Here’s a question that may stump even the most experienced angler: How did trotlines get their name?
How the term “trotline” became the name for this well-known stationary fishing device, which consists of a series of hooks suspended from a line, is a head-scratcher. It’s also known as a set line or limb line. Some people call them “trout lines,” which is completely off base since catfish are the primary target of this fishing method.
However trotlines got their name, they are part of an Ozarks fishing tradition that dates back many generations. Long before there were bass boats, graphite rods and electronic depth finders, people were setting trotlines to catch catfish that prowled local waters.
It'’ still an effective fishing method that can be used on ponds, streams, river channels or lake sloughs. There are variations of these lines, but all follow the same basic principle -- one end of the line is fastened to a stationary object on the bank (tree, rock, etc.) and the other end is either anchored by a heavy weight in the water or tied to an object on the opposite bank.
A typical trotline consists of a strong nylon cord with hooks every three or four feet and weight every 15 or 20 feet to keep the line down. Missouri fishing regulations state that hooks should be no closer than two feet apart, and one line can’t have more than 33 hooks. A person can set more than one line, but the total number of hooks in the aggregate can’t exceed 33. Regulations also call for trotlines to be labeled with the owner’s full name and address.
Good locations for trotlines are around bluffs, huge rocks or across deep holes. Wherever you put your line, make sure the weights are distributed in such a fashion that all hooks are carried to the bottom.
A variety of bait can be used on trotlines. Various species of small nongamefish work well. Cut bait, chicken livers and blood bait also can lure catfish onto your hooks.
Like most other outdoor activities, running a trotline has its own set of safety precautions. One of the most important tips is to never set or check a line by yourself. Having a friend along is one of the best ways to ensure a safe outing.
Although setting, baiting and checking a trotline sounds like a fairly basic procedure, it’s still important that you’re careful. You’re dealing with a long line that has large hooks and larger weights. Put them together and you have a fishing device that is effective, but can be extremely unwieldy. Never set a line from a small, tipsy boat and, if you’re wading, be cautious of your footing. Never set a line in a strong current.
The same care should be used when you are checking your line. Remember, the object of this method of fishing is to hook several large fish on the same line. That means there’ll be even more weight on the line when you check it (or at least you hope so) and, consequently, it will be more difficult to manage than when you set it.
Also, remember it’s illegal to leave a trotline unattended for more than 24 hours. Check with your local Missouri Department of Conservation agent or office for additional trotline regulations.
More information about fishing can also be found at missouriconservation.org.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call (417) 895-6880.