A trotline is usually a long, braided high-test line (typically 150 feet in length) that has shorter lines called "drops" or "leaders" tied onto it via quick-release clamps or barrel swivels. State regulations will determine how the trotline is to be marked, how many hooks are allowed, and the minimal spacing requirements between each hook. The trotline is composed of four basic parts - the trotline, the drops, the hooks, and the weights (or anchors).
Setting a trotline is the process by which you get the line into the water. Make sure you follow your state's regulations and mark/identify your trotlines (and floats, if required). It's highly recommended to know where you are laying your lines rather than just haphazardly picking a spot and hoping for the best!! If you have a boat with a depth finder, cruise the area well and look for typography that will hold the most fish (slight dropoffs leading to deeper water; a hole; channels; etc.). If you don't have a boat and/or depth finder, get a typographical map of the lake or river that you are fishing and look for markings that will indicate the aforementioned typographical elements. When using a boat, keep your boat clear of all equipment and carry only what you need to get your lines out. Less clutter equals more room for you to move around more easily.
Pick an area that is free of underwater debris (wood, trees, etc.). If you set up around this type of structure, your lines can easily get tangled up in them. You can also tie-off between two trees or stumps. But always make sure that all of your tie-offs are strong and secure. If you tie-off between two trees or stumps, make sure to put a weight in the middle of the line to get the line down and out of the way of boaters and skiers.
Tie off to some structure on the shoreline or to an anchor and start letting out your line slowly. This is where having someone along is very helpful. One can run the trolling motor while the other sets out the line. When all of the line is let out, tie off to anchor, then give the line some extra tension, and let the anchor and line drop. Your best bet at this point is to get that anchor and line as close to the water level (or below the water level) before dropping it slowly.
NOTE: If you tie-off to the anchor initially, it is highly advisable to tie on a float with a long enough leader line to allow the float to remain on the water once the anchor and line have sunk. This serves two purposes: (1) you can find your line easily; and (2) you can retrieve your line easily. Easy is good! Using floats is also good in that they can keep the trotline slightly off the bottom; or can be used in the summer to keep the trotline in shallower depths.
For me, I don't not put the drops (or leaders) and hooks on the line. That comes next in ‘running' the line.
Make your way back to the initial tie-off point (be it on the shoreline or at the anchor) and pull up your trotline so that you can start adding the drops and baiting the hooks. Again, you want to have someone using the trolling motor to slowly progress down the line. It is also advisable to remain down-current of the line so that the boat and props aren't crossing the trotline.
Once you've attached a drop and some bait, make sure that the bait is secure and will remain on the hook for a long time. Keep from snapping or shaking the trotline excessively during this process as it can tangle your drops on the trotline and even cause the bait to fall off. Keep moving down the line slowly and attaching the drops and baiting the hooks until you've set out all the hooks that you will be using (within state regulations, of course!!).
You may find that you need to put more tension on the line since some of it was lost as you were adding the drops and bait. The best method is to just pull up that anchor and add more tension (using the trolling motor or boat motor) and then slowly letting the anchor into the water and letting go. Again, don't be snapping or shaking the line because you can get tangled or lose your bait.
At this point, you are done ‘running' your line. You can go set/run other lines or do whatever you want to do; or send money or fishing stuff to me just for the heck of it!!!!
4 to 6 hours after you've run your line, you should go and check it; and then keep checking the line every 4 to 6 hours. When checking your line, you'll be doing one of three things: (1) retrieving catfish; (2) admiring a hook that still has good bait on it; or (3) re-baiting a hook because the bait is bad or is gone.
When checking your lines, take it slow. It's not a race (unless you're in a tournament.... and yes, there are trotline tournaments; in Texas!). You can easily get hooked, bit by an angry turtle (or worse, a snake!), or get tangled up in your lines. Safety is of the utmost importance in this fishing method. You'll need the following items on-hand when checking your line:
- needle nose pliers
- a sharp knife
- gaff (there just might be something really big on that line!!!)
- fishing buddy
- extra bait
- extra leader line
- extra hooks
- spotlight (for night runs)
If you find that there is a fish on the line, keep the fish in the water. Don't pull the line and fish up out of the water. Get the net under the fish and then use the net to pull the fish and line into the boat. That way you don't risk losing the fish! After removing the fish, re-bait the hook and keep moving down the line until all hooks have been checked. Keep only the fish you are going to eat. If the fish is small, toss it back so that it can grow larger. Make any necessary repairs as you check your lines. You may find that you have missing hooks or missing leaders. Those were most likely good-sized catfish that got away. Put on new hooks or leaders and hooks and then re-bait and move on.
If you decide that you don't want to check your lines for any lengthy period of time or you decide to leave the site, pull up the line and anchors (refer to the Storage section below for further details). Don't just leave the line there for it will still catch fish. Even if there's not any bait, there's still enough scent to draw in a curious fish or a fish might simply get snagged on the hooks as it passes by.
For me, this is the most important step that most tend to overlook. Well, they overlook it until it's time to set out the lines again and find a tangled mass that has Tylenol Tension Headache written all over it! Follow these suggestions and your next venture in trotlining will go smoothly...