How To: Trot Line

Running a trot line can be an enjoyable, challenging, exciting, dangerous, expensive, and addictive experience.  I tend to run lines while camping at a local state park, beginning in the spring and going right through the fall.  Catches tend to decline with temperatures at the end of the year, and make the process more work that it is worth–or possibly I am just not putting my bait in the right place!  One day’s results from last season (I didn’t throw back the little one next to me):

Trot line: Typically a long, nylon braided line or some other durable, high-test, material, with shorter (4″-24″) “drops” attached.  The drops are a lighter material and are tied into the mainline vial barrel swivels and/or quick release clamps.  Each has a hook and is baited individually.  Up to 25 hooks on a line, per person, is legal in my state.  Individuals should check the line every 4-6 hours to be most effective and humane to the fish.  These types of setups target catfish and other bottom dwelling species.

Wide open, watery spaces wait for you!

I have put this little “how to” guide up on my blog to help with all the “how to trot line” search terms the site gets–I actually am using the name metaphorically, and commenting almost exclusively on MMOs (massive multiplayer online games).  However, I will try to give you a few tips since you have come so far.  First, a few things to bear in mind.

  • Laws governing the use of trot lines may vary from state to state.  What I post may not be legal in your state, but be assured it is in mine-(Kansas)-I have called the Department of Wildlife and Parks to check before putting a hook in the water.
  • I only encourage the legal use of trot lines, and only catching as many fish as you will eat.  Sale of game fish is illegal, and as a sportsman is an ethical violation.  If your running a line to make a profit on our national trust, then your a scumbag.
  • You are responsible to know the law in your state/province/commonwealth.  Only fish legally.  Believe it or not, most Dept. of Wildlife are trying to protect the resource, the fish, by keeping it from being over fished.
  • That being said, I will be moderating comments–if you have something intellegent to say, say it–I will try to include information as fellow fisherman provide it.
  • Take a friend with you when running your line.  You never know what might happen.

These two were the result of a morning run–note the nice flathead on the left:

Step One–Choosing Your Line

In many ways, choosing the line you are going to use depends on the topography of the area you wish to put the line.  It may also depend on your patience when tying knots.  You can purchase ready-made trot lines in stores.  I have used these and they work well and may be cheaper than buying barrel swivels, nylon cord, drop material, etc.   I have made a line myself, and like the ability to lengethen the line over the 50′ or 100′ in the store-bought brands.  I can fish a much broader section of water.  If you opt for the store bought brands, the directions are simple, just follow them for setting it up and read my comments on bait and setting the line. 

If you opt to make your own line, pick a “base” line, heavy nylon cord, with a high-test.  This is measured in pounds–I recommend at least 100 pound, if not 250.  Then, and this is a shore job, you need to tie barrel swivels into the line at intervals–at least 4-5 feet between each, depending on how long you want the line to run.  Also remember if you put a drop right by one end, you may be fishing in 4 inches of water–give yourself a decent amount of lead material to get the line away from the shore and down into the water.  Use a sturdy knot that will keep the swivel from moving.

Next–tying the drops:  using a lighter material (can be nylon) you should tie a hook onto a “loop” beteen 12″ and 24″.  The longer the drop, the more likely the fish or current is to wrap it around the main line–shorter is better in my opinion.  Hooks–choose a sturdy hook.  Sharpen them, even if they are brand new.  Throw hooks away if they are damaged in the least, show rust, or any other defect.  Your hook is the key to catching fish.  It should be the appropriate size and condition for that task.

Anchors

There are a variety of ways to anchor your trot line.  Some lines are set in the middle of a body of water and require an anchor on either side, and a float over the middle or one of the anchors.   How you run the line is up to you, just be sure you can recover the line–hence the need for high-test line material.  I also recommend some good gloves.  I typically run my line off the shore, using a 16 pound mushroom anchor at the “wet” end (the one at the other end of the line).  I have used homemade anchors, by putting concrete in a bucket, and setting an eyebolt in the middle.  I have used cinderblocks.  After loosing an anchor, I even used a very large rock.  The key is getting something that will keep the line in one place, and keep the line tight, even with a number of large fish flapping around for several hours.

Bait

If you are a rod and reel fisherman, for catfish especially, you know what works.  The difference with a trot line is that the line will sit for hours and hours waiting for that one big fish.  You do not typically have that luxury when fishing yourself.  The point is you can put big bait on the line.  When I arrive at the lake for a weekend of camping and running a line, my first step, after getting the boat in the water, is patrolling the lake looking for shad.  Shad makes great bait–it is part of the food chain, you are not adding anything to the lake, and they are especially stinky, so your big cats can key on them.  Be advised, they die quickly.  If you are seining or using a throw-net to catch these fish, you need an aerated livewell, and you need to get the fish into it quickly.  You will still end up with dead bait.  If you don’t mind spending a little money, you can also use minnows (the bigger the better), goldfish, worms, shrimp, livers, turkey or chicken gizzards, bait-shop bought shad guts/sides, or any other kind of bait a catfish would like.  The key is finding bait you can really sink a hook into–it should not easily be worked off the hook.  A fish has a long time to try to do this on a trotline, and you will come up empty more often than not if you don’t hook your bait.  Using other game fish as bait, i.e. sunfish, bluegill, bass, etc. is illegal in most states.

Attaching the bait–with live bait I recommend hooking it in a way that will keep it alive and flapping.  Fish pick up on the vibrations from a distressed fish, and this will attract them.  I have had luck fishing with dead minnows, shad, and goldfish, however.  You can put the hook through the fish’s lower lip and head, through the back, just below and behind the dorsal fin, or through the tail, just inside the “meat” of the fish.  If you use other bait, make sure it is tough.  I recommend turkey gizzards or even your average fishing worm–green worms kick it up a notch.  I have ceased using shad guts and sides from bait shops for one simple reason.  They are very difficult to work with because of their smell.  They also come frozen in a jar, which requires some logistics to get ready when you need it–and who wants to put that bait in the cooler your using for you drinks and lunch sandwich?  It is good bait, and if that doesn’t bother you, it isn’t a bad way to go.  As a rule of thumb, fresher bait equals better luck with your line.  Discard “washed out” and old bait as you check the line.

Setting the Trot Line

A trot line can be run in a lake, a river, stream, or even in a pond.  If you opt for the latter, you may fish it out in a short period of time.  Once you have your drops, line, anchor, and bait, you are ready to head out to install the trot line and begin catching fish.  Most states also require you to label your line, and have a fishing license.  Some may require some further license for running the line.  For mine, I use a doubled over piece of duct tape and a permenant marker to label my line with the required information.  I typically tie this off on the shore, and wrap the tape around the line there so any game warden can see it is a legal line.  I have also marked the “floats” with the information, but do not typically use floats anymore as it tends to annoy other boaters.

To use a trot line successfully you need to identify a good spot for fish.  I use my depth finder and study the topography of the bottom.  It is hard to relate what exactly works well, but I tend to look for a slight drop leading into deeper water, or a hole in the area, or some other place where fish would sit.  An area with a lot of wood or other debris on the bottom will not work–your line will become tangled and you won’t get it out of the snags.

Tie-off method:  I typically identify a likely area, then look for a tree or some other feature on the bank that I can tie my line to and still access the water.  I sometimes tie it off below the water line.  Next, I begin to work the boat out at a perpendicular line from the bank, slowly playing out the main line.  I do not put the drops on at this point, though if you have help, you certainly could.  It just seems easier to go back and make the final adjustments after you have the line in the water.  If you have someone with you running your main engine, you have to be aware of the line at all times so as not to foul the prop.  This would ruin your day.  The best way to keep that from happening is to keep the line taunt at all times and to move slowly, but deliberately out to deeper water.  When you reach the end of your run, tie your anchor off (if you havent already), increase tension on the line, holding the anchor as close to the water as you can, if not in the water (this requires me to lie down across the bow of my boat), and gently release the anchor when the line is set where you want it.

Here is the little fishing boat I use when running my lines–note there is entirely too many things out on the bow in this pic–I do sometimes put the line over the trolling motor, or around the bow light, though I don’t recommend that.  I also have a flat deck up front, so in an open-bow boat, you might have to do things differently.

Floats:  Some people like to put a “float,” some sort of buoy at either the end or the middle of their line.  The idea is to keep the line slightly off the bottom, and make retrieval and spotting the line easier.  You can use a milk jug and tie the drop through the handle.  The trick is to lift the line only slightly off the bottom.  Be sure to put a tight cap on the jug, or your float will become a submarine.  Be aware:  a float tends to attract attention to your line, and skiers, pleasure boaters, etc. tend to dislike dodging these.  For that reason alone I no longer use a float.

Running the Line

Once the line is in the water, you are in “live” mode.  If you opted to just put the line in and no drops in the above step, you should go back to the beginning of the line, and work your way down the length of it, attaching drops.  Put the loop through the barrel swivel far enough to be able to place the other end of the drop through the loop, then pull tight.  If you use a quick release clip, which I recommend, just clip it to the barrel swivel.  These are large clips, not snap swivels.  I would not recommend using snap swivels–they are too awkward for this type of a rig. 

Once your drop is attached and cinched down, attach your bait.  Make sure it is as firmly attached as possible–it is going to do the work for you, so give it due attention.  This is the most dangerous part of the entire process–if your going to get a hook in your hand, this is the time it will happen.  I typically put a foot on the actual trotline so it won’t move, and bait the drop.  I do not run these in rough water or with large wakes.  You will have to be the judge of what you deem is safe.  Work your way to the end of the line

As you approach your anchor, you will find it is increasingly difficult to pull the line up from the depths–this is where a good pair of gloves comes in handy.  I sometimes pull the rest of the line up when it gets towards the end, and just play it back out using the engine.  The trick to setting a good line is two-fold:

  • Using your boat’s motor, pull the line as taunt as you can, without breaking the line, knot, or opposite anchor.  If you are anchored at the further end with another anchor, you will be limited in this respect.  A tight line will help to hook the fish!
  • Do not just drop the anchor into the water when the line is tight.  “Set” it gently into the water, as deep as you can, and release.  The anchor will fall in an arc, since it is tied to a fixed point, and must find the bottom.   Your trot line also has some stretch to it, so this is very important.
  • If you snap the line, you will lose your bait!  Do not snap your line when stretching it–you will see most of your bait and your line on the surface–this is why it is imperative to keep the line as close to the water as possible while running it.

Once the line is in the water and baited, you are free to do other things!  You should check the line every 4-6 hours.  If you are going to be gone, or if you decide to quit running the site, you should remove the line.  Never leave a line in place if you are not going to run it actively.

Checking the line: After you have let the line soak for 4-6 hours, you need to refresh bait and remove the fish you have caught.  Get a good pair of needle nose pliers, a very sharp knife, your gloves, a net, and perhaps some sort of gaff ready in the bow of the boat.  Also, have your bait handy.  Find your line (at night a spotlight is helpful).  Begin to work your way down the line, pulling the boat along with you.  Keep the line in the water.  You will most likely feel the fish on the line long before you see them.  Having a partner during this phase is very helpful.  You can rebait and refresh the drops as you move down the line.  When approaching a fish, keep it in the water!  Do not pull the line up as he is most likely to flop off the line that way.  Move deliberately, ignore some drops if you want to remove that fish first, and get a net under him.  You will most likely catch larger fish than you are used to using a trot line.  Have a big net.

  • Get a net under the fish, then get him over the boat.
  • Be very careful of your hooks–have help.
  • Rebait hooks.
  • Do not jiggle, snap, or disturb your line anymore than necessary.
  • Fish will fall of the line easily, so be careful, but deliberate.  You can always return to unbaited drops after you collect that big fish.
  • Throw back anything you will not eat.  Try to perserve the life of these fish–use pliers and good sense so as not to kill fish unnecessarily.
  • If you find a lot of twisted drops, you probably had fish work their way off the line.  You will also find a lot of missing bait, so bring plenty.

I hope this guide was helpful–it is certainly not exhaustive.  There is no substitute for experience when fishing, and a mentor for that matter.  I learned to run lines on a river from an in-law, and moved to a lake because that is where I camp.  Enjoy the water, and the fish!

26 Responses to How To: Trot Line

    • Flem says:

      Thanks for the article. I just moved to a place next to the Arkansas River and am going to be putting out my first line in many years. Reading your article brought back most everything, plus more.

  1. Russ says:

    How do you lower the anchor into deep water without dropping it quickly and losing the bait?

  2. Gaff says:

    In reply to Russ:

    I normally lean over the bow of the boat, lower my anchor down into the water as far as i can reach, and then just release it, being sure not to snap the line. Jerking or snapping the line is what seems to make the bait come off and making the line tight helps catch fish.

    As far as deep water goes, I don’t normally drop my anchor into more than 20 or 25 feet of water–I think if you remember it is going to fall in an arc and use line without too much elasticity it will help.

    Hope that helps!

  3. Kathy says:

    How do you store your trotline with out it all becoming so tangled up?

  4. Gaff says:

    Kathy–sorry it has taken me awhile to get back.

    First, you need to make sure you take all the hooks off–since I use either quick connect drops or just a simple loop through large barrel swivels, I can easily remove these. I then store the hooks by embedding them firmly into a foam board, and strap the drop down with a rubber band. The line itself is easily rolled around a larger board or foam cut to hold the line.

    Hope this helps!

  5. bg says:

    where do you buy the braided nylon line #18 my brother ppurchased a braided nylon for knot tying many years ago…cannot locate that type of braided flat nylon. Do you have any suggestions?
    Thanks,bg

  6. Gaff says:

    I always buy mine where I buy bait. I would suggest, if that isn’t an option, a hardware store. They typically carry that type of line. Thanks for the read!

  7. [...] How To: Trot Line [...]

  8. Bob says:

    I’ve used another method for trot lines last year that was very productive and easy to do. We have several reservoirs that have stump fields in about 3-4 feet of water. They are perfect for running trot lines for cats. Instead of weighting the lines down, I ran floats about every fifth loop (I ran 25 drops) which kept the line out of the branches and debris on the bottom. In such shallow water the fish came up to my bait. In my state, bluegill are legal bait and they worked the best. I connected the line between two tree stumps with a bungy cord that worked like a charm as a “shock cord” to keep tension but also allow some give. I can’t wait for the weather to warm and get out there again.

    Just thought I’d add my two cents if any of you have similiar water. It’s easier than dropping it on the bottom and it’s very exciting to come out and see your floats dancin’! I’ve also used shrimp as bait – which is the preferred bait for cats in my reservior – but it just doesn’t quite match the live ‘gills. Big live bait is definitely the way to go!

  9. Jared says:

    Thanks a heap for the quality article, Gaff. It helped a heap.

  10. Bob: Thanks for the bungee cord idea. I did some improvising and clamped very light tensioned 3ft bungees with a beer can suspended from the end (empty, of course!) every 6-8ft along the trot line (Works good on a 30+ ft line in medium current). I reckon it’s the bounce of the water-filled cans on the line or maybe the sonar (sound waves) traveling along the length of the line that does the trick. I’m really clueless as to how it really works but it works real well for me! (Or maybe fish around these parts have an inkling for beer!). Hope it works for you too. And, yes! That really is a very helpful article, Gaff. Thanks!

  11. Gaff says:

    Bungee cord is a great innovation–had never thought to do it myself. Live bait certainly is the way to go.

  12. Jimmy Ray says:

    I use a bungy cord as well. I also tie 3-4 break sticks that light up on the main line. Works great to attract bait fish and large fish to the area of your line.

  13. Rodney says:

    I read your article and the many comments. Thanks for all the great ideas! If I might offer a couple of comments as well. (1) Read your Dept. of Natural Resources booklet (2) Wear your life jacket, when working a line with hooks or fish. (3) Braided line of all sizes can be purchased from Memphis Net and Twine, or CatFish Connection. (4) Expect to catch other things than just catfish. Here is South Carolina, we can not use live bait, such as shiners, goldfish, eels, minnows, etc. because you will catch game fish such as Bass or Crappie. These baits must be cut into thirds. Also special hooks are needed-the gap between the point of the hook and the shank must measure 7/1″. Turtles and alligators are very common in South Carolina. They may possibly eat your bait or your caught fish. So work your line slowly, deliberately, and keep your hand away from the hooks.
    A big cat or gator that might be a few drops down the line can make a mad dash, hooking you and pulling you overboard. Be prepared to release the main line if necessary- – -then go back and find your mian line and rework it. By law, in S.C., we must have floats on the line. White from the 1st of the month until the 15th, then Yellow floats the 16th through the end of the month. This makes it easy to set the anchor(s)
    Watch your depth finder or let the anchor slowly sink to the bottom, then tie your float. Do the same on the other end. When you get to the end of your line, your can stretch the main line, and slowly let you end anchor down, using a trolling motor or the main motor, and slowly release your end float. STORAGE AND EXTRA DROPS: I use the bottom of a cut off plastic barrel. Around the rim of the cut end, I just saw some slots into the circumference of the barrel. Space then about an inch apart. I also use the trotline clips- – -but I ordered the large ones (5 inches long)with 4/0 swivels. The large clips are more expensive but much easier to handle in rougher water or waves, or if you have large hands. I have about 15 extras, that have the drop lines and the hooks, already tied on them. That way if you catch a nice fish, then you can slide the net under the fish, ease it into the boat ot ice chest, remove the trotline clip from the main line, and replace the clip with one of the extras. For storage, or when I am not running my line. Say from one weekend to the next weekend. I remove all the Clips/drops/hooks from the main line, and insert the hook into one of the slots in the rim of the barrel. I let the swivel hang down. If I am through and plan to pull the line out of the water-then I go to one end of the main line, pull up the anchor or untie, and then just wind the mainline up on a spool, piece of wood, around a dowel etc, and then tape the end. I actually use a piece of scrap hardwood flooring that I cut a notch on each end. Put the line in the notch and tape with masking tape or even duck tape. Wind it up and tape the other end, when finished. Put in the botton of the plastic barrel. I never leave the hooks on the line, if the sunken main line is not being serviced regularily. By the way, fat back, eels, deer hearts (get one of the local processors to save you a few- -by the a case of cokes/pepsis, or a pizza), shrimp or gizzards make pretty good baits. Also in S.C., we must run the line and remove all bait within one hour of official sunrise and can not rebait the line until one hour after sunset. So we “USUALLY” don’t have to worry about the boaters, skiers, and Jet Ski folks. Unless the jet ski want to weave in and out of the floats. Hope some of this has been helpful.

  14. ben says:

    hey is that the Marion reservoir behind you it kinda looks like it, i live in Kansas and we get a lot of people from all over the state fishing there. pretty good catfish fishing, and thanks for the article never have trot-lined fished before.

  15. Joyce says:

    Can anyone tell me where I can order rubberband trotlines????

  16. nice share and website..thanks for the tips.

  17. Allen says:

    Nice, another fellow Kansan with some great tips. What region of Kansas do you fish at? I stay over in wichita so there are a few places to go to over here. Do you have any tips for those setting trotlines without a boat?

  18. Russell Page says:

    Car tire innertubes cut in circles make great bunges that stretch good but are verry strong. I have been using them for years on throw lines but never trot lines. thanks for the info

  19. [...] works for me. Here is a good write up as well. Click on "How to" below for the webpage. How To: Trot Line Fire at will, which one's will? Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk Reply With Quote [...]

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