A typical trotline
Photo courtesy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)

Trotlining for Blue Crabs


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 closely attended."

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 his catch.

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.

Supplies

  • 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.) 

Tips:

  • 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.

Assembly

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 anchor.

Tips:

  • As a rule of thumb, remember "the longer the line, the heavier the anchor."

  • Use bronze 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 snap-swivels

  • 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 should be.


Main line connected to the leader chain with a snap-swivel

  • 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.

 

Baiting

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 6-feet 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 your line."

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 & Traditions

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.

 

Storage

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.

Tips:

  • 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 hook

  • Attach bronze 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.

 

Other Equipment

Dip 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 for you.

Metal wire mesh dip net
Wire Mesh Dip Net


Prop Stick
Photo courtesy of Harvesting the Chesapeake: Tools & Traditions

Prop 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.

Tow-Board (sea 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

Time - Start early. Commercial trotliners start their day at about 4:00 a.m. and work until about 11:00 a.m. 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 cross.

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 buoy.

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 30 to 40 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!

 


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