"We always get more people if it's bitter cold," said Steven Jones, superintendent at Warwick, Chester County Park near the lake, "because that's part of the fun of the sport."
Fun? "Well," Jones explained, "it takes a certain mentality to want to sit out on the ice in 15-degree weather with the wind blowing on you. You really have to love fishing."
The attractions of ice fishing may be apparent to only a few, but those true fans insist the sport is addictive. "I've been ice fishing for over 30 years," said Sam Viscuso, an expert who will be the head instructor at tomorrow's clinic. "I started taking my girls when they were small. It's a great family sport. When the kids get tired of fishing, they can skate around for a while and just enjoy being outside. There's lots to do."
Al Hess, who has also taught at the Struble Lake clinic, has different but equally "compelling" reasons for his devotion to ice fishing. He likes catching fish. And he really likes eating them. "In winter, the water quality is excellent," Hess said. "All the vegetation is gone, and the water is crystal-clear. The fish get all the mud cleared out of their systems, and they're very tasty."
A typical winter's catch at Struble Lake might include black or white crappie, yellow perch, walleye, pan fish and possibly largemouth bass. "And bluegills," added Hess. "Anybody can catch bluegills. They're the best biters - very easy to catch."
Students at the clinic will learn to identify these fish, as well as the proper fileting techniques. Free samples of steaming-hot batter-dipped fried fish (all caught by Hess) also will be available. "Sometimes I think the fish fry attracts more people than the clinic itself," said Jones, laughing. "The fish is really good."
Additional refreshments, including hot dogs, coffee and hot chocolate, will be for sale by the Muskellunge Association. (The Muskellunge Association, for the uninitiated, is a group of men and women devoted exclusively to the pursuit of the muskellunge, or muskie, a game fish that can grow to four or five feet long.)
Clinicgoers also will be able to check out the latest in ice-fishing equipment, on display (and for sale) by three Chester County vendors: Chip's Bait & Tackle, Cazielle's Tackle Shop and Gordon's Sport Supply. Although even the experts concede that ice fishing requires minimal equipment - a simple rod, a bucket and something with which to chop a hole in the ice - it is possible to get fancy. "Some buffs, like me, go to extremes, with boron rods, graphite rods," said Viscuso. "But my first rod was basically a stick with a piece of string on the end."
This type of rod is known as a jigging rod, Viscuso said, because it is jiggled up and down in the water to attract the fish's attention. There is also the tip-up, for those who get cold easily. "Tip-ups look like flat tripods that sit over the hole," said Jones. "A red flag flies up when the fish hit the bait, so you can see it even if you're sitting back on the shore in your car. Hopefully, the fish will have hooked itself by the time you get there."
Fishers who prefer to become more involved will be cheered by Viscuso's prediction that the ice will be solid on Struble Lake tomorrow.
"There's 13 or 14 inches on there now," he said. But it spite of these assurances, Viscuso stresses that the ice-safety portion of his instruction is the most important. "There are certain things people have to learn about reading the ice," he said. "Where it's thick or thin, whether there are springs underneath. Folks should also have the proper safety equipment with them and know what to do in case someone breaks through the ice."
Bear in mind that if you attend the clinic and want to fish for yourself, you must have a license. You can get one on the spot for $12.50; it will be valid in Pennsylvania for one year.
And beware. The sport just might grow on you. "Ice fishing is very captivating," Hess said. "It becomes your favorite type of fishing. Myself, I love being out in the good, clean air and looking at my surroundings. It's just an excellent way to fish."
IF YOU GO
The ice-fishing clinic at Struble Lake, cosponsored by the Pennsylvania Fish Commission and the Chester County Parks and Recreation Department, will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. tomorrow, ice or no ice. Admission is free. To get to Struble Lake, take Route 322 toward Honey Brook in Chester County. Cross over Route 82 and proceed two miles. Turn right on Chestnut Tree Road and follow the signs to the lake. For further information, call the Warwick Park office at 469-9461.