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Catching Catfish With A Trotline, How To Set A Trotline

Shallow Water Trotline

I’ve bounced around a bit here lately and covered some basics on trotlines including trotline fishing basics, ethical fishing with setlines and how to make a trotline.  This will likely be the last time I talk about catfishing with trotlines, at least for a good while. I wanted to cover some more information because it is a subject I get questioned about often.

If your just getting started make sure you read the how to make a trotline article and watch the video because that will go a long way with the basics and getting you started on having the right gear, hooks, tackle and setup so you get started the right way.



Jug Fishing Vs’ Trotlines – Which Is Better

This is a question I get asked often. Which one is better or easier fishing with a trotline or jug fishing? My response is neither one is easy, they are BOTH a lot of work but if I had to pick one, I would say jug fishing. I also feel like jug fishing is safer than fishing with a trotline. It’s not like running with the bulls or anything but an inexperienced angler with a trotline can get themselves in trouble very quickly. I read and hear about drownings every single year here in Texas involving a trotline.

The advantage of jug fishing over fishing with a trotline is that jugs are easier to deploy and retrieve and they are much more portable.  If you are in a bad location or a less than productive location, moving with a bunch of jugs is much less hassle and much faster than moving a properly set trotline. Jugs also allow you to spread out more and cover more water, and they are easier to set in deeper water.

If you want to learn more about jug fishing check out our Jug Fishing 101 program.

All that being said, a well placed trotline can be incredibly effective.


Trotline Catfishing Safety

Again, I read and hear about accidents all the time that could have easily been avoided by people not fishing alone, not fishing in high winds, wearing a life jacket or PFD and having a good sharp knife with them.

Most of this you would think is pretty self explanatory so I will address one, the knife. When you take a long line with a bunch of sharp hooks dangling off of it and start pulling it in and out of the water with potential masses of pissed off fish dangling from it or big catfish, there is a lot that can go wrong.

I have had one close call and broke all the rules listed above. I was alone, in high wind, in a small boat, alone, with no PFD. It was a very long time ago and I would like to think I am much wiser now but I had a very close call back then. I ended up within the blink of an eye with a 60+ pound flathead on a line, two of the hooks buried in my arm, and in the water. Fortunately I was able to quickly cut the line but had I not had a knife readily available I wouldn’t be here today, I am confident of that.

When running setlines I always wore a dive knife like this one strapped to my calf so I could access it quickly and easily. It was that very knife that enabled me to quickly cut the line and cut myself free. I managed to walk away with nothing more than wounded pride and a couple of fish hooks buried in my right arm.

Be smart, be safe.


Best Catfish Bait For Trotlines

You can talk to any serious catfisherman and get a lot of varying opinions on catfish baits, especially when it comes to trotlines. There are a lot of opinions on this subject among anglers and everyone has what they believe is the best. I will make this pretty short, simple and to the point as I have used a handful of baits for catfishing with trotlines over the years and never felt a need to vary from them as they have always been effective.

Now understand I am the manufacturer of Redneck’s Catfish Bait Soap so I am somewhat biased in my opinions. Do some more reading on Redneck’s Catfish Bait Soap and  learn about it if your going to be fishing with any form of setline (including limb lines).

The best bait is going to depend a lot on your target species of catfish, blue catfish, channel catfish or flathead catfish. I have a good general guide on catfish bait selection you should check out as it provides some great information on this topic to get you started regardless of what methods you will be using to fish.

Choosing the right catfish bait is a key element of fishing with trotlines just like any other form of fishing. The bait selection can make or break your fishing trip and choosing the correct catfish bait depends a lot on what your target species of catfish is. For the most part my choice of bait for a trotline is the same is when I am rod and reel fishing with the primary exception being fishing for channel catfish.

When catfishing with trotlines or setlines my goal is typically to catch numbers of fish or “box fish” that are less than 5 lbs or so to keep. I have no interest in fighting a big catfish on a setline as it just doesn’t bring me any enjoyment and I am going to CPR (catch, photograph and release) the big catfish anyway. I reserve targeting the big catfish for when I am fishing with rod and reel.

The biggest challenge when it comes to baits for a trotline is the shear volume of bait required. If your setting a 50 hook line and plan on running it 2-3 times in a night you are going to need a LOT of bait, especially if the catfish are biting! You also need to remember that with some baits you will lose more baits than others because all of the fish in the lake or river will feed on them (and even turtles).

I will go ahead and cover the best baits for each species just in case but again, please practice catch and release of the bigger fish!

Channel Catfish – Prepared baits like punch bait and dip bait that are so popular among catfish anglers are generally not preferred for setlines. For channel catfish bait on setlines I always use Redneck’s Catfish Bait Soap. You can also try some grocery store baits like hot dogs or shrimp as they can be effective at times also. Just remember the best channel catfish bait for fishing with a trotline or setline is not going to be the same as the best bait for rod and reel fishing.

Blue Catfish – For blue catfish on trotlines I like Redneck’s Catfish Bait Soap, threadfin shad or gizzard shad. The shad is always fresh caught using a cast net (see how to throw a cast net).  I never use frozen shad for bait. If you are fishing for blue catfish in a body of water where skipjack herring is the primary food source then they would be an excellent choice for bait also. You can learn more about this in our article on the best bait for blue catfish.

Flathead Catfish – For flatheads I like live bait. Perch, bluegill, sunfish or mudcats will all work as long as they are nice and lively.  The key factor is making sure the bait is good and lively and you keep it well aerated leading up to your fishing trip which will require an aerated baitwell or bait tank (see how to build a bait tank). Using larger baits will help keep some of the non-catfish species from eating your baits but will not eliminate the problem completely.

There really is no right or wrong answer when it comes to bait so just choose your target species, pick a bait and try it. If you pick one of the baits mentioned above and are in a good location, you are going to catch catfish on your trotline.


Where To Set Your Trotline In Lakes and Reservoirs

This is the million dollar question as location is everything and again being in a bad location that is not producing fish is much more of an issue with a trotline versus jug fishing or fishing with limb lines as it is a lot more hassle to move.

I have several different approaches to locations when setting a line and my placement always depended on productive locations that I have found using a rod and reel, but these locations for setting lines all have similar characteristics based on different species of catfish.

In all instances I prefer setting lines in shallow water. I have run deep water setups in the past but I am not a fan of this. Not only are they difficult to set but they are difficult to run, so I always lean towards shallow water and despite much of the information out there, shallow water can be very productive all year long.

Flathead Catfish – For flathead catfish with trotlines I like shallow water, preferably with some timber. My most productive locations for lines for flatheads have always been shallow water less than 7 feet deep on flats that are very near the mouth of a creek or river when it enters in the reservoir.

Blue Catfish – For blue catfish I like to set the line on the edge of expansive mudflats on the shallow portions near where they drop off into deeper water or on shallow points, also in water less than 7 feet deep.

Channel Catfish – For channel cats I prefer to set the lines on shallow water flats in really shallow water, typically 5 feet deep or less.


Where To Set Your Trotline In Rivers

My river approach to setting trotlines has always been very simple and works for all three species of catfish. Keep in mind that rivers here in North Texas are shallow and narrow bodies of water so you cannot compare them to big rivers like the Red River of The North, the Mississippi River or Tennessee River.

I typically set my lines leading into or out of a bend in the river where I can find a shallow flat or sandbar nearby, setting the line on shallow flat or sandbar in water that is 3-5 feet deep. The line is always set running parallel to the shoreline at a slight angle in my setup and has always worked.


How To Set The Trotline

Now, keep in mind what I mentioned on locations and the fact that I always set my lines in shallower water. If I was going to target deeper water I would use a jugline.

The biggest challenge most anglers face when setting a line is finding something to tie off to that allows them to target their desired location. Finding something to tie off on both ends and keep the line in the desired location is typically a real challenge. There is a quick and simple solution to this that we have always referred to as a “pole line”. The advantage to this is you eliminate being stuck to a certain area based on what is available to tie the trotline off to and create your own tie off point.

Before I go any further let me address this because I know it will come up. There are ways of setting a line without attaching the end to a fixed structure. I have never been a fan of these types of sets and they are certainly a more advanced skill set. These are definitely not for the novice or intermediate trotline angler, therefore I am not going to cover them.

The pole line process is relatively simple. You take a piece of 3/4” or 1” PVC and cut one end at an angle, which makes it easier to hammer into the ground. The pipes are hammered into the ground (in the water) to tie off to. Other than the piece of PVC that is all you need. You do need to do something to keep the line from sliding down the PVC pipe and there are a wide variety of ways you can do this. Over the years I have done everything from wrapping a big wad of duct tape around the pipe to drilling a hole through it and inserting a long bolt (my preferred method). Completing this step is best done on the water as you determine the depth of the water you will be setting the pipe in. You will want the anti-slip device to be below the water line but high enough from the bottom to keep the trotline up out of the mud.

The only disadvantage of this setup is it makes it painfully obvious to everyone around there is a trotline and it is next to impossible to hide the line.

The process if setting the line is pretty simple. Hammer one of the pipes in the ground with the anti-slip device attached, tie off one end of the line, slowly deploy the trotline using the boat motor and when you reach the end of the line hammer the second piece of PVC into the ground and tie the line off.

Once this is complete you need to add weights, floats (if preferred or required by law) and gear tags (again if preferred or required by law. All that is left is to bait the line and start catching catfish!


Trotline Weights

Weights are important. They keep the line down towards the bottom and also help keep everything in “check” when you hook a larger fish on the line. My preference is to set the line and then add weights and I have always added weights 1/4 of the way down the line from each end. These two weights have always been substantial enough.

How much weight should you use on your trotline and what kind of weights should you use? It depends.

I have seen people use everything from bricks to old window weights and everything in between. I had a good friend that loved to catch and release trophy flathead catfish on trotlines and he used manhole covers to weight the lines down. It was quite an ordeal for him to pull the lines up to check them but he had a system perfected to do so in this “overkill” situation.

My preferred weights have always been cinder blocks or “haydite blocks” as some may call them. They are inexpensive (or free) and work well. You can use the whole block or break them in half and use less weight to adjust the amount of weight on the line but I have traditionally used the whole block in most situations.

You attach the blocks to the main line of the trotline using heavy braided nylon twine (the same material as your main line)


Trotline Gear Tags

Gear tags are required by law in some states and the information required on the tag varies from state to state. The basic thought process behind a gear tag is some sort of permanent fixture on the line to identify who it belongs to and when it was set. This typically includes a name, address and phone number as well as the date the trotline was set. The date can typically be altered when the line is checked and in many instances this is required.

I have used everything from piece of plastic milk jug with a hole punched into and the information written on it with a sharpie marker to aluminum. The aluminum gear tag is my preferred method.

To make an aluminum gear tag just cut a piece of an aluminum can, flatten it out and put electrical tape or duct tape on the edges (so it is not sharp). To write your information on the tag use a nail or an awl and write your name into the aluminum by pressing down firmly. This is super easy to do and very durable, plus you don’t have to worry about the marker washing off.


Trotline Floats

Trotline floats are required in some states. It is my preference not to add floats on a trotline (I again never set them in deep water). There are few reasons behind this and first and foremost is I like my lines to be as discreet as possible. Adding floats just calls more attention to them and invites people to come check them for you. The down side of not adding floats is that other people do not know the lines is there and other fishermen will get lures hung in it which increases the likelihood of having the line cut. This also increases the likelihood of the trotline being accidentally cut by a boat prop.

You can use just about anything for a float but my preference has always been bleach bottles. They are free and work relatively well. Just tie a piece of braided nylon twine to them and tie it directly to the main line of the trotline. If I do add floats to a line I generally draw an imaginary line on the mainline of the trotline and divide it into thirds, adding a float 1/3 way down from each end.


Running The Line

Running the line is a simple process as long as there is not a lot of wind. You start at one end and work your way down BY HAND (not using your motor). When the wind is blowing you always start at the upwind side of the line and work your way down with the wind, not against it. An experienced trotline angler can easily run a line on their own without assistance but again, two people is always the best rule of thumb for safety purposes, and remember to make sure both parties have a good sharp knife handy! The smaller and lighter your boat is the easier it is to run a line from your boat as it is much easier to control and move the boat.

When running a trotline with two people I like to have one person in the front of the boat and one in the middle of the boat. The person in front pulls the catfish in and removes them from the hook and then works his way down to the next hook. The anglers both hold the line and hooks inside the boat and work slowly and carefully paying attention to the hooks at all times. I like to use my fishing rod holders to hold the line inside the boat and help guide it along.

The second person sits with the bait near them and puts the catfish bait on the hooks as the empty hooks are passed to him and then slowly eases the baits and line back down in the water. It is important to be somewhat gentle when handling the line and not jerk it around too much as this will help prevent the baits from being slung off the hook.

It is not uncommon to start catching fish before the line is even completely baited but try to avoid the temptation of backtracking to take fish off of the line!


Thermocline and Summer

In the summer months on many lakes a thermocline will set in and deplete the deeper water of oxygen. Catching catfish with a thermocline changes a lot and you should always make sure your lines are set above the level of the thermocline. The thermocline show we did on Catfishing Radio covers all of this information in depth so you should definitely check that out.

Even shallower water (more shallow than the thermocline) will have less oxygen during the summer months and fish will not live long on setlines during these warmers.

I suggest people stay away from running setlines during the hottest part of the summer and if you choose to fish with setlines during this time of year you need to run your lines on a very frequent basis and make sure all hooks are kept well above the thermocline.


When you are finished fishing, REMOVE YOUR LINES. Do not leave them in the water for extended periods of time when they are not in use. Fishing with trotlines can be an enjoyable experience but it is a LOT of work. If anglers would set their lines in responsible locations and not leave them in the water when not and use in combination with only keeping the fish they need and releasing the big catfish trotline anglers would have a lot better reputation in the fishing world.

We hope you put this information to good use and learn a lot about how to fish with these catfishing techniques, and be sure to send us some pictures of your catch!


Here are a few of the many different options there are when it comes to setting trotlines. Watch the video below for more information on my favorite way to set shallow water trotlines.

Deep Water Trotline

Shallow To Deep Water Trotline

Shallow Water Trotline

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About Chad

Chad Ferguson is a professional catfish guide and founder of Learn To Catch Catfish. Click here to subscribe for more exclusive catfish fishing tips by email and then follow on Twitter or Google


  1. joel w carter says:

    i have a feeling, that eels can be used for catfish bait . gray eels you catch on your rod and reel,can be cut up, and be used like cut bait for catfish. let me know what you think.

  2. What about Setting a troutline from bank? No boat?

  3. If you really want to fill a cooler with some blues try loose lining with shad. Find some moving water with a dip in the terrain and let your line flutter down into the whole, preferably a foot or two off the bottom. This typically works best in muddy river conditions with little debris. Bait your lines up with cut shad, and have two anchor points on either side of the stream/river. The current will keep your bait off the bottom and flowing between strike zones and swim paths.

  4. Why did you remove the video

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