With decades of experience chasing everything that swims, the In-Fisherman staff and friends have a wealth of knowledge to share on the best reels for big fish. While many of the biggest and baddest freshwater fish reside in waters far from our back doors, these exotic fish offer the best gauge of a reel's durability and performance. I've highlighted reels that stand up to feisty foreign fish as well as the tough guys of North American waters.
Abu Garcia Record > Payara/Lake Trout
Payara are one of the most recognizable of all exotic fish. With two saber-like teeth that extend from their lower jaw and slide neatly into cavities in their upper jaw, they're formidable foes. Along with tigerfish, they're the quickest striking fish and one of the most challenging to hook and land. They have a knack for dislodging lures with their unusual jaw structure and amazing leaps.
To target payara, you need a versatile reel suited for both casting and trolling. Payara favor fast current where short precise casts are critical. But they also vacate these areas and spread across long deep runs in rivers, making trolling most effective. The Abu Garcia Record is a great choice. As Abu's premier round-body reel, it has a Carbon Matrix drag system that won't compress or bind, even when scorched by runaway fish. Record's Titanium Nitride line guide also reduces wear on the line when monster fish make blistering runs. The synchronized levelwind system eliminates bad line angles between the spool and the levelwind. Even in freespool, the levelwind tracks the line while casting or deploying line to start a trolling pass. And its round design adds to the reel's durability and comfort level while trolling. abugarcia.com
Other durable round reels that keep you trolling up massive lake trout include the Bass Pro Shop Muskie Angler Conventional Reel, Okuma Cedros Round, and Shimano Cardiff.
*Photo: Payara possess amazing jaws and inhabit fast water where trolling excels.
Abu Garcia Revo Toro > Golden Dorado/Stripers
The Abu Garcia Revo Toro is a top choice when pursuing golden dorado, one of the hardest fighting freshwater fish. They can reach 70 pounds and have amazing endurance and leaping ability. With jaws like a spring-loaded bear trap and razor-sharp teeth, they can cut a 10-pound baitfish in half with one swipe and instantly pivot to engulf a Rapala Mag 30. Using the current to their advantage, dorado quickly overmatch most gear.
Lifelong In-Fisherman reader Bob Daly has become an expert at pursuing them in the swift tailrace waters of the Salto Grande Dam in Argentina. He recently topped the 50-pound mark and appreciates the versatility of the Revo series of reels, which offers nearly a dozen models in various sizes, speeds, and gear ratios. The Toro Winch has a powerful 5.4:1 gear ratio, excellent for crankbaits, glidebaits, and topwaters. For burning spinners across the tops of submerged rocks and weeds, the Toro 60HS offers a 6.4:1 gear ratio that picks up 31 inches of line per crank. All Revos have plenty of line capacity and a comfortable feel with their low-profile one-piece aluminum alloy frames.
Closer to home, Revos match trophy stripers, even in tailraces. abugarcia.com
Quantum EXO 300PPT and Shimano Curado are top-performing low profile reels with the power to tackle more than just bass.
*Photo: Abu Garcia's Revo Toro stands up to the scorching runs and aerial acrobatics of golden dorado.
Daiwa Luna > Peacock Bass/Largemouth Bass
With their explosive surface strikes, peacock bass are a thrill to catch, but it can be exhausting to work large topwaters all day in equatorial heat. Jumbo prop baits must be ripped across the surface to fire up these predators. To withstand the strain of this ripping motion and peacocks' bone jarring strikes, reels need top-notch gears.
Daiwa's Luna 300 fits the bill and is among the smoothest round casting reels on the market. Its wide spool holds a lot of line, while its smooth casting and retrieve comes from its free-floating spool and Daiwa's Dura-Loc pinion for solid gear engagement. The frame and sideplates are precisely cut from solid bar-stock aluminum for maximum strength and perfect alignment. Its round shape allows the reel to be palmed and used like a handle to help in ripping baits. Another casting option for peacocks is the Shimano Calcutta 400D with high-efficiency gearing. Every component has been refined to keep the drivetrain and gears in perfect alignment. The drive gear and pinion gear have been strengthened to provide greater power and leverage. Its one-piece frame and stamped side plate eliminate flex in the drivetrain for a smooth high-speed retrieve with no binding of the gears, even under heavy loads. The Calcutta's Super Free feature supports the pinion gear to eliminate friction on the spool when casting, which reduces spool tension for longer casts. The cold-forged handle, Dartainium drag system, roller bearing, and easy access side plate add to its performance and durability. Calcutta also is suited for working oversized swimbaits and crankbaits for big largemouth bass and stripers. daiwa.com
*Photo: Consider Daiwa's Luna 300, with super-wide spool, for peacock bass or giant largemouths.
Okuma Cedros Baitfeeder > Arapaima/Alligator Gar
Sometimes the knack to catching truly monster fish, like the prehistoric, air-breathing arapaima, is a stealth approach. This fish can exceed 450 pounds and 8 feet, yet it chooses to slowly approach a bait and may reject even the tastiest of cutbaits if it feels significant resistance. Okuma's Cedros Baitfeeder has a feature for this application. Its baitfeeder allows the drag to be disengaged with the bail closed. A tension control knob at the back of the reel governs how freely the spool spins to avoid line overruns when a fish takes off with a bait. A turn of the handle engages the drag. Cedros has a dual-force drag system that simultaneously applies even pressure on the top and bottom of the spool. A smooth drag is critical when a monster explodes across the surface and heads for cover. The Precision Elliptical Gears of the Cedros ensure longevity.
Available in two sizes, the larger 65 delivers 31 pounds of drag pressure and holds 260 yards of 20-pound-test mono. Here in North America, the Cedros excels at corralling triple-digit alligator gar on the Trinity River in Texas. Try the 55 size with 24 pounds of drag for big carp and buffalo across the country. okumafishing.com
Shimano's Baitrunner and Penn's Live Liner also have baitfeeder features.
*Photo: Arapaima peel the toughest drags, but are delicate feeders at times. Okuma's Baitfeeder feature fits the bill.
Penn Torque > Piraiba and Jau /White Sturgeon
Penn's American made Torque 2-speed reel makes battles with giant Amazon catfish such as piraiba and jau far more pleasant. Piraiba is the MacDaddy of all cats in the Western Hemisphere — growing to more than 400 pounds of rippling muscle. Jau catfish enter the competition at around 200 pounds of bulky power. Both species have incredible stamina and are ideal adversaries for testing 2-speed reels that allow anglers to switch into low gear, when gaining even inches of line per crank is an accomplishment. The Torque is a work of craftsmanship with machined and anodized aluminum body and side plates. Stainless-steel main and pinion gears speak to its roots of taming turbocharged saltwater fish. The 30 size weighs just 21.5 ounces, but applies up to 28 pounds of drag at full setting and 33 pounds at sunset setting. It holds 200 yards of 50-pound mono or 455 yards of 80-pound braid. The beauty of the lever drag, instead of a star drag, is precisely presetting it at the strike and full settings and then making quick micro adjustments while fighting the fish. The Torque comes in four sizes. pennreels.com
Other two-speed level drag reels that won't wilt under pressure included Shimano's Talica and Accurate's Dawg Pound. They have what it takes to tackle giant white sturgeon out West in both deep gorge and swift current settings.
*Photo: Piraiba is king of the American cats, topping 400 pounds. Deploy a big Penn Torque and hang on if you can.
Pflueger Patriarch > Tigerfish/Steelhead
Exploring remote rivers in Tanzania for big, toothy tigerfish demands the most in a reel, as you measure every casting angle and keep one eye trained for hungry hippos and crocs the size of the boat. Our reel of choice is the Pflueger Patriarch. Whether casting an unweighted Zoom Super Fluke or Rapala X-Rap, it delivers accurate casts regardless of lure weight or wind conditions.
A lifetime of battling unrelenting current makes tigerfish exceedingly fit. Their strikes are lightning fast to instantly cripple or engulf prey with their uncanny canines. For speed, tigerfish make steelhead look sluggish, and any slack line guarantees a lost fish. Patriarch 9540's retrieval of nearly 33 inches per crank makes it hard for fish to reverse directions and outpace this reel. In addition to being blistering fast and acrobatic, tigerfish match the power of any fish their size and find any weakness in a reel's drag system and gearing. The Pflueger Patriarch has the guts to go toe to toe with them.
Available in 4 sizes from light- to heavy-power, the Patriarch excels for steelhead as well. Choose between the 9530 or 9535 size depending upon how much line capacity and drag you need. The 9530 delivers 8 pounds of drag pressure and holds 115 yards of 8-pound-test mono, while the 9535 size doubles drag power and holds 140 yards of 8-pound line. pfluegerfishing.com
*Photo: African tigerfish are a frightful sight, but Pflueger's Patriarch can tame them. Just don't forget the wire leader.
Shimano Sustain > Giant Snakehead/Northern Snakehead
Snakeheads continue to get a bad rap in the U.S., even though current studies refute earlier claims that snakeheads can cause the demise of bass populations. Throughout Asia, they're regarded as one of the toughest and most challenging sportfish. The biggest and baddest species is the giant snakehead of Southeast Asia. With a Shimano Sustain 5000 spooled with 40-pound braid and the drag cranked near the maximum setting of 20 pounds, you stand a chance to tame one of these jungle tigers. Guide Jean-Francois Helias has decades of experience pursuing them and has amassed over 20 IGFA snakehead records. He's the only foreign angler to win the Snakehead Angler of the Year Award in Thailand. Confronted with flooded reservoirs laced with standing timber and matted vegetation, Helias relies on a Sustain to make thousands of quick accurate casts and extricate big fish from their lairs.
Sustain 5000 can retrieve 41 inches of line per turn of the handle. Such speed means that if you miss your target with a cast, you can burn the lure back to the boat for another try. And casts are effortless since it weighs just 10.6 ounces. The waterproof drag system functions well in jungle environments. Plus, the spool's forward slanted lip design allows for longer and more accurate casts. With seven sizes from ultra-light to heavy, there's a Sustain to for nearly any predator, including northern snakeheads that now reside in the Potomac River and have reached world-record size. shimano.com
Other tough spinning reels include the Penn Spinfisher V, Abu Garcia Premier, and Quantum Tour KVD.
*Photo: Giant snakeheads are tough battlers living in heavy cover. Hefty spinning reels like Shimano's Sustain have the finesse and power to corral them.
Shimano Tekota > Surubi/Salmon
Possibly the most solid line-counter reel on the market, Shimano's Tekota 600LC takes a die-cast aluminum frame and works in tall-tooth gears for more surface area and ultra-smooth cranking power. We took them to the Parana River in South America for spotted surubi, a giant shovelnose catfish that can reach 200 pounds. These predators stalk prey behind huge boulders in deep river holes. We were able to catch them by longlining deep-diving crankbaits on 10- to 15-pound test braided line to achieve maximum depth in swift current. Tekota's line-counter allowed us to replicate trolling passes and its ergonomic handle grip reduced fatigue when reeling in 300 to 400 feet of line after each trolling pass. And its fast retrieve made it easier to keep up with one of the fastest giant catfish on the planet. These characteristics make the Tekota a top pick among Great Lakes salmon anglers for downrigger, dipsy diver, leadcore, and wire applications. Other line-counter options include the Abu Garcia 6500LC, the upsized Daiwa Sealine 57LC, and Okuma Catalina CT-305Da.
When selecting your next reel, consider the features and performance offered by these models. Battle tested on some of the world's toughest freshwater fish, they're a great addition to your arsenal. Many are available in smaller sizes to match nearly all species of North American fish. shimano.com
*Photo: Line-counters like Shimano's Tekota allow precise trolling and setline presentations for spotted surubi in deep river holes.
Shimano Tranx > Papuan Black Bass (Snapper)/ Muskies
For brute cranking power and retrieve speed, the Shimano Tranx reigns supreme among levelwinds. TRX500HG has a 6.6:1 gear ratio that retrieves 43 inches of line per crank. The TRX500PG model packs more pulling power with a 4.6:1 gear ratio and picks up 30 inches. Each version has centrifugal braking, wide spools for line capacity, micro adjustment cast control, and Shimano's X-Ship friction-free pinion gear and spool shaft engineering. These features translate into a reel with incredible casting distance and flawless performance. We put them to the test on Papuan black snapper, a fish with arguably the most violent strikes and sheer brute strength of all. The Tranx handled their assaults and produced a near IGFA world record fish for Cole Lundquist during our recent expedition into that rain forest.
For pursuing apex predators such as muskies, Tranx already has a track record for burning bucktails and working hard-pulling crankbaits. Another addition in this category is the Daiwa Luxa 400 HSL-P. With a 7.1:1 gear ratio, it retrieves 37.7 inches of line per crank and holds 200 yards of 80-pound braid. A 4.75-inch, counter-balanced handle and an Ultimate Tournament Carbon Drag that produces up to 25 pounds of drag pressure mean the Luxa can work even the largest lures with ease. shimano.com
*Photo: Shimano Tranx can tranquilize the Papuan black bass, arguably the toughest fish for its size on the planet.