How to Trotline Fish Rivers

Video how to set a trotline from the bank

Big rivers equal big catfish

This post will cover basic tips on how to set trotlines in rivers. We will cover the two basic setups for trotline fishing rivers as well as what to use for bait and where to set lines for the best results. You can immediately apply the tips we share in this article on your local river and see results. I have experience great results using these methods on the Mississippi River, Ouachita River and the Red River located in my home state of Louisiana. If you have a large river near you neck of the woods, you can have great results as well.

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Trotline fishing is one of the most effective methods of catching catfish. Running trotlines can be extremely rewarding and a ton of fun. Trotlines can be used in many types of waterways, however rivers are some of the absolute best places to set trotlines. River fishing with trotlines provide countless opportunities to catch delicious catfish. Rivers provide ideal habitat for catfish to grow to large sizes and numbers. If you have never tried setting trotlines in rivers, you can be missing out of some of the best catfishing in the United States.

There are two basic types of trotlines I like to use on rivers.

Traditional trotlines/longlines

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Traditional trotline setup

The common long line is one of the most widely used trotlines in the country. Chances are most of you are familiar using the basic long line. When I refer to a long line I am referring to the common trotline that runs about fifty feet or longer where the depth of the hooks remains consistent the entire length of the trotline. Some of the popular retail trotlines are constructed out of string that floats under the water to maintain a consistent depth. Some homemade longlines will often have a jug or bottle tied onto them near the center of the trotline in order to maintain a consistent depth.

Long lines are great for fishing flood waters and back waters of rivers during the wet months of the year. They are extremely effective when fishing in shallow water in flooded timber. Catfish will often swim into flooded timber during the spring in search of food. Current flowing out of flooded timber is a great place to set a long line or catfish traps. You can learn more about catfish traps here.

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Typically traditional trotlines used on rivers catch can be utilized with great success in catching channel cats and the occasional spotted catfish. I typically catch larger numbers of fish using longlines in the spring during the spring floods however, the size of the fish are usually smaller.

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Flooded timber on the Ouachita River

Drop lines

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The drop-line design is similar to a traditional trotline however, drop-lines are better suited for fishing the main river body instead the flood waters or backwater of rivers. Drop-lines typically are set to fish deeper depths due to the way they are designed to work. Another key fact to remember about drop-lines is, they are often homemade. You cannot find a dropline in most sporting goods stores. You either have to modify store-bought trotlines or make them from scratch which is what I prefer to do myself.

To set a drop line, you simply anchor the beginning of the line on the river bank, then as you bait the line you continue to move away from the anchor point until the line is fully baited. Once the line is fully baited, you drop the end of the line into the water with a weight attached the very end of the line. A drop line allows you to fish multiple depths of water at the same time. Catfish are bottom feeders therefore, drop lines are extremely effective when fishing steep river banks.

Drop-lines allow you to fish the main river body which often results in catching larger catfish when compared to fishing other types of water such as small creeks and flooded timber. Don’t get me wrong, you can catch big fish on trotlines in just about any type of water, however the time of the year will largely dictate how well you catch large catfish in small bodies of water when compared to fishing large rivers.

Key features to look for when trotline fishing rivers

Disruption or Redirection of the predominant water flow

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Current flowing into the river bank

Water current flow is always critical for catching catfish on trotlines in rivers. Of course most large rivers constantly have current. However, the direction of the current is key for determining where to set trotlines.

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A steady flow of current dumping into the main river channel is a great place to set a trotline. Subtle current flowing through flooded timber is also excellent for setting trotlines. However, my all-time favorite place to set a trotline on a river is where current is flowing the opposite direction of the main river flow. In other words, find places on a main river where there is a disruption in flow.

Places to look for are jetties that cause turbulence on the main river channel. Look for places on the river where there is a noticeable amount of current flowing backwards. Deep river bends where there are small whirlpools are also great places to set trotlines as long as the turbulence is not so strong it caused problems in stretching a trotline out in a straight line.

Tributaries and the mouths of creeks entering the main river channel

One of the best trotline sets I ever used on the Mississippi River was where a small culvert dumped water into the main river. Creeks and the mouth of slews are great places to set trotlines. Culverts with water flowing out will attract catfish as well.

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Flooded pipeline right of way

Large rocks

Larger rivers will often be maintained in various areas by the Army Corp of Engineers. The Army Corp of Engineers often use large rocks in an attempt to control water flow on large river systems. Large rocks provide great cover for bait fish. Rock jetties and seawalls provide great habitat for catfish to feed around.

Grain ports

Grain ports are located on a number of rivers throughout the country. Large rivers play a key part in the transportation of exports. Grain ports are often located on rivers that run through metropolitan areas. Grain such as corn and soy beans are often loaded on barges in various rivers that run through the South East. If your local river has a grain port near you fishing area take advantage of the wasted grain that accidently finds itself in the bottom of the river. Grain that has accidentally fell off barges during loading and unloading will attract huge numbers of catfish. Setting trotlines near grain ports can result in great success.

Irregularities in the river banks

Irregularities in river banks such as holes at the water’s surface and deep cuts will often attract catfish. Catfish are naturally attracted to underwater holes. Look for culverts partially submerged and other odd places that seem to be unusual near a river bank.

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Baiting a trotline on a river

Baiting a trotline on a river is different from baiting a line on a lake. Often, you have to contend with substantial current flow when fishing a river. For this reason, I prefer to use live bait and cut-bait. Live bait is by far my favorite bait to use if I am going after large spotted cat or blue cat. However, cut-bait and shrimp work great as well. I also love using live crawfish for lines set in flooded timber.

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Great bait for trotlines I’m flooded timber

I typically do not have great luck with manufactured/store-bought trotline baits on rivers. The reason is, they do not seem to stay on the hook well in steady current.

I like to always run my hooks under the dorsal fin when using live bream and cut bait. Be sure to take caution when hooking live bait. Try to only hook the bait-fish in the flesh and try to avoid the hook from going through the organs or spine. This will keep the bait fish alive for longer periods of time.


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The tips shared in this post have been proven time after time on multiple river systems. I have even applies these tips to trotline fishing large creeks with great success. You can too! Just remember the next time you set a trotline be open minded and look for unique features on the river. You can catch huge catfish with trotlines if you know where to place the lines.

Please remember to follow all fishing regulations when using trotlines. Different states and waterways have unique rules and regulations for trotline fishing. Be sure to do your research and know what you can and cannot do on each body of water you fish. I hope this article will help you guys fill up the freezer with delicious catfish. If you would like more great tips and tricks for hunting, fishing and cooking wild game, check out our blog section at We love the outdoors and hope to help everyone get out there and enjoy the wild things in life.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>