975 lever-drag reels are other solid choices to complete this combo.
Mississippi River Guide Ryan Casey spends most of his days fighting giant blue cats. His arsenal of rods includes a trio of Tangling With Catfish sticks—the Whisker Whip, the Extreme, and the Extender. Whisker Whip is 71⁄2-foot medium action and Extreme is 71⁄2-foot with medium-heavy action. Whether he uses the Whisker Whip or Extreme depends on weight. During low flows requiring lighter weight, Casey relies on the Whisker Whip, which has a softer tip, especially valuable during light bites. When flow is higher and more weight is needed (8 ounces or more), he switches to the Extreme.
The Extender is a medium-heavy-action 10-footer. Since he does a lot of drift-fishing, this rod helps him get the bait out away from the boat, much like an outrigger. He can position an Extender on either side of his boat and then add shorter Extremes or Whisker Whips inside of the Extenders creating a spread out to 10 feet from both sides of the boat.
Casey’s favorite reel is the Shimano Tekota spooled with 80-pound-test Tug-O-War or Power Pro braid. He uses both the 500LC and 600LC. He matches the 500LC with the Whisker Whip since the reel is smaller and lighter. The 600LC fits the Extreme and Extender rods. He says both Tekota reels have a smooth drag, cast well, and feature an accurate line counter, which is critical to his fishing.
“I often mark fish I see on sonar with waypoints on my GPS,” he says. “Once I mark fish, I move upstream from that waypoint—say 100 feet—and anchor there. Using the line counter, I can present baits at precise distances downstream to the fish. If I’m in 30 feet water and the spot I’m targeting is 100 feet downstream, for example, I know the line will be roughly at a 45-degree angle to the fish, so I count out about 110 feet. This puts my bait just upstream from the fish.”
Santee-Cooper South Carolina guide Marlin Ormseth trolls with planer boards for blue cats. His rig incorporate modified circle hooks. He makes certain the points are extra sharp because when a fish takes the bait, he wants them to immediately feel the hook so they resist and quickly set the hook themselves. By the time Ormseth grabs the rod from the rod holder, the fish is securely hooked.
Because he wants a quick hook-set, he prefers the stout tip on the 8-foot Berkley Glowstik Catfish Casting Rod. He pairs it with 80-pound-test braid on a Daiwa 27LC reel. He likes this reel because it casts well, has a line counter, and is durable. Ormseth sets his drag so that it gives when a fish hits the bait. This drag setting also allows him time to react if his line gets snagged.
Guide and tournament angler Carl Roberts plies the Mississippi and lower Missouri rivers around St. Louis for goliath blues. World-record-class water requires tough sticks, so he turns to Shakespeare’s Ugly Stik Tiger rods, the medium action BWC 2201 70 and medium-heavy 2202 70. Tigers have a slightly faster tip and stouter mid-section than the Ugly-Stik Custom USCC 2270, but they still have soft-enough tips to work with circle-hooks on big fish. Roberts matches Tigers with Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 7000 reels spooled with 80-pound-test Sufix 832 braid.