Fishing lines: Plenty of lolly, but not nearly enough ice

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The Independent Online

One element is essential for success when attempting to catch fish from a frozen lake. I made this discovery – which I'll tell you all about in a second – in Minnesota, which claims to be the world's ice-fishing capital. So they should know.

Tomorrow, my quest for truth takes me to Mille Lacs (curiously pronounced Mowlacks locally). It is a 20-mile lake three hours north of the capital, St Paul. Mille Lacs, aka Frostbite Flats, is the ice-fishing epicentre of a state where competitions routinely attract 10,000 people. It is also the Walleye Capital of the World. (They like capitals up here.)

But first, I had to stock up. Dangling a line through a 15-inch ice hole demands specialist gear. You can use a jiggle stick, a micro rod and reel that looks like a hobbit's fishing gear, or a rattle reel. The latter is a reel with bells on. It jangles merrily when a fish takes. This is important, because ice fishing is usually accompanied by serious drinking. Attracting the attention of a fisherman who has consumed a 12-pack and God knows what else is not easy.

I learnt a great deal about the sport from Cabela's, a tackle supermarket in Owatonna. Before Cabela's came to town, this was a blink-and-you-missed-it place. Now Owatonna has four restaurants, three hotels and one of the busiest air-strips in the state. Cabela's is the second biggest tourist attraction in Minnesota, beaten only by the largest shopping mall in the US.

The store is vast. It even has its own restaurant. The ice-fishing section alone is bigger than a British tackle shop. And small wonder. An estimated 600,000 of Minnesota's two million angling licence-holders will join the annual ice jamboree.

In a normal winter, Minnesota has a whole heap of snow. Get outside the capital, and the local papers advertise cars that come with their own ice plough. Everyone owns a snow-mobile. But this year, they have not been able to use them. Babe Winkelman, a fishing television star, told me: "I've never known a winter this mild." He has lived in the state all his life.

This is very bad news for snowmobile sellers, hotels, resorts, anglers – and a journalist hoping to write about ice fishing. No ice, no fishing. Simple as that. According to the local newspaper, the Washington Country Sheriff's Office measured the ice and found it was a mere 12 inches thick.

"We really want up to 18 inches," said organiser Brad Johnson. "There's plenty of ice for someone to go ice fishing or to drive a truck out there, but not enough for 10,000 people."

This appears pretty funny: Hot Weather Melts Ice Contest. But the organisers are not laughing. They are lumbered with $125,000 of prizes. One charity was set for a mega-dollar donation.

Elsewhere, several big events have had to be called off, though a few have been postponed in the hope that Minnesota reverts to its typical winter weather. But things are not looking good. It is 45F today, and the forecast is great. Unless you're an ice fisher.

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