March 31, 2020
By Dan Anderson
I have a lot of Abu Garcia and Penn baitcasting reels, but those in my tackle inventory with the most catfish slime on them are a Shimano Spirex spinning reel and a pair of Zebco Omega spincasters. They work well for the way I like to fish. Most of my catfishing is run-and-gun for 2- to 10-pound channel cats in small rivers and lakes, but I never know what will end up on the end of my line. I need to be able to cast a chunk of cutbait and have confidence my reel can handle whatever size or species of catfish takes that bait.
That’s why I like spinning reels. They’re easy to use, durable, and forgiving. Despite those advantages, spinning reels unfortunately have a reputation as, “not tough enough for catfishing.” If that’s so, why are they the reel of choice for anglers surfcasting for 50- to 60-pound stripers? Why do so many catfishing guides entrust their clients’ success to spinning reels?
There are technically two types of spinning reels: Spincast reels, which have a metal or plastic cover over the spool that holds the fishing line, and open-face spinning reels, which have no front cover over the spool. Either version has the potential to land big fish.
“Spincast reels have always been easy to use,” says Michael Whitman, senior product manager for Zebco/Quantum. “Everybody started fishing as a kid with spincast reels like the Zebco 202, and that gave them reputations as “beginner’s” reels. Economy-level spincasting reels are still good reels for inexperienced fishermen, but the Zebco 808 and 888, and spinning reels like our Quantum’s Boca and Cabo saltwater reels, are big enough and tough enough to easily handle the biggest flathead or blue catfish.”
“If you’re looking at spincasting reels for catfishing, price isn’t a bad place to start,” says Lawrence Tankersley, brand development manager for Abu Garcia, Shakespeare, Mitchell, and Pflueger reels. “Prices reflect the design and materials used in reels. Economy reels have plastic or stamped metal front covers. Higher-priced reels have machined metal covers. The number of take-up pins (on the reel’s rotor) and the material the pins are made of are also factors in the quality and price of a spincasting reel.”
Take-up pins on the rotors of spincasting reels retract or extend to release or reel in line. The number of pins on the rotor determines how quickly the reel begins to collect line when the reel’s handle is engaged. Lower-price spincasters may have a single plastic pin on the rotor. Higher-priced options have multiple pins of steel, titanium, or ceramic material.
“Plastic pins obviously don’t have the durability of steel or ceramic ones,” Tankersley says. “If you’re using a reel every weekend all summer long, you probably want the more durable pins. The more pins on the rotor, the less wear per pin, and the more durable the pin, the longer they last without wearing grooves that affect the reel’s performance.
Other mechanical aspects influence the performance and price of spincasting reels. “The Zebco 808 has multi-stop anti-reverse,” Whitman says. “The 888 has an anti-reverse clutch. The difference is that there’s a slight delay before the reel engages and stops line movement on the 808, while there is no freeplay in the 888.”
Drags in spincasting reels vary, from felt washers in economy models to composite drags made of synthetic materials in high-end units. Any drag washer of any price or design can handle big fish if the drag is set light enough to avoid overloading its capabilities.
“Our recommended drag setting for any reel, with any type of drag, is 25 to 30 percent of the line-weight rating,” Whitman says. “Using a scale to set the drag off the end of the rod gives a drag setting that feels much lighter than most guys are used to when they just pull the line off the reel and set it by “feel.” But that setting lets even the felt drag washers in a 202 land a big fish, if the angler is patient.”
One issue unique to drags on spincasting and spinning reels is their dislike for being reeled-in while the drag is slipping. “If you think about it, you’re putting twice the stress on the drag,” Tankersley says. “The fish is pulling one way, you’re pulling the other way cranking on the handle, and the drag is getting pressure from both directions. Plus, cranking against the drag on spincasters and spinning reels puts twist in the line with every crank. Put enough twist in the line and you can reduce its strength.”
Choices in spincasting reels vary, from Shakespeare’s entry-level $15 Synergy spincaster to Zebco’s $99 Bullet with all-metal gears, anti-reverse clutch, reversible handle (left or right side), and retrieve ratio of 5.1:1 (29 inches of line per handle revolution). Higher prices buy more bearings for smoother reel performance, machined metal gears, synthetic or composite drag washers, and beefier frames that won’t flex under heavy loads.
Many spincast reels come pre-spooled with monofilament line matched to the reel’s capabilities. “Every spincast reel has a ‘window’ of line-weight that works well with it,” Tankersley says. “Load heavier line than it’s designed for and you reduce its line capacity. On some reels, the hole in the front of the housing is designed for a certain diameter line, and it reduces casting distance if the line’s diameter is larger than the hole was designed for. Most spincasters come pre-spooled with monofilament, but you can use braided line. The only issue is attaching braided line to the spool so it doesn’t slip (on the spool’s arbor), and if the take-up pins are built of a material that stands up to the abrasiveness of braid. Look for ceramic or steel pins if you plan on switching to braid.”
Mid-priced spincast reels such as Abu Garcia’s AbuMatic STX, Pflueger’s President, and Zebco’s 808 offer metal frames, metal gears, ceramic pick-up pins, and enhanced drags. Many manufacturers offer catfish-specific spincast reels in this price range, often paired with rods to create catfish combos. Mitchell’s AvoCat Combo, Ugly Stik/Shakespeare Catfish Spincast Combo, and Zebco’s Big Cat Spincast Combo are in the $35 to $50 range.
Spinning reels have long been favored by catfish guides for their ease in use, but have recently gained popularity among tournament catfish anglers as well. “In the Mississippi River basin, where anglers are going after 100-pound-plus blue cats, spinning reels are getting more attention,” Whitman says. “We’re seeing them using $150 to $200 saltwater reels from size 40 up to size 100.” Several companies such as Quantum, Penn, Daiwa, Okuma, and Shimano offer a range of surf-spinning reels to choose from.
“Comfort and line capacity are big reasons for spinning,” he says. “When you’re bouncing baits all day long, lifting and dropping a big bait and lots of line in strong current with a big rod and reel, weight and balance are big deals. Holding a rod all day balancing a big baitcaster on top of the rod wears out your wrist and hand. A big spinning reel balanced below the handle is more comfortable. Plus, those guys need lots of line capacity. To get more line capacity on a baitcasting reel it has to be wider or taller. You can get a lot of line on a spinning reel without dramatically changing its size.”
Many catfish anglers who fish from shore prefer spinning reels because they hang “naturally” from rods in rod holders. Baitcasting reels flip and hang from the bottom of rods when placed in simple Y-shaped rod holders, requiring anglers to flip the reel to the top when the rod is snatched from the holder to deal with a bite. More sophisticated rod holders designed to keep baitcaster reels on top of rods require brief “untangling” to remove the rod from the holder.
Even more important to shore anglers is the ability of spinning reels to cast baits long distances. Tim “Tiny” Smith of Oklahoma is a catfish guide as well as a record-setting competitor in casting competitions. His record in competition is 258 yards—more than 1/8 mile. He says baitcasting reels can’t touch the casting range of spinning setups.
“I regularly cast more than 200 yards when I’m fishing below Keystone Dam, on the Arkansas River,” Smith says. “I can cast twice as far and catch three times as many catfish using big spinning reels on surfcasting rods. You’ve got to have a long rod to take advantage of spinning reels’ ability to cast long distances, but they are the way to fish for catfish below dams.”
“If you’re fishing from shore and need a reel that can get a bait way out there, a spinning reel is the way to go,” says Jeff Williams of Team Catfish. “Compare a Team Catfish Gold Reel baitcaster to a Gold Reel spinning reel for casting distance, and the spinning reel wins every time.”
Spinning reels come in a range of sizes. There is no industry standard for sizing spinning reels. What one manufacturer calls a size-5 reel might be a 50 or 5000 to another manufacturer. But generally, smaller numbers mean smaller frames, less line capacity, and lighter line-weight rating.
While spinning reels in size 10 or 20 can land big catfish in the hands of an experienced angler, most catmen prefer 30/300-size or larger. Zebco’s Big Cat XT spinning reels come in size 50 rated for 235 yards of 14-pound mono, up to 80 size designed for 245 yards of 25-pound mono. Okuma’s Baitfeeder series comes in 12 models that range from size 40 to 100. Shimano Baitrunner spinning reels popular with catfishermen are rated 4000 to 6000 size.
The Penn Spinfisher has been a popular saltwater spinning option for decades, and also has found its way onto the freshwater scene due to its reliability and durability in tough environments. New for 2018-2019 is the Spinfisher VI, with its sealed body and spool design, CNC Gear System, carbon fiber drag washers, and full-metal body and sideplate. The 6500 size has a whopping 30 pounds of max drag with a line capacity of 410 yards of 40-pound braid. Nine sizes are available, from the smaller 2500 to the biggest 10500 size. Anglers fishing for blues in brackish waters on the East Coast would especially like this reels sealed anti-corrosion features. Also new are four models of the Spinfisher VI Live Liner, which feature all the engineering advantages of the Spinfisher, plus the Live Liner feature and fully automatic and adjustable rear drag for fishing livebaits.
Baitrunner-style spinning reels are favorites of catfishermen because they have settings that allow catfish to take a bait and move away with little to no resistance. Many spincast and spinning reels resist releasing line until the drag’s weight setting is exceeded. Reels with bait clickers allow line to come off the reel at a low alternate drag setting, often accompanied by a clicking sound to alert the angler.
“I like having a bait clicker on a catfish reel,” Williams says. “One thing that differs between bait clickers on spinning rods and the clickers on baitcasters is the amount of noise they make. Baitcasting reels have fairly loud clickers that you can hear from a distance. The clickers on spinning reels tend to be quieter, though some of them are louder than others.”
Zebco’s Bite Alert spinning reel is a 60-size spinning reel that addresses that issue. Battery-powered lights and an audible alarm announce when a fish moves a bait. Bite Alert is also available on Zebco’s 808 spincasting reels.
Spinning combos have gained popularity among catfish anglers. Abu Garcia’s Catfish Commando Spin Combo offers a carbon-framed 60-series spinning reel with carbon-matrix drag system, spooled with 205 yards of 14-pound mono or 200 yards of 20-pound braid on a 7-foot composite rod. Shakespeare’s Ugly Stik Catfish Spinning Combo combines a size-50 reel with 12-, 14-, or 17-pound mono on a 7-foot medium-heavy Ugly Stik two-piece rod. Bass Pro Shops offers 70- and 80-size CatMaxx combos with spinning reels loaded with 10- to 25-pound mono on 8- to 11-foot medium-heavy to heavy-power E-glass rods, with an option of using braided line.
A problem common to both spincast and spinning reels loaded with braided line is the tendency of slick braid to slip on the polished arbor of the reel’s spool. Some high-end spinning reels have arbors with grooves machined in their surface to give the slippery line something to grip. Reels with smooth arbors can be made braid-ready by wrapping the arbor with electrician’s tape or duct tape to give braided line something to grip. Or use a bit of monofilament as backing, before spooling on the braid.
Spinning reels are simple, durable, reliable, and many options exist that are priced to fit any catfish angler’s budget. Whether you’re after small channel cats, beefy blues, or need to reach spots far offshore, there’s a spinning option to suit your needs.
*Dan Anderson, Bouton Iowa, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman and Catfish In-Sider Guide.