The Best Catfish Rod and Reel Combos of 2024, Tested

These rod and reel combos are affordable and perfect for catfish
Ugly Stik makes some of the best catfish rod and reel combos

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Nothing in freshwater stresses a rod and reel like a hard-charging catfish. If these fish aren’t making your drag scream, odds are they’re pushing the pole’s backbone to the limit. Fortunately, many modern catfish combos are up to the challenge. These rods and reels are an excellent way to get started with catfishing because they take the guesswork out of the equation. With that in mind, here are some of the best catfish rod and reel combos that I’ve tested.

How I Tested the Best Catfish Rod and Reel Combos

I’ve fished for catfish for years, so I already had a good idea of what direction I would take with my picks. However, I have also been swamped testing rods and reels this spring. It was easy to add some catfish rod and reel combos to the mix. I spent dozens of hours fishing, evaluating each combo’s drag systems, smoothness, and backbone. Additionally, I noted how easy it was to spool each reel and the casting distance from each. I made sure to include only combos that I’ve personally tested on this list. Additional factors that were considered in making decisions included:

  • Cost: Most catfishing scenarios don’t require super expensive gear. I didn’t want to fill the list exclusively with pricey combos. So, I looked at a variety of price points. 
  • Ergonomics: I’m a stickler about the comfort of the reel handles and the rod handle. 
  • Durability: I stressed each rod to determine its backbone and carefully inspected each for any manufacturing defects or weak points. 

Best Catfish Combos: Reviews and Recommendations 

Best Overall: Zebco Big Cat Spinning Combo

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Key Features Rod

  • Power: Medium heavy
  • Action:  Moderate fast
  • Length: 7 feet 
  • Material: Fiberglass

Key Features Reel

  • Size: 60
  • Gear Ratio: 5.0:1
  • Max Drag: 16 Pounds
  • Bearings: 1

Pros

  • Super rugged
  • Yellow tip is easy to see at night
  • Best for big fish

Cons

  • Heavy
  • Reel is not very smooth

The Zebco Big Cat is an excellent balance of affordability and function. The fiberglass construction has a stiffer backbone than the other rods I tested, so it will handle cats of almost any size. I like the durability of this setup, especially the stainless steel guides. Zebco gave half the rod a high-visibility yellow color, making it easier to see when fishing at night. I tested the smallest size of this rod. However, Zebco also offers eight and nine-foot variants, including a heavy power for the largest cats. 

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The high-vis rod is nice for low-light conditions.

The huge, size 60 reel will handle some big cats but only has one bearing. Consequently, it’s not as smooth as I usually like with my reels. However, it’s an acceptable trade-off since it’s not a reel with which I will be working a lure anyway. I bought this catfish rod and reel combo for $55, and the price point is the same regardless of the size. This is a great option for anyone wanting to get into catfishing who isn’t certain what they’ll catch. If you do get surprised by a 20-plus-pound fish, this rod will handle it. 

Read Next: How to Catch Channel Catfish

Best Value: Ugly Stik Catch Ugly Fish Spinning Combo

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Key Features Rod

  • Power: Medium heavy
  • Action:  Moderate fast
  • Length: 7 feet
  • Material: Graphite and Fiberglass

Key Features Reel

  • Size: 50
  • Gear Ratio: 4.9:1
  • Max Drag: 16 Pounds
  • Bearings: 1

Pros

  • Ugly Stik strength
  • Good sensitivity 
  • Bonus tackle

Cons

  • Reel is decent, not great

The main value of this combo is the graphite and fiberglass Ugly Stik GX2 rod. In my testing, it offered a nice compromise between sensitivity and durability. I especially like the stainless steel guides, which feel darn near bulletproof. This rod has a backbone, but not so much that it dilutes the fun of fighting small — and medium-sized cats. It’s also just a nice-looking rod. Pure Fishing decided to pair this one with a size 50 Shakespeare reel. I know Shakespeare doesn’t have the rosiest of reputations these days. However, I think this reel is fine for this rod. It’s not great, but it’s plenty functional for the casual cat angler. One area Shakespeare’s reels usually shine is in casting distance, and this one delivered in my tests. I could bomb baits out much farther than the others on this list. 

Ugly Stik rods are known for their durability.

Photo by Travis Smola

Included with this combo was a bonus box of catfish tackle. Normally, these kinds of kits are filled with junk. However, this kit is decent. I applaud Pure Fishing for including Berkley Fusion19 circle hooks, as they are top-notch. The assortment of sinkers and split shots is sparse but enough to get someone started on cats. I’d pick up some extras before heading out, just in case. I didn’t catch anything on the PowerBait catfish chunks, but I know others have had good luck with them. Overall, this catfish rod and reel combo and kit have good value for anyone just starting with catfish. 

Read Next: Hotdogs are the Best Bait for Summer Channel Catfish

Best Premium: Shimano Spheros SW

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Key Features Rod

  • Power: Medium heavy
  • Action:  Moderate fast
  • Length: 7 feet
  • Material: Graphite Composite

Key Features Reel

  • Size: 5000
  • Gear Ratio: 6.0:1
  • Max Drag: 20 Pounds
  • Bearings: 4+1

Pros

  • Very smooth
  • Great handles
  • Rugged construction 

Cons

  • Expensive

I’m going a bit outside the box with this pick. Anyone familiar with Shimano will recognize that this is a saltwater combo. However, while testing it for another article, I realized it would be a good catfish combo. Anything that can handle inshore species is plenty capable of handling freshwater cats. Most of the value here is in the reel itself. The body is the most rugged of all the catfish rod and reel combos I tested. I love the large, ergonomic reel handle. It’s easy to hold when cranking a large fish out of the depths. The Spheros also has a smooth drag sealed from water. It will slow those hard-charging cats significantly. Sensitivity and strength are good with the graphite composite rod. This rod has a little more flex than I expected, making the fight more fun. I like the ergonomics of the cork handles, too. 

This combo has a cork grip.

Photo by Travis Smola

From a value perspective, the reel accounts for $130 to $150 of the total value, depending on the size chosen. Some anglers might want to replace the rod later, but I think it’s one of the better-matched combos of the ones I tested. This is a good choice for anyone wanting versatility since it’s also built for the salt. 

Best for Eater-Sized Catfish: Penn Fierce IV LE

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Key Features Rod

  • Power: Medium light
  • Action:  Fast
  • Length: 7 feet 
  • Material: Graphite composite

Key Features Reel

  • Size: 3000
  • Gear Ratio: 6.2:1
  • Max Drag: 15 pounds
  • Bearings: 5

Pros

  • Sold ergonomics
  • Great handles
  • Rugged construction 

Cons

  • Heavy

Anglers targeting eating-size cats in the two-to-five-pound range don’t need an extremely heavy outfit. The Fierce IV LE is another saltwater rod targeted mostly for inshore anglers. I tested the 3000-size reel, which is perfect here. I loved the way this one casts and retrieves. It has a smooth carbon fiber drag, too. The reel has a metal body that can withstand the extra abuse of catfishing. Another nice feature is the large handle, which is easy to grip if a larger cat gets on the line. My only real complaint is that the metal construction makes this reel slightly heavier than I’d like. I found myself getting tired faster using it. 

The grip has a slightly tacky feel.

Photo by Travis Smola

However, this rod is better paired with this reel than the others I tested. The rod’s backbone won’t horse fish in, and it will make the angler work for it. The sensitivity is great for a graphite composite setup. Penn’s stainless steel guides are solid. I was able to launch some long casts with this one. This isn’t the cheapest setup, but it’s the most complete ready-made spinning combo I’ve tested lately. 

Catfish Rods and Reels Not Sold as Combos

Buying a catfish rod and reel combo is the fastest and easiest way to save money when getting started. However, most experienced anglers like to buy the rod and reel separately. With that in mind, I tested another rod and reel that I thought paired perfectly.  

Ugly Stik Catfish Carbon Spinning Rod and Pflueger President 40

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Key Features Rod

  • Power: Medium heavy
  • Action:  Fast
  • Length: 7 feet 6 inches
  • Material: Graphite

Key Features Reel

  • Size: 40
  • Gear Ratio: 5.2:1
  • Max Drag: 14 pounds
  • Bearings: 10

Pros

  • Extremely sensitive rod
  • Super smooth reel
  • Excellent ergonomics

Cons

  • Colors don’t match
  • Expensive

The graphite blank of the Ugly Stik Carbon Catfish does an excellent job of indicating lighter bites. I love the ergonomics of this handle. The top part has a rubberized texture that I found incredibly easy to grip. This rod also has that legendary Ugly Stik toughness and durability. The backbone is excellent for larger fish without making the fight too easy. While the rod is great, the reel might be even better. The Plueger President is a highly underrated reel in fishing circles, and I’m honestly always surprised it’s not more popular. It has ten bearings, which makes it incredibly satisfying and smooth to retrieve. This reel perfectly complements the Ugly Stik. 

The thick grips makes this rod comfortable fish.

Photo by Travis Smola

I like this combination so much that it was hard to find anything wrong with it besides the color schemes clashing. Although I doubt anyone’s fishing buddies will laugh when they see how this outfit performs in the field. Buying these two together will set anglers back about $160, but I think it’s worth it for the incredible performance. 

How to Choose a Catfish Rod and Reel Combo

Many seasoned catfish anglers choose their outfits based primarily on the size and subspecies of the targeted fish. This will vary depending on the region of the country. I’ve only got flatheads and channel cats to target here in Michigan. It makes no sense for me to run a rod and reel meant for 100-pound blue cats

Another key thing to know is that most combos are disparate between the reel and the rod. One is usually better quality than the other. If that’s known going in, it’s not a big deal. I prefer buying combos, even if I swap the rod or reel later. That means I have an inexpensive backup rod or reel if something goes wrong with the main one. 

Line

Many combos come pre-spooled with a line already. While I tested some of these combos with the included line, I didn’t make that a major factor because there is no way of knowing how long a combo has sat on the shelf with that line. 

It’s easy for a line to degrade or build up memory over time. That’s why I always replace the line with a new catfish rod and reel combo. Doing so can help anglers avoid the broken heart of a lost fish and the headaches of dealing with tangles. 

Rod Power 

Medium-heavy is arguably the most popular rod power for most catfishing scenarios because circle hooks are frequently used for catfish and they do a great job turning the hook into the fish’s mouth. They also can throw the most common weight baits used for cat fishing. 

However, a medium rod is fine for anglers targeting eating-size cats in the 2- to 10-pound range. Heavier powers are vital when targeting giant cats over 50 pounds or more. 

Reel Sizes

Most anglers use a 30 to 50-size reel for catfish. Some anglers prefer a size 60. That size is better when expecting cats over 60 pounds. While the larger reels will make fighting giant cats easier, there is a tradeoff. Going with a bigger rod and reel makes it too easy to horse in the smaller fish. Part of the fun of fishing for catfish is the fight, so it’s not always necessary to go huge. I’ve caught many channel cats in the two-to-ten-pound range on bass fishing setups. Those cats were not giants, but they felt like it with that gear.  

Gear Ratios

Fortunately, a fast gear ratio isn’t super crucial for catfishing. A slower ratio is usually preferable for cranking on big cats. The rod’s backbone will do most of the fighting. While these fish will sometimes take an artificial lure, most anglers don’t target them that way. Thus, a fast retrieval isn’t necessary. There are exceptions for situations around heavy structure, but most catfish combos have a ratio between 4.9:1 and 6.1:1. 

FAQs

Q: What action is best for catfish?

A: Most catfish rods have moderate action. This is a good starting point for a new catfish angler because it balances backbone and sensitivity. Consider going to a faster action for smaller fish or lighter bites. 

Q: What is the best pound test for catfish?

A: A 30 to 50-pound test line is usually best when targeting bigger catfish like blues and flatheads. An 8 to 20-pound test for smaller species like channel cats will get the job done. The largest channel cat I’ve caught here in Michigan was around 13 pounds. I landed it on a 10-pound test line. 

Q:  What is the best length for a catfish rod?

A: Seven-foot rods are a standard starting point for most catfish anglers. Longer rods help add some extra casting distance. Many bank anglers prefer rods in the 9 to 12-foot range for this reason. The longer rod gives more backbone and helps provide leverage for the biggest catfish. 

Final Thoughts on Catfish Rod and Reel Combos 

Picking up one of the best catfish rod and reel combos is a solid way to start targeting these hard-fighting fish. While most anglers think of catfish rods as specialized gear, there is real versatility here. These combos will also work for non-traditional fishing targets like gar and carp. The Zebco Big Cat spinning combo was an easy choice for having the best backbone for catfish of nearly any size. We also love the affordable price point, which is much easier to swallow in this economy. 

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Travis Smola

Outdoor Writer

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