January 27, 2020
By Steve Ryan
The circle may be the perfect shape. Throughout history it has been the source of inspiration and admiration. It is the shape of the earth, moon, and other celestial bodies. The wheel and many other important inventions in human history are based on the circle. And perhaps most importantly, it is the shape of the finest baitcast reels available to catfish anglers.
Round baitcast reels are where form meets function in the realm of catfishing. Cylinders offer unparalleled strength and integrity. That same principal holds true for reels with round body housings. They contour perfectly to the hand. Plus, they lack small nooks and angles associated with low-profile reels that can trap grime and debris.
Internally, the most important qualities for round reels are smooth drags, solid gearings, precise cast controls, sufficient line capacity, and an audible bait clicker. Marry these elements into one round package and you have one-half of a perfect catfish combo.
The largest family of round baitcast reels belongs to Abu Garcia and its Ambassadeur series, with origins dating back to 1952. This is the style of reel that your father and grandfather used to catch everything from trophy catfish to monster muskies. While their basic design has stood the test of time and the general sizing of these reels has remained consistent for the last half-century (from the small 5500 series to the midsize 6500 and large 7000 series Ambassadeurs), the guts of these reels have advanced by leaps and bounds.
A good example of Abu Garcia’s advanced engineering in a familiar-looking package is the 5500 Ambassadeur Pro Rocket. With an aluminum frame, this reel has a solid yet lightweight construction. This makes it ideal for shore applications where tackle has to be hauled long distances. Packed with features never imagined in its predecessors, the Pro Rocket casts like a dream. Features include a six-pin centrifugal braking system, which allows for fine-tuned cast controls, depending on the size of bait and sinker.
Performance is further enhanced by a synchronized levelwind system that improves line placement on the spool and enables better casting performance. As a bonus, the small palm-size 5500 comes with a bait clicker—a feature not found on some other small reels. The Pro Rocket is available in both right- and left-hand retrieve. At just under 10.5 ounces with 15 pounds of drag pressure, it’s a reel you won’t want to set down.
Another small powerful round reel with a classic look is the Daiwa Millionaire-S series in 250 and 300 sizes. The 250 size weighs just 10 ounces with a one-piece aluminum frame. They’re priced economically and yet contain advancements found in Daiwa’s more expensive line of bass reels. These features include a free-floating spool that provides maximum spool rotation and an easy-access centrifugal brake system for maximum casting distance. For bank anglers, these advancements enable long, precise casts. With a massive seven-element drag system, there’s no sticking or surging of the spool when battling big fish to the net. This reliable drag system enables the use of slightly lighter line for greater casting distance and less lead used to securely hold baits in the current.
Bass Pro Shops has been making catfish gear for decades, and the round Cat Maxx reel may be its pinnacle contribution to the sport when it comes to performance and value. These reels hold plenty of heavy monofilament to tame trophy channels and big blues and flatheads. Priced at under $70, outfitting the entire boat with these durable one-piece aluminum-frame reels becomes that much easier.
Cat Maxx reels not only perform flawlessly with a four-ball-bearing system that ensures years of smooth operation, but they’re also easy to use with an external magnetic braking system. With a turn of the dial, tension of the spool is adjusted to deliver long casts without fear of backlashes. The bait clicker is conveniently located toward the bottom of the reel’s frame to guard against accidentally engaging it. With a powerful 5.2:1 gear ratio, Cat Maxx reels have plenty of cranking power to quickly gain line and get the upper hand on big cats, even in swift current.
Abu Garcia C3 reels have been a staple among catfish anglers for decades. Abu took note and incorporated the best catfish reel features into its C3 Catfish Reels, available in 6500 and 7000 sizes. They have Abu Garcia’s advanced Carbon Matrix drag system that ensures smooth, steady pressure on fish no matter the conditions. That makes it a great choice for big wintertime blues, as well as trophy flatheads in the heat of summer.
To make C3 reels more catfish-user friendly, Abu outfitted them with extended single pad handles for more cranking power. They’re easier to locate in the dark and provide better balance to the reel. If you are a run-and-gun angler that fishes in all kinds of weather conditions and want a reel with extra power, the C3 Catfish Special fits the bill.
The Team Catfish Gold Ring 400 is another reel loaded with great features for catfish anglers. Its blistering fast 6.1:1 retrieve ratio makes it a stand-out for anglers who fish deep water and use dragging techniques with lots of line trailing from the boat. The faster retrieve ratio allows anglers to pick up line more quickly when changing locations and rebaiting lines. This translates into more time with bait in the water. The soft-grip power handle provides a more comfortable experience when tending to multiple lines throughout the day. Brass pinion and drive gears add to the long life of these reels.
For anglers who use heavy monofilament or require greater line capacity for dragging techniques in deep water, there’s no substitute for extra line capacity on large round reels. Reels like the Zebco Big Cat XT30 accommodate more than 400 yards of 30-pound mono. The instant anti-reverse on the XT30 insures minimal play in the handle for quick and solid hook-sets. The lightweight graphite frame also means less fatigue after long hours on the water, and yet the reel still delivers 17 pounds of drag pressure to wear down big fish in a hurry.
For anglers who need a reel suited to do battle with 100-pound blues and 60-pound flatheads, look no further than the Penn Fathom II Level Wind. Borrowing from Penn’s lengthy saltwater history of setting numerous all-tackle IFGA world records, the Fathom II’s full-metal body keeps gears in perfect alignment and the HT-100 drag system has been tested on the world’s largest sportfish. They’re built solid without any flex to their frames, handles, or star drag. The size-20 model has a powerhouse gear ratio of 5.5:1, with 30 pounds of drag at its disposal and a line capacity of 450 yards of 50-pound mono. They’re available in both left- and right-hand models, along with a line-counter version.
Okuma Cortez Black 12 is a non-levelwind reel that offers a ton of line capacity for anglers who drag for blue catfish and who also use their catfish setups for striper fishing. The lack of a levelwind allows for line to be played out more quickly and eliminates pinch points when fish quickly scream off line. The Cortez 12 has a comfortable oversized power handle, making it well suited for planer board applications where lots of line needs to be taken up in a hurry to connect with fish and when moving between locations. With a quick 6.2:1 retrieve ratio, the reel takes up 43 inches of line with each crank of the handle. Okuma’s carbonite drag material disperses heat and minimizes friction for consistent, steady drag pressure, even during extended fish battles. Tested in saltwater for super-charged fish like tuna, jacks, and marlin, the Cortez Black 12 has all the power and toughness to withstand years of heavy-duty catfish action.
The popularity of line-counter reels has skyrocketed in recent years on the catfishing scene. Line counters allow you to quickly and accurately duplicate presentations. Applications including drifting for suspended blues and channel catfish in reservoirs. If catfish are marked 38 feet down over 50 feet of water, for example, the line counter precisely gets the bait to the desired depth of 38 feet. There’s no more guesswork in setting or resetting baits.
Line-counter reels are even more beneficial in dragging and trolling situations when baits are spread out away from the boat and sonar can’t be used to identify the depth of the bait or the fish when a bite occurs. Line counters also take the guesswork out of bouncing baits back to key cover when anchored. Once a bite occurs, the readout on the line counter shows how far back the bait was set and allows for that presentation to be duplicated over and over again.
Daiwa has been among the leaders in line-counter reels in the walleye and salmon markets for nearly half a century. For the catfish market, the AccuDepth Plus-B LC and Sealine B are two prime options. The AccuDepth Plus-B is lightweight with a one-piece composite frame and machine-cut brass gears. Its Teflon-impregnated felt drag washers provide for a silky-smooth drag. Multiple size options of 27, 47, and 57 allow you to select the reel that best matches your style of fishing, with line capacity, retrieve speed, reel weight, and maximum drag pressure being the distinguishing factors.
For a beefier option, Daiwa Saltist levelwind line-counter has spiral-cut gears that mesh perfectly for supreme cranking power. The aluminum frame, side plate, and corrosion-resistant five-ball-bearing system make it a good option in tidal waters and where brackish water might be encountered. Saltists are designed to hold up to the rigors of saltwater and other harsh environments. A dual-system infinite anti-reverse eliminates play in the handle and spool. The Ultimate Tournament carbon drag system means no slipping or sticking when even the heaviest pressure is put on stubborn cats.
On impoundments of the Tennessee River, Captain Scott Manning relies on Okuma Coldwater LC 153D reels. He likes to keep his clients engaged and participating during their fishing trips. That means having them cast their own lines. The lightweight Coldwater LC 153D casts well and is difficult to backlash. The accurate line-counter not only helps his clients get their bait to the right depth when drifting but also helps to signal how close fish are to the boat during the fight. This allows Manning to get other lines cleared and the net ready as the fish nears the surface. Okuma’s Clear View Technology keeps the line-counter screen from fogging, and the self-lubricating extra-large drive shaft keeps these reels working smoothly for years without fuss. If larger line capacity is desired, the 203 size Coldwater LC holds 210 yards of 50-pound test and the 303 size holds 420 yards.
Shimano has been in the line-counter market for over 15 years with its venerable Tekota series. New for 2019, the Tekota LC is redesigned with a more compact one-piece die-cast aluminum frame that conforms more comfortably to the hand, while the counterbalanced handle reduces side-to-side wobble of the reel during the retrieve. Their proprietary treated A-RB bearings are more corrosion resistant than standard stainless-steel bearings and the tolerances on these reels are kept precise for years of unflawed performance.
Another durable reel option that has been a favorite among top fishing guides is the Penn Squall line counter. These dependable levelwind reels boast a lightweight, yet strong graphite frame and side plates. A machine-cut bronze main gear paired with a stainless-steel pinion gear and shielded stainless-steel bearings provide integrity to the guts of these reels. With a 4.9:1 gear ratio and 15 pounds of drag pressure, these are workhorse reels that won’t strain under the pressure of big fish. A counter-balanced handle with large power knob adds to comfort and performance.
When selecting your next catfish reel, consider going round. These highly functional reels will keep you reeling in big catfish for years to come. Their form adds to their structural integrity and durability, while manufacturers continue to refine their performance with catfish anglers and big fish in mind.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an expert multispecies angler and regular contributor to Catfish In-Sider Guide.