Guide to the Best Catfish Rod and Reel Setup

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Looking to get into catfishing? In this article, we will cover how you can find the best catfish rod and reel setup to help get started and catch your next monster!

Fishing has always been a big part of life for my family and I.  I still have a picture of a three-year-old me holding up a giant largemouth with my grandfather.  I was hooked at a young age and spent lots of my free time fishing.  At home we would take the fly rod to the neighborhood lake or ride our bikes to the creek with my cane pole to fish off the bridge for sunfish.

I started spending my summers on my grandfather’s hog farm in Southern Missouri.  Any free time we had was spent fishing.  We would either fish for bass on the farm ponds or fish for trout in the spring fed stretch of the Eleven Point River.  I felt like I had a fisherman’s childhood, and yet I never really fished for catfish.

I will never forget the day I was truly introduced to catfish.  I was in my early 20’s and had made friends with a sales rep working for me.  He invited me out to a stocked lake that belonged to a friend of his.  He pulled out treble hooks and chicken livers for bait.  I looked at him funny but followed his lead anyways.  He was using a much sturdier setup than my normal rod and reel.

best catfish rod and reel

He made his first cast and got a strike in the first minute.  He reeled in a good-sized catfish and threw his line out again.  Just then, I got a strike myself.  I was able to struggle and bring in the stubborn catfish, but it was not easy.  I felt like I had to be careful to prevent my rod or line from snapping. For the rest of the afternoon, we caught fish after fish on just about every cast.  It was loads of fun, but I realized I did not have the right gear for the job.

Over the years I continued to target catfish using my same old gear until I saw a deal on an Ugly Stik setup.  I snatched it up and took it out on the next free day I had.  The difference was immediately noticeable.  Every aspect of this rod and reel was thicker and tougher.  I had no concerns about bringing in catfish aggressively without breaking anything.  I have continued to use that rig since.

Points of Focus

When you are considering different rod and reel combinations for catfish, you must be selective.  You need to have gear that can handle the size and nature of catfish.  You will notice that most catfish are fairly aggressive when they fight.  They don’t jump and flail like a bass does, but they fight just as hard.  They also can grow to be quite large.  Depending on where you fish, you could easily bring in a 20 or 30 pound catfish.  A standard rod and reel setup cannot handle that kind of weight or fight. As you look at all of the different features of rods and reels, remember that everything should be built to handle both small and large catfish.

Best Catfish Rod

You will immediately notice that most rods built for catfish are longer and thicker than other fishing rods.  This is specifically to give you distance in your cast, flexibility for a fighting fish, and strength to handle the weight.  You do have some choices though.  You should not just automatically go for the largest rod you can find.

Remember that in large rivers and lakes where you might catch a 30-pound monster, you also might catch a five pounder that is still worth keeping.  The biggest rod available would do well with the large fish but would be overkill for the small one.  You often sacrifice rod sensitivity when you go with a bigger rod, so it is not as easy to tell when you have a bite.

You need to carefully consider the sizes of the smallest and largest fish you will be targeting.  Then find a balance so you can easily handle both ends of the spectrum.  For most people you want something middle of the road for catfish rod size.  You should also consider where you will be fishing.  Longer rods are more difficult to carry through brush and tall grasses.  They can also snag on overhead branches easier.  If you plan to fish in some of these areas, you may want to go with a shorter rod.

Best Catfish Reel

When you are dealing with large and aggressive fish like catfish, you need to consider both the rod and the reel.  There are lots of different options for reels, but the one I see most often for catfish is the spinning reel.  These are usually used when you are going after small to mid-sized catfish.  They are incredibly efficient and rarely have mechanical issues because of the simple design.  They also tend to last longer because they have fewer moving parts.

You will also see anglers using baitcast reels for catfish.  This is because catfish can get so large.  If you are fishing in a river that has channel cats, blue cats, and steelhead cats you really don’t know what sized fish is going to bite.  You might cast in shallow water and bring in a three-pound fish.  Then you cast into a deep channel and bring in a 50-pound monster.  You just don’t know what you are going to get.  In that case, baitcast reels are better.  They can handle the extra weight because of the alignment of the reel with a perpendicular axle.  If you have a strong line and a strong rod, a baitcast reel should handle the rest.


When dealing with catfish, every aspect of your setup needs to be tough.  The good news is that most rods and reels designed for catfish are made with tough materials.  They rarely break or corrode over time.  You will see most rods made with graphite or composite.  The reels are typically made with steel, aircraft aluminum, and strong plastics.

However, even if all of your options will last you want to go with the one that will last the longest and perform the best.  Be sure you do your research on each piece of your setup.  Reviews from other customers will often tell the story of how well the product is made.


Since you will be potentially holding this rod and reel setup for hours at a time, it needs to fit your hand and be comfortable.  You also really need that comfort if you get a monster fish on the line and have to fight it for a long time.  This rarely happens with freshwater fish, but with large catfish it is absolutely possible.

I suggest you try out a few different models in a store before you buy or order one.  It is important that you pick up the rod and see how it feels. You want it to be comfortable in your hand and allow for easy movement.  You can tell right away if the designers of the rod were thinking about ergonomics or not.  Ideal rods will have a long grip made of a tough material like cork or EVA foam.  It will also have indentations for your fingers to fit more comfortably. In addition, handle materials should be waterproof and non-slip.

Other Features

You will quickly notice that there are complex catfish rigs and simple catfish rigs.  If you are new to going after catfish, you want to stay simple.  For the first few years you should focus on the basics of cast placement, lure or bait selection, and working with the drag to bring in a heavy fish.  Thankfully, simple rigs are less expensive.  I suggest going with a combo setup like the one I use so you get all of your basic needs met without getting too technical.  When you are ready to upgrade, you can get a custom rig with all of the more advanced features.

Some other features that might be a plus are a stainless-steel finish, a centrifugal brake to control backlash, a double coating to protect against UV rays, or an extended warranty. All of these little details could make one setup more useful than another, so pay attention to these as well.

best catfish rod and reel setup

Best Catfish Rod and Reel Setup

If you aren’t sure what to look for exactly, here are a few top-quality combo setups for catfish:

Ugly Stik

I am starting with this setup because I own this combo and absolutely love it.  Ugly Stik is known in the industry for manufacturing high quality fishing gear that is simple and easy to use.  I have enjoyed bringing in both smaller fish and monster catfish with this rig.

The versatility of the Ugly Stik is what has impressed me the most.  It is tough, light, and simple to operate.  Despite the rod being 7 feet long and medium weight, it only comes to 1.6 pounds with the reel and line. The rod is so light and tough due to a graphite core wrapped in fiberglass. This makes it surprisingly sensitive to bites despite being stiff and strong for bigger fish. Customers have commented that you can bend this rod into a circle without it breaking.

This is an ideal setup for anglers new to targeting catfish.  The reel is every bit as simple as any other basic spinning reel.  However, you can easily convert it from a right-handed reel to a left-handed reel.  Casts on this rig are smooth even when you are trying to hit long distances.  You will very rarely get backlash when casting. The rod also breaks down for transport.

Some additional high points are that the rod has a clear tip that adds both strength and sensitivity to feel even the smallest nibble.  Some older versions of this setup actually have a glow in the dark tip for night fishing.  If you have not had the pleasure of chasing catfish at night, you are missing out.  The only downside I have noticed on this rig is that the coating on the rod is a little cheap, and I could see it chipping after several years of use.

Abu Garcia

This is another quality catfish combo that is good for both novice and experienced anglers.  One of the top benefits of the reel on the Abu Garcia is the Carbon Matrix drag.  This is a patented system that gives you drag when you need it, but it backs off when you don’t.  It also boasts a 4-pin centrifugal brake.  This setup will put a small amount of steady pressure on the line to allow for perfect casts.

Like the Ugly Stik, this setup is tough and light with a composite blank design to reduce strain on your arm. The handle is quite comfortable due to a molded design.  It is also a 7-foot rod but is light and easy to use.  The reel uses steel ball bearings to keep both your casts and your retrievals smooth as silk. The only downside is that it does have some features a novice might not need.


One of the concepts that has helped Shakespeare become successful is offering a complete fishing setup for several different species.  You can get a bass setup, a crappie setup, and a trout setup without needing to buy a rod and reel separately.  Because these kits are their specialty, the catfish setup is perfectly designed for all sizes of catfish. In addition to getting the rod, reel, and line, you also get Berkeley Bait and tackle with a rigging guide.  You literally get everything you need to go fishing right out of the package.

The Shakespeare rod is ultra-light and made from tubular glass.  There are EVA grips for comfort, and a twist-lock reel seat to quickly remove the reel if needed.  Like our other rigs, this setup has a spinning reel that is easy to use. Unfortunately, some customers have commented that the pre-spooled line in this kit is not ideal and must be replaced.

There are several other good companies that make quality catfish setups, but this should get you started.  Remember that you need to find the setup with which you have the most comfort.  Get out into the store and actually hold the rod in your hand.  Try the reel out and see if it is a good fit. Check the reviews online and be sure you are getting a quality product.  If you do your research, this catfish setup could last you the rest of your angling life.




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