A trotline is a variation of a setline. Webster's
dictionary defines a setline as being "a long heavy fishing line to which
several hooks are attached in series." A trotline is defined as "a
comparatively short setline used near shore or along streams." Some other
common variations of a setline include limblines, throwlines, and
juglines. The Department of Game & Fisheries defines a trotline as "a line
without a rod or reel attached that need not be held in the hand or
Specifically, a trotline is nothing
more than a long line, resting on the bottom and anchored at both ends,
to which a series of baits are attached at intervals of two to six feet.
The baits are attached to the main line by simple slipknots or by shorter
lines called dropper lines (known as trots or snoods.)
As you begin this age-old pursuit you will of course
want to get the parlance right, so you don't seem too much like a
chicken-necker. Calling the dropper lines "snoods" will put you right up
there with the old salts. Also, don't ever talk about "checking" your
trotline or "taking a look at" your trotline. You always "run" a trotline.
This makes sense because the word trotline comes from the old Germanic
word "trotten," meaning "to tread, pace, or run." So when you "run" your
trotline you are in keeping with the proper etymology of the sport.
With all that said, running a trotline is one of the
most efficient methods of crabbing because it allows the crabber to work
large areas of water of varying depths and conditions in order to maximize
Trotlines are almost
always worked from a boat. Commercial crabbers run one, two or possibly
three lines up to a mile in length! Sport crabbers should certainly
start with a much shorter length until they get the hang of it. Even 100
feet will be a lot at first.
2 marker buoys (Clorox
bottles, Styrofoam floats, etc.)
2 anchors (grapnels,
cinder blocks, old engine parts, etc.)
2 short lengths of
heavy galvanized chain, 2- to 3-feet in length.
4 sections of poly line,
each 20-feet in length.
100- to 5,000-feet of
line for the main trotline. Beginners should start small.
The line should be between 1/8- to 3/8-inch in diameter (or 20-pound-test) and can be made
of hemp, cotton, nylon, or polyester (or any strong material that does not float.)
Most watermen prefer to use 5/32-inch (4 mm) Dacron polyester line for the main
section. Dacron is much less elastic than nylon, is nearly as strong, and
does not float.
If you choose to use
cotton, use untreated
number-one cotton line (it is said that cotton line treated with tar or
other chemicals will scare away the crabs.)
Use 5/32-inch poly (polypropylene)
line for the buoy line sections. Poly line will float and is
desirable should one of your buoys become separated from the line.
Since the line floats, you will be able to locate the end of your
pendant lines and reattach the buoy.
See figure at the top
of this page for a completed trotline.
Attach one of the
20-foot sections of line to an anchor.
Tie the other end of
the line to a buoy.
Take another 20-foot
line and attach one end to the same buoy.
Attach the other end
of the second line to a section of chain.
Attach your main
trotline to the other end of the chain.
Perform the same steps
to the opposite end of the trotline (tie to chain, chain to 20-foot
line, 20-foot line to buoy, buoy to other 20-foot line, line to
As a rule of thumb,
longer the line, the heavier the anchor."
snap-swivels on the ends of all your lines. This allows you to
quickly assemble/disassemble your trotline. This also allows you to
combine small trotline sections to form a longer trotline (smaller sections are easier to work with too!)
Two sections of line connected with
Remember not to attach
the anchor directly to the main line. Rather, the anchor should lead
to the buoy on a separate pendant line.
At each end of the
main line, a short length of galvanized chain (or other type of weight) is
attached to keep the line on the bottom. Again, the length of the
main line and bottom currents will dictate how heavy this weight
Main line connected to the leader chain with
The anchors can range from
cinder blocks to old automobile parts.
By placing 2-ounce
weights spaced about every 20 baits, you can be better assured that
your line will not move off the bottom.
It is generally
accepted that salted eel is the best bait for use on a trotline.
But, because eel is considered a delicacy in many
countries, its price can be prohibitive for use as bait.
Alternatives include chicken or turkey necks, beef tripe, bull
lips, tough trash fish like small croaker, or any other tough
meat that can't be eaten too quickly.
One of the
advantages of using eel is that if only a bone is left attached,
you can be assured that there are hungry crabs lurking below.
Tip: Early in the season,
when there are many small crabs, increase your bait spacing so not
to lose as much to the razor-sharp claws of these small crabs.
As the season progresses and the crabs start running bigger, shorten
the spacing since large crabs tend to clasp the bait and feed.
Slip Knots - Bait should be
cut into 2- to 3-inch sections and attached about every 2- to
directly to the main line using simple slipknots (see diagram at
right.) Some watermen space their baits by the width of their
outstretched arms. Just remember that the closer the spacing,
the more bait required.
Howard Garey, an avid
trotliner, says that it's much easier to work with wet line. His
technique is to put the bait pieces on a cutting board and to place a
bushel basket on each side, knotting up the baits and faking the baited
line into the basket. "That's the tricky part because the last
thing you want is to have that baby tangle up when you're laying out
Tip: By using 5/32-inch
line, you can easily remove spoiled baits by quickly jerking the
slipknot. The knot will quickly compress and cut through the bait
causing it to "pop" off. Once the bait is gone and the
knot untied, simply tie a new slipknot,
insert bait, and pull snug! If you use line that is thicker than
5/32-inch, the line won't be as "sharp" and won't be able
to cut through the old baits very easily.
How to Tie a Slipknot
Photo courtesy of Harvesting the Chesapeake: Tools &
Snoods (or Trots) - Long ago, watermen attached their
baits to the main line using 6" dropper lines, called snoods
or trots. One end of
the snood is tied to the main line and the other end is tied to the
bait. Many watermen still prefer to use snoods, although they use
special stainless-steel clips to fasten the snoods to the main line.
The photos below show how easy it is to attach a
snood to the main line using a 3-inch mini clip. Simply squeeze the clip and hook it over
the line. When the clip is released, it is securely attached to the main
line. The ingenious design of the clip makes it virtually impossible for
it to fall off. The six-inch snood line with bait attached (not shown)
is tied to the bottom eyelet of the clip.
Some obvious advantages of using this method are:
The ability to store the trotline bare (and dry) with no baits attached.
As the trotline is deployed, snoods are clipped on at whatever interval is deemed necessary for the conditions.
As you run the trotline, missing baits can be quickly replaced by clipping on a fresh snood.
3" mini clips can be
purchased from most commercial fishing supply houses. If you can't
locate them locally, you can order them from Ocean Products Research,
Inc. at (800) 627-6008. Price is $0.79 (79¢) each.
Store your trotline (with
baits attached), and any unused bait, in a barrel of strong brine solution,
called "pickle," in order to preserve it. The pickle is made
using 4 pounds of salt to 5 gallons of water. You'll have it right when
a raw potato (or egg) floats. Carefully coil (fake) your trotline into the
pickle barrel and set a basket on top to keep everything submerged.
Watermen say that not only does the pickle preserve the bait, keeping it
usable for many trips, but also attracts crabs! Make sure you test the
consistency after each use, adding salt to keep it just right.
Note: Do not store
chicken/turkey neck baits in pickle since it does not work well. Store
chicken/turkey necks in an old refrigerator instead.
One 5-gallon bucket
will store 750-feet of 5/32-inch trotline, with baits attached.
Instead of using a
liquid brine solution, you can use dry salt instead. Sprinkle a
liberal amount (several inches) of salt in layers as you fake the
line. Working with a dry mixture is easier since no there is no
liquid to spill. Plus you can carry your storage containers to the
boat and play out the line directly from the container.
Anchor and pendant line connected with a
snap-swivels to the ends of all your lines. This allows you to easily
connect multiple lines together to form a long trotline. For
example, if you choose to use 750-foot sections, you can connect 7
sections together to form a 1-mile trotline! As you pull in your
line, you can quickly disassemble it by disconnecting the buoy
lines, the leader chains, and the individual baited sections.
Net - You will
need a good quality dip net (or "scap" net). Most watermen
prefer using pre-formed wire mesh net bags (see photo at right) as opposed to cotton,
twine, or nylon since crabs don't tangle up in wire as easily and the wire net
cuts through the water with significantly less resistance. Others prefer
cotton nets since they can be laid down flat on the washboard whereas
rigid wire nets can roll overboard when set down.
Regardless of the material
you choose for the net bag, your dip net should have a 16-inch bow and a
7-foot handle. Some watermen prefer longer handles, but they have a
tendency to break off easily. Choose a dip net that is most comfortable
Wire Mesh Dip Net
Photo courtesy of Harvesting the Chesapeake: Tools & Traditions
Stick - It is
highly recommended that you rig your boat with a hinged
"prop stick," a board, usually a two-by-four, mounted aft of
amidships that extends out about 3-feet perpendicular to the starboard
gunwale (see photo at left.) A wide brass roller is mounted horizontally at the end between
two vertical guides. The trotline is pulled up with a gaff and laid on
top the brass roller between the guides.
Thus, as the crabber works his
line, the baits (hopefully with crabs attached) are gently lifted to the
surface where they are netted just below the surface. It's not hard to
rig something like this up. Some people use a household rolling pin as a
roller. Others fashion a large hook out of metal or PVC pipe to serve this purpose. If you
don't want to use a prop stick, the line can be worked the old fashioned
way: hand over hand.
drogue, or sea anchor) - If your boat moves too quickly along the
trotline, crabs tend to "let go" and fall off. Or, if they
don't, you may not have enough time to net them. In either case you can
employ the use of a tow-board to slow your boat. A tow-board is a wide
board mounted on the stern, which can be raised or lowered into the
water. When lowered, it slows the boat in a strong following sea.
Instead of a tow-board, you can use a commercially available sea drogue
or sea anchor tied to the stern. An easy way to make your own sea anchor
is make a "drag basket," which is simply a wooden bushel
basket tied to a line that is dragged behind the boat.
Line Hauler - Some
watermen use a hydraulic line hauler to pull their lines
in at the end of the day. The sheaves on these haulers are identical to
crabpot haulers, but there is no
arm used on trotline haulers. The sheaves are generally mounted flat on
the washboard or on a 45-degree angle.
In addition to these
items, bring a container to store your catch. A wooden bushel basket is
the best choice for this task. You may also want to consider crabbing
gloves or a pair of sturdy tongs to handle the crabs. Also consider
bringing a partner with you so that one person can operate the boat and
watch the line while the other concentrates on netting the crabs. Other items to
consider are a good pair of polarized sunglasses that
block UVA and UVB rays (polarized
lenses eliminate glare and allow you to see deeper into the water,) high SPF
sunscreen lotion, and plenty of cold beverages.
A waterman working his trotline
Photo courtesy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)
Working a Trotline
Start early. Commercial
trotliners start their day at about 4:00 a.m. and work until about 11:00
The early rise time is usually needed to prepare for the day's
activities since crabs usually don't start running until dawn. If no
preparation is needed, make certain that you're on the water with your
trotline deployed as the sun rises. Any earlier is usually unproductive.
Water Depth &
Location - In most situations, a
trotline should be worked where the water depth is between 4 and 20
feet. The trotline is usually set parallel to the shore where the bottom
drops off. The beauty of a trotline is that it allows you to cover vast
distances so that your odds of finding a hot spot are
greatly increased. Watermen say that running a trotline over a shell
bottom yields more crabs.
Important tip: Keep
far away from other trotliners. It's all-too-common for trotlines to
get tangled up when they're run close together or if the lines accidentally
Wind & Tide -
The beginner, in
particular, is advised to work his line with the tide or wind. It
will be difficult enough without the boat being blown or pushed the
wrong way. Starting upwind, throw the lead anchor overboard and play out
the line as the boat moves forward. When in doubt, let the boat drift
while playing out the line. Unless conditions change, you can be assured
that when you return to your starting point, the boat will drift in the
same direction again. Be sure to play out the line slowly
so that you can untangle the line if needed. When you reach the end of
the line, drop the second anchor overboard and return to the upwind
Running the Trotline
- Using a gaff or hook, catch and slowly pull the main line to the
surface. Place the line over the prop stick and slowly navigate the boat
down the line. If your boat moves too quickly, deploy your tow-board or
sea anchor. The line should be taut and rise out of the water at a 30º
to 40º angle.
As the boat moves down
the line, watch for crabs clasped to the bait. Bring the crabs close to
the net without scaring them. Net them and toss them into the basket. Be
quick, because the crabs will drop off the bait as soon as it breaks the
surface. Don't cast your shadow on the line since this will
spook the crabs, causing them drop off. Also, while netting the crabs,
be careful not to reach too far since since this can leave you over-extended and off balance.
If the boat is moving too
fast, or the crabs are running thick, you may not have time to deposit
each crab in your container before the next one shows up. Seasoned
trotliners dip several crabs with the net before putting them all in the
basket. Practice and coordination take time.
As you run the line,
remember to cull your catch. Release undersized crabs
immediately. Toss legal ones into your basket. Keep a wet cover (canvas
or burlap) over the basket to keep the crabs cool and prevent them from
escaping. With time permitting, replace any old or missing baits.
Running a Trotline
Photo from the book, "The Watermen Of the Chesapeake Bay"
with permission of author/photographer, John Whitehead
Once you've run the
entire length of the trotline, you should wait 15 or 20 minutes before
starting over again. This gives the bait time to attract more crabs. If
you're running a fairly long trotline, you can start again immediately. Some energetic crabbers like to set a line of crab traps nearby to check
while they're waiting to run the trotline again. When you're ready,
return to the upwind buoy and start the whole process over again!