Simple is rare these days. With any kind of fishing pursuit, it seems like the gear list continues to pile up with new rods, reels, lines, and lures. I’ll be the first to admit it—the gear is part of the allure. But all of that clutter does have a tendency to remove us from reality a bit. We spend more time fiddling with accoutrement and less time studying our surroundings, taking a few mental (or literal) notes, and soaking it all in.
That’s why I love setting a trotline. It’s one of my favorite ways to conduct unofficial research in the field, learn what works, what doesn’t work, and how close you can get to a heron before it starts barking at you as it flies away. It’s a simple, time-tested way for putting more fish in the freezer. It’s also a technique just about anyone—expert to beginner—can enjoy.
There are probably more than a few readers who hear “trotline” and the word “redneck” or “hillbilly” also pop into their heads. And while those terms may sometimes apply to me, they certainly don’t apply to Jonathan Wilkins. As the owner of Black Duck Revival in Brinkley, Arkansas, he’s an accomplished hunter, angler, cook, and overall outdoorsman in the truest sense of the word. He knows how to gather wild food and one of the primary ways he does it is through trotlining.
“When you're coming down the bayou and you're getting close to your tree, that fish feels the motor vibrations and that line is just jumping," Wilkins told MeatEater. "It's frenetic, right? It seems so simple, but it's incredibly exciting. There's something primal about thinking, ‘I caught it.’”
That frenetic excitement dates back centuries. The earliest known documentation of trotlining was made by William Bartram in 1741, when he saw gatherers from Florida’s Seminole Tribe setting lines in the water with “bug-looking bobs” attached to the line. The simplicity and effectiveness of the practice lead me to assume that it predates 1741 by quite a bit.
And that’s what we’re talking about today, simplicity and effectiveness. I had the chance to speak with Wilkins about his best practices for how to set a trotline, including his choice for rigs, placement, timing, ethics, and more.
A Simpler Rig A trotline is defined as a line strung across open water with hooks attached at certain intervals. As you’ll learn in a bit, there are more than a few ways to string up a trotline, but it’s different from limb lines or jug lines in that it has an attachment point at both ends, with hooks tied along its length. But, much like those other practices, it’s equally cheap.
“It's less cost-prohibitive because you don't necessarily need a boat. You don’t need a rod. You don't need lures,” Wilkins said. "You can get everything you need from Walmart. You can buy a premium trotline for 15 bucks or you can make your own with old hay string."
As for his optimal setup, he prefers a line spanning two points across the water—in many cases bank to bank—with some sort of weight in the middle to keep the hooks below the surface. He places a 4/0 circle hook every 24 inches on drop lines that are 12 inches long. Some trotlines come with drop lines pre-attached to clips, or you can simply tie a line every 24 inches. It’s generally a good idea to attach your drop lines to a swivel to reduce tangles. Lastly, a pair of pliers may be a good idea for removing hooks, keeping your hands free, and protected from painful catfish spine injuries.
While Wilkins' hook placements don’t generally differ, his rigs do. Depending on the situation, you can either do a point-to-point connection between two banks, two semi-submerged trees, or you can even run a line from a secure point to a floating jug with a weight attached to it. You can also use a float-to-float trotline, weighting each float enough to keep the line submerged just below the surface.
Setting your trotline is fairly simple. Tie one end of the line to your anchor point and carefully unroll your line to the opposite anchor. Find the right tension for your line depending on weight and water depth, and then tie it off. It may be helpful to keep your trotline on a winder to ensure it doesn’t get tangled during the process. Winders can be bought premade or simply made from a piece of PVC pipe or styrofoam.
Placement is Key The type of rig you’re placing is highly dependent on where you want to place it. While much of conventional fishing’s strategy unfolds during the action, the strategy for trotlining unfolds well before as you’re planning your set. Much like trapping, you need to know your area and study how fish feed over time depending on the season. These are things you can learn as you go, taking note of where and when you do or don’t find success.
In Wilkins’ stomping grounds of Arkansas, he’s generally setting trotlines in the mouth of a bayou, where the water widens and deepens next to open water. These channels are high-traffic areas for feeding catfish, his target of choice. As for me, I’m generally looking for shallow-to-deep drop-offs in the reservoirs of North Texas where semi-submerged trees are plentiful for use as anchor points.
Your trotline setup is a dance between where the fish feed, where you can actually set up, and how easily you can access your lines for harvesting. River systems and creeks are great for boat-less anglers, whereas you may need a canoe or a kayak if you’re placing trotlines in deeper lakes. In other words, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.
Lastly, Wilkins points out that underwater obstructions deserve special consideration: “Your tackle can get tangled up in submerged branches and trees, especially if you get a big fish and it's thrashing around. Try and find a place where there's not a bunch of substrates that are going to get tangled up in it."
From there, it’s a game of adaptation. You can’t know if there are fish in the area until you try, and there’s no better way to find out than with a trotline. You may notice weather events like cold fronts and storms tend to produce more fish, as well as high water levels—it depends on the body of water and the climate.
The Great Bait Debate If you want to get catfish anglers arguing, the bait they use is a great way to get them started. It seems like everyone has their own special recipe that they may or may not share with you, but it’s certainly not rocket science. If it stinks, catfish love it.
“I've used just about everything. I've used leftover hot dogs. I've used spoiled meat from the refrigerator,” Wilkins said. “Anything that's going to put a scent trail out works well, especially if it has some oil in it. Deer liver is a fantastic bait. Gizzards are another great choice.”
I prefer to make use of the wild pig livers that our hog trap stacks up every year, and the blue catfish seem to love them, too. You will want a heartier cut of meat to stay on the hook longer, which is why livers from some smaller species’ organs, like chickens, may not hold up as well. But really, just about anything stinky is going to be a pretty good bet. And, if you have an aversion to handling pig livers or don’t have them on hand, Wilkins has a hot tip from his friends at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
“Truthfully, the bait I use the most is called Zote Soap. It's this cold-press soap from Mexico with a high fat content so it puts a long scent trail out. You cut it up into little half-inch by half-inch cubes and can get about 15 hooks off of one bar soap, which is like $1.84. It works well if you're targeting different species of catfish. It'll stay on the hook all night and I've caught way more fish on that stuff than any other bait.”
And lastly, if you’re targeting flathead catfish, be sure to use live bait. As a predatory species, you’ll have much more success than with livers or dead bait. Most anglers use suckers, minnows, or bluegills, depending on availability and regulations.
Be an Ethical Trotliner Maybe more than any other angling pursuit, trotlining requires some special ethical consideration. First, you’re leaving sharp objects and lines in the water unattended, which obviously presents some danger to people and animals in the area. Be sure to keep any trotlines well marked and away from busy areas like boat channels, docks, swimming areas, and launch ramps. Most states require personal information attached to trotlines, jug lines, and limb lines, so do a little research to ensure you’re legal before you throw a bunch of hooks in the water.
But as Wilkins points out, we should go above and beyond the law when it comes to the treatment of catfish on the line. In Arkansas, lines must be checked and catches must be removed every 48 hours, but he does so at least every 24 hours, if not 12, to reduce fish mortality on the line. It's illegal to leave lines in the water when you’re not actively using them, so pull any trotlines you’re not baiting and checking on a regular basis.
As for which fish to keep, that comes down to personal preference. For Wilkins, any fish above the legal minimum is fair game, but he doesn’t keep larger catfish due to the fact that they’re most likely breeding females and the meat doesn’t tend to be as tasty. I’ve kept blue catfish as large as 20 pounds and the meat was still delicious, but Wilkins' limit is around 10 pounds, which seems to be a good rule. Other than that, catfish are prolific and great table fare, so why not keep them?
“I've got thoughts on catch-and-release fishing,” Wilkins said. “I think it's often pretty hubristic. This is a market meant to sustain yourself. This is a way to gather food. So, if I catch a little fish—we call those fiddlers—most of the time I’ll keep them and fry them up whole.”
Regardless, check your lines frequently and kill your catch quickly and cleanly—Wilkins prefers to use the Japanese method of inserting a spike into the soft spot above the fish's eyes on the middle of its forehead. For prolific species like catfish, they tend to be treated with lower regard than others, and both he and I agreed that catfish are magnificent creatures—on the plate and in the water.
“Just because they’re catfish, people seem to have these weird ideas about them and treat the fish like dirt,” he said. “They're not any less magnificent creatures than a trout. We have a responsibility to catch them quickly. Don’t treat them like they're some sort of vermin that don't deserve the regular ethical treatment that you would give to some other animal.”
Soak It All In Unlike fly fishing or tournament bass fishing, there’s not a whole lot to trotlining—and that’s by design. For centuries, people have used this simple method to put food on the table and people are beginning to see the allure of it as a harvesting method.
“I think there's a lot of nobility in this method,” Wilkins said. “This is a very old method that was designed to feed people and their families. It's fun and it's enjoyable and it's a great way to get you to beautiful places. That's something everyone responds to when I take them out, being in these bayous, these primordial environments. It’s about the experience. I think it's just as special as any other way of fishing.”
And that’s the beautiful thing about setting a trotline. It’s incredibly simple, but you can spend a lifetime learning from it. Every time you check your line, you can take note of how many fish you harvested, what the weather and placement looked like, and guess why it didn’t work out this time. By its nature, it requires repetition. It requires rhythm. And there’s something beautiful about the cycle of setting, checking, harvesting, and doing it all over again. You may not notice at first, but you’re filing away information with each step and, before you know it, you’ll be an expert in something. And that can be hard to come by these days.