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The St. Johns River The Intracoastal and Beyond
How To Make a Trot Line

A trot line is a long cord with a lot of fish hooks dangling from it. In this area you can run 25 hooks on a non-commercial license. I have known commercial fishermen who ran hundreds of hooks at a time, but 25 is quite enough for me.

With a trot line you can completely cover the width of a channel with your hooks. Tie your line to one side of the channel, stretch your line across and tie off to the other side - any fish passing thru will come near one of your hooks.

You can run your line out into a lake, too. Just tie a brick to the end of your line to weigh it down or tie a floating marker to it. Don't forget what tree you tied your line to. (You could mark it with a bit of cloth or something, but the real fishermen will laugh at you if you do.)

The best thing about a trot line is that you don't have to sit with it. You can put your line out in the morning, go to work or back home, then check your line in the evening. I used to leave my line tied up to my favorite spot. In the mornings I would catch bait, check the line for anything I might have caught overnight, and rebait my hooks as I went along, leaving the rebaited line in the water. After work I would check my lines for the evening catch.

You mainly catch catfish, turtles and crappie on a trot line. Mudfish and Gar, of course, but they are no good. You catch an occasional alligator, too, but you can't keep him and you want to be very careful you don't get an injury trying to pull in a line with an irritated alligator attached. We are talking about a long string of fish hooks here - there is a potential for injury. Trust me.

Judy and I used to catch our bait, bait our hooks and drop our line before heading out to explore the river for the day. We would pick up the line on our way back in at the end of the day, clean our catch on the bridge and head on home. Might be a lazy way to fish, but it suited us.

We quit running lines a few years ago. There are too many fish kills from agricultural runoff and it got to be too much like work to have to clean our catch at the end of a long hot day in the sun.

So, here's how you make a trot line:

Camp Holly floodedYou will need to go to a fishing supply store and gather your materials. To make a 25-hook line you will need:

  • 40 - 50 yards of strong, heavy cord
  • 25 swivels
  • 50 clamps
  • 50 feet lightweight cord
  • 25 hooks

1. Leave 10 - 15 ft of line at the end for tying off, then start placing a clamp- swivel- clamp ...spaced a yard apart. The clamps are to keep the swivels and drop lines spaced apart from each other so they don't get tangled together. If you can't find good clamps, tie knots in the main line instead.

2. Make 25 drop lines. Take 2 foot lengths (longer if that suits your needs) of your lighter weight line, knot them into a loop and add a hook to each one.

3. Attach a drop line with hook to each swivel. You may want to do this part as you rack the line.

You will also need to construct a racking box for your line.

1. Build a little wooden box - roughly 14 inches square by 4 inches deep. It doesn't have to be exact. In a pinch you can use a cardboard box lid, but the first time it gets wet it's ruined, so just build a box.

2. About 1 inch apart cut slots into the inside top edge. The commercial fishermen cut 25 notches per side to rack 100 hooks per box. For a 25 hook box just put 10 slots per side. (It gives you extra, but that's ok.)

3. Now take the main cord of your trot line and start coiling it in the bottom of the box. Attach a drop line with hook as you get to each swivel and slide the drop line into a slot so that the line is gripped well but will pull loose with ease. The hook should stick out on the outside of the box.

4. When the line is coiled up and the hooks are all in place, catch your bait and bait the hooks. Judy and I catch grass shrimp, crawdads, grubs... anything we are quick enough to catch and not too squeamish to put on a hook.

Now you are ready to run your line.

1. Find a likely spot and tie your line off to a tree on the side. Take a moment to check that no one else is already using that same tree a little lower in the water - you don't want your lines to tangle together. There have been times that Judy and I picked out a spot only to find that someone else thought it was a good spot, too.

If there are fish thieves about you want to hide your line so they won't find it and take your catch. Tie your line low in the water and cover the visible part with grasses so it won't be easily seen.

2. Run your line out, weighing it down with a brick when needed. While not impossible with one person, this job goes easier with two. As one person paddles or runs the engine slowly the other watches the box to make sure the line feeds out smoothly. If coiled well the drop lines will pull out of the slots as the line feeds into the river. Sometimes a line will be caught a little too tightly and you have to give it a gentle tug to help it along.

3. Come back a few hours later to check it. Fish bite best in early morning or just at dusk, so check as soon after these feeding times as possible. 'Gators will keep a close eye on trot lines, especially those left in place for a long period, and you are liable to find empty lines, wounded fish, or worse of all, your line completely destroyed by a 'gator getting tangled in it and ripping it to shreds.

Well, actually the worse part is when the 'gator is still tangled up and has developed a really, really bad attitude.

4. Pull your line in, dropping it loosely into the box as you clean off each hook. Later you can flip the box upside down to start rewinding your line again. Don't leave bait on the hooks and throw the box in the trunk of your car in the Florida heat - you'll regret it.

Things to beware of:

1. Don't do this: My Dad used to run a line from the shore. He would rack his line and tie a brick on the very end. He would then throw the brick out into the lake, and as it flew it would uncoil the line behind it. He quit doing it this way when one day his throw was off and he caught multiple hooks in his hand and forearm. I do not recommend this method.

2. Check your line with caution. When you go to check your line pull at it gently to see if it pulls back. Always keep in mind that if something starts pulling too vigorously it is better to cut the line and lose it than to be pulled screaming and full of fish hooks into the water with something large and pissed off.

3. If you want turtle stew... don't let Judy take the turtle meat home, because there won't be anything left but broth by time you show up to claim your share!

Running a Trot Line

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