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How to set an Ohio River trotline

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G. Sam Piatt


PDT Outdoors Writer


There were five of us who pushed off from shore that hot August afternoon in the Reuben James, the little red johnboat we had rescued from the floodwaters back in the spring.


Hobo, on the front seat, played out line from the ball it was wound into, tying the end of the string to a concrete building block resting on the bow seat beside him, then coiling the line loosely on the deck at his feet.


John Vinson and I sat on the rear seat, a concrete block matching the one in the front wedged between us. Gayle Newt and Dale were seated on the middle seat, sharing the rowing.


Jarflies sang their late summer song from the willows and maples along the shore. The fishy smell of the river filling our nostrils was not unpleasant at all, carrying with it the aroma of adventure. It formulated thoughts in my mind of ports in far-off Pittsburgh and Paducah.


Chopper, my little wire-haired rat terrier, swam along side the boat, whining, begging to go. I grabbed him by the scuff of the neck and lifted him into the boat. Nobody complained about the shower of water the shaking dog sprayed us with.


“Keep him back there away from these hooks,” Hobo said.


Gayle and Dale rowed out to about seventy-five yards from shore and slacked off on the oars. Hobo pushed the concrete block overboard, holding onto the line, letting it slide through his hands until it went slack. Gayle and Dale resumed rowing, on a slightly upstream angle to compensate for the slow current.


After Hobo had played out about 50 feet of line, the rowers slacked off again, maintaining the boat’s position as he tied a 20-foot lead line onto the main line. To the end of this line he tied a piece of cork about a foot square. Then he played out line as Gayle and Dale rowed on, slightly upstream against the current, but moving steadily toward the middle of the river.


When the coils of line were all off the floor, Hobo handed back the end of the line to John Vinson and me, and I tied it to the concrete block between us. As Gayle and Dale continued to row, getting all of the slack out of the line, John Vinson and I pushed the block overboard.


We rowed back to shore and Hobo waded out to the floating live box anchored about 25 feet from shore. He used a small dip net to remove about five dozen of the largest minnows and placed them in a five-gallon bucket.


Then they rowed back out. Hobo picked up the cork float and used the lead line to pull the trotline up off the bottom. Gayle and Dale relaxed on the middle seat as I used an oar from the stern to keep the boat pointed upriver.


Hobo pulled the boat along with the line, stopping about every four feet to tie on a hook rigged to a two-foot leader. At intervals along the way he tied on an old iron and two window weights. These were to keep the line on the bottom.


He had tied on 50 hooks by the time we reached as far as we could go with the line. I was amazed to see that we were out nearly in the middle of the river.


“Got to get your line reaching out here into the channel to get the really big cats,” Hobo said.


He placed the bucket of live minnows in between his feet and began moving back along the line, baiting each hook, He hooked the shiners through the lower lip, then brought the leader on through the lip enough to allow him to hook the shiner in the tail. He was careful as he passed them over the bow to make certain he didn’t let one of the hooks get into him.


When he had baited the last hook and dropped the line back to the bottom, he said, “Boys, we are in business. We’ll look ‘er right before dark.”


THE LINE WAS ALIVE

We were all five there again that evening as we rowed out for our first “looking” of the line. I could see the line surging and throbbing in Hobo’s hands after he had caught the cork float and pulled the line up from the bottom.


By the time we reached the end of the line, about 15 catfish, mostly in the 2- to 4-pound category, but one that went about 10 pounds, were flopping about on the bottom of the boat.


The line was baited up again and the flopping catfish were placed in a live box anchored in the river. Another look the next morning and the new business was ready to rake in its first proceeds.


We cleaned the fish, rowed them across river, and carried them up the bank to Market Street. We had left the heads intact so that Mr. Herman could see that the gills were red, guaranteeing freshness.


The trotline yielded enough fish that month for several suppers for the five families involved, as well as for the kitchens of two elderly couples no longer able to catch their own.


And enough profits from sales to buy back-to-school clothes for the five 11- and 12-year-old executives of the Beattyville Fish Company.


ON THE CLAY BANK

One of my very first experiences with an Ohio River trotline came earlier that same summer, and it is one I shall never forget.


I was in the rear of the old wooden johnboat using an oar to hold it steady in the light current. In the bow, Delbert Fultz moved us along the trotline and baited each hook with four-inch chubs we had trapped from the river.


Twilight was gathering itself into the valley as we noticed dimples dancing on the surface all around us.


“Hello scissors, look how the minnows are working,” Delbert said.


Then we felt the fat raindrops splattering on our heads and arms and knew it wasn’t minnows. He dropped the line back to the bottom, moved to the middle seat, and rowed for shore, 40 yards away. Before we covered the distance the heavens opened and the rain came down with a fury.


Rainwater was sloshing in the bottom of the boat as we leaped out and pulled the boat up. The bank was mostly clay and we boys had cut “steps” in it for the path leading from the village of Beattyville down to the landing. Water was coming down over those steps like miniature waterfalls.


We were about halfway up, Delbert in the lead, when he went down. He shot by me on his back, arms and legs extended. I tried to grab him and down I went. Delbert crashed into the boat and I crashed into Delbert.


“Hello scissors,” he said.


Up the bank we started again, and down we went again, once more winding up on our backs back at the boat.


We finally made it into the village by going downstream, slashing through a grove of willows, and plowing through a narrow field of corn.


Events like that night of the summer rainstorm become cherished memories that stick in our minds through the years. Delbert, long gone now, was the leader of my Boy Scout troop. He taught us boys outdoor skills and love of God and country.


And took the time to teach me how to set an Ohio River trotline.


G. Sam Piatt can be reached at 606-932-3619 or gsamwriter@aol.com.

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