Someone humorist Dave Berry would call “an alert reader” recently contacted me to point out that not only did I not discuss fishing with setlines nearly often enough, but I “never” provided any information on how to set them. In that this column has appeared continuously for the past 32 years, never seems a trifle unlikely, but rather than dig through boxes of dusty, pre-computer newsprint, I’ll take his word for it. So away we go.
Well, maybe not. Not only do laws governing the use of setlines vary greatly from state to state, they can vary within a state as well. With the exception of the Mississippi river, Missouri anglers can have up to 33 hooks in use at any one time – a baited treble hook or an artificial lure with multiple hooks are considered to be one hook for the purposes of this regulation. Anglers who want to use setlines as an adjunct to other methods must keep the 33 hook overall limit in mind.
All “unattended” lines must be labeled with the name and either the address or the Conservation ID number of the user. Since an angler can only designate three rods as “attended,” any additional rods he uses must be labeled even though they are under direct observation in his boat or on the shore. Now away we go.
A trotline–also, and perhaps more correctly, called a tautline–consists of a main line to which dropper lines with hooks are attached at intervals great enough to keep hooked fish from tangling adjacent droppers. Their design allows trotlines to be used at times and places where other methods aren’t practical and the fish they catch remain hidden, but they concentrate all of the user’s bait in a small area.
I know many experienced reservoir trotliners will disagree, but I always want both ends of my main line to be firmly attached to something solid. That’s usually not a problem, because I do most of my trotlining on the catfish-rich upper third of Corps of Engineers projects like Truman, where flooded standing timber is abundant. Even so, it’s extremely rare to find two suitable trees the right distance apart, so I carry a large spool of 300-pound test braided nylon cord I can use to extend one or both ends of the trotline.
Decide how far below the surface you want the line to suspend, being careful to stay far enough below the surface to avoid contact with propellers but shallow enough to keep hooked fish from being forced beneath the thermocline. Personally, I never suspend a line deeper than 10 feet and don’t set in water so shallow I can’t keep the line beneath boat motors and the hooks at least two feet above the bottom.
To set the line, start at the upwind attachment point. Assuming you’ll need to extend the trotline to reach the downwind attachment point, cut a length of heavy cord long enough to reach about where the trotline itself should start–this distance usually isn’t critical. Allowing enough slack to tie the line to the attachment point, tie a loop knot about the distance below the surface you want the line suspended.
Tie the other end of the cord to one end of the trotline, which–sans its droppers–should be wrapped around a cord reel. Begin moving the boat toward the downwind attachment point, paying out the trotline as you go. If necessary, add sufficient cord to the other end of the trotline to reach the attachment point.
Wrap the cord around the attachment point and pull the line so that it’s almost tight but not stretched and tie it. Work your way back along the cord to the approximate depth you want the line and tie a loop knot. Now you can tighten the line a little but don’t overdo it.
Bait the dropper hooks and work your way upwind along the line, attaching them as you go. Some trotliners attach a jug on a tether equal to the suspension depth near the midpoint of the line. The jug keeps hooked fish from pulling the line too deep and is a handy place to put the required label.
Finally, attach a heavy weight to the loop knot at each end of the line. I use window sash weights, but a small coffee can, an eye bolt and some concrete will make a weight that works just as well.
I know this process looks complicated on paper, but it’s really quite simple out on the water. I’ve been using it to set trotlines by myself for decades in both calm and rough water.
There’s no need to remove the weights when running the line. Start at the downwind end and work your way to the other end, landing fish and rebaiting as you go. I put my front running light into its socket and run the line behind it, so I can have both hands free when I need them.
Catfish are the primary target of trotlines, but don’t be surprised to discover you’ve caught bass, walleye, crappie or anything else that swims in the lake you’re fishing.