Fishing lines: Where the biggest catch comes in a can

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Lack of snow in Minnesota has had one positive benefit for ice fishermen. Not one angler has been booked for speeding this winter.

Lack of snow in Minnesota has had one positive benefit for ice fishermen. Not one angler has been booked for speeding this winter.

I'm not talking about police nabbing motorists as they dash along country roads to the hotspots (or perhaps that should be coldspots). Over here, anglers can get nicked for going too fast on a frozen lake. The police hide behind piled-up mounds of snow with speed cameras at the ready. If you exceed 20mph across the ice, you can end up with a ticket.

This year, however, there has been very little snow. Often the night-time temperatures have been higher than the daytime ones. It's normally between -10C and -30C. On the nights I spent out on Mille Lacs, it wasn't much below freezing.

This has been good news for the resorts that place thousands of temporary houses on the frozen lake every year. (An aerial estimate this week put the number of houses on the 20-mile lake at about 2,500.) Lack of snow means that the resorts don't have to send their snowploughs out daily to clear the roads that are carved out on the lake.

The place where I'm staying, McQuoid's Inn, maintains 20 miles of ice highway, withroad names, and markers every one-tenth of a mile. A silver reflector tells you that you're heading out, gold means you're heading towards shore – a useful trick in whiteout conditions. In normal conditions, 5ft-high snow banks mark the roadsides.

Calling the huts that decorate the ice "fish houses" does not do many of them justice. Some are a few bits of wood nailed together, it's true. But these are very much the exception. The one I stayed in had four beds, carpet, cooking facilities, cable TV and a heater that was so warm I found myself seriously overdressed.

For many hut inhabitants, this is an excuse for serious drinking. I visited one hut occupied by eight men from a logging company. They had a vast coolbox that I mistakenly assumed was for their catch. It was actually packed to the gills with beer.

Still, fishing out here scarcely demands intense concentration. Lines are lowered into an ice hole from reels tacked to the wall. The reels contain bells or rattles. When a fish takes, the bells ring and you pull it in. This means you can go to sleep, and wake up if the bell rings. Fishing has been so good this winter that some visitors have been complaining that they can't get a decent night's sleep because the bells keep ringing.

Our hut was equipped with the standard ringers, but I'm such a sound sleeper that I missed the capture of the night's biggest fish, a walleye of about 7lb. I obviously need the jangler de luxe if I'm going to ice-fish regularly.

Anglers here certainly know how to fish in luxury. This winter's best-selling accessory is an ice camera. You lower the viewer, mounted on a tripod, to the bottom, then watch a tele-vision screen to see fish take your bait as you sup a beer and chomp away on a steak sandwich. It's a tough life.