Watch Those Lines!

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Published on: Mar. 2, 2005

Last revision: Nov. 17, 2010

Rob Farr's johnboat eases across the glassy surface of Truman Lake as the warming rays of the sun wrestle to break through the fog. He approaches an orange jug floating on the water and cuts the engine. With the outboard off, all is silent in the cove.

The jug floats without movement, suggesting that the trotline it marks doesn't hold any fish. Nevertheless, Farr retrieves the orange jug and starts a familiar grab-and-pull journey down the line. The first hook comes into view and is bare. So are the second, third and fourth hooks.

Farr senses some extra resistance farther down the line. He pulls gently and brings a big flathead catfish to the surface. Trouble is, this flathead has been dead for days. It's now an unusable, partly decomposed carcass. The rotten smell of the fish assails Farr's nostrils. Farr, a Conservation Agent in Benton County, knows from experience that the unattended trotline probably contains more rotting fish carcasses.

Working unattended and unlabeled setlines is a regular part of a Conservation Agent's job. Once an agent identifies illegal setlines, he marks the illegal lines with either seizure tags or tags to remind the user that lines must be run every 24 hours.

Trotlines, throwlines, jug lines, limb lines and bank lines (known collectively as set-lines) are legal in most Missouri waters. Unfortunately, some anglers abuse the privilege of using set-lines by either not labeling their lines with their name and address, or by not attending their set-lines at least every 24 hours. Both are required by the Wildlife Code of Missouri. Many setlines don't meet either requirement.

Set-line abuse is becoming a serious problem on many of Missouri's waters, especially Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir. On these waters, hundreds of trotlines are strung along shorelines or are stretched across river channels. Boaters complain about having to run a gauntlet of trotlines and jug lines as they maneuver their boats. Rod and reel anglers grumble because they can't even drift across an open flat without snagging an invisible trotline. Dock owners are frustrated when they can't find an open spot to fish from their own docks.

Trotlines are not the only setlines used illegally. Anglers also fail to properly label or run their throwlines, jug lines, limb lines and bank lines. Abuse of these methods also results in unnecessary dead fish.

To gather input from Missourians about the statewide catfish management plan, Conservation Department officials conducted public meetings in the fall of 2003. One of the recurring themes in those meetings was set-line poaching in Missouri. Citizen after citizen stood and voiced their displeasure about set-lines not being attended and about people running other anglers' set-lines.

Breaking the cycle of set-line abuse is complicated, and because it has been going on for so long, change won't come overnight. Conservation Department officials don't want to take away the legal methods available to anglers, but if set-line abuse continues, officials may be forced to consider significant restrictions on set-line methods.

The best solution is for set-liners to use their equipment properly and legally, and to demand the same from their peers. Here are some tips on proper set-line use, and ways to avoid dead fish on your set-lines:

  • As required by the Wildlife Code, plainly label trotlines, throwlines, jug lines, limb lines and bank lines with the full name and address of the person using the equipment. This provides contact information to conservation agents if they need to get in touch with the owner of the lines.
  • Mark at least one end of trotlines that are set in open water with a float or something similar. This warns boaters, swimmers and skiers that they are approaching a set-line. Invisible set-lines are an underwater hazard just waiting for a victim.
  • Be considerate of other anglers by never touching or running their lines for them. It may be tempting to run a jug line if it's bobbing up and down with a nice blue catfish on the other end, but imagine how you would feel if that were your line and someone was running it for you. Besides, if you take that fish home, it's stealing.
  • Run your set-lines at least every 24 hours, as required by the Missouri Wildlife Code. If you use jug lines and you free-float them, you are required to stay with them at all times. If you anchor your jug lines, you must run them at least every 24 hours.
  • Jug lines are your responsibility, and you should make every effort to retrieve jugs that have been displaced by hooked fish, wind or current.
  • Hooks attached to throwlines or trotlines should be staged not less than 2 feet apart.
  • Trotlines and throwlines of more than one person may be joined together, but the number of hooks in the aggregate may not exceed the prescribed number of hooks for one individual. The line should be labeled with each person's name and address.
  • Always limit your set-line gear to the legal limit of 33 hooks per person. More hooks are allowed for anglers fishing in the Mississippi River. Consult the Missouri Wildlife Code for details.
  • If you are unable to attend your set-lines at least every 24 hours, you must completely remove them from the water. Removing the hooks does not make the line legal. You must remove the entire line.
  • If you set-line fish in summer, try to set your baits at relatively shallow depths (less than 10 feet) to avoid hooking fish in too deep of water.

In the summer, fish usually hang out in or near the thermocline, a zone in the water column with the most comfortable temperatures and the most dissolved oxygen. Fish will sometimes swim down into deeper water to feed. These deep-water areas generally have little or no dissolved oxygen in the summer.

As long as they can retreat to well-oxygenated water above after feeding, the fish will live.

However, if the hook keeps them in water with insufficient oxygen, they will quickly suffocate. When you check your line, all of your fish will be dead and stiff. You can avoid this common summer problem by setting your hooks in shallower water.

If you have questions about set-line fishing in Missouri, contact your local Conservation Agent for more details. If you are aware of set-line abuse in your area, and would like to report it to Conservation Department officials, use the anonymous tip line known as Operation Game Thief at (800) 392-1111.

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