Engbretson Underwater Photography

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News From Behind the Scenes at Engbretson Underwater Photo and Stories about the Freshwater Environments We Visit.

Monday, February 5, 2018

How Do Spawning Benches Work?

Spawning Bench or half-log. (C) Eric Engbretson
In northern states, fish managers sometimes use spawning benches to promote the spawning of smallmouth bass.  While largemouth bass, rock bass, and sometimes bluegill also use spawning benches, it is the spawning of smallmouth bass that inspired the design. 
In a healthy lake, smallmouth bass build spawning nests against rocks, sunken trees, or large pieces of wood in about four to ten feet of water.  Next to these structures, the male excavates a shallow, circular crater in the lake bottom.  This system provides good natural protection to eggs and fry. 
But in lakes without coarse woody habitat, large rocks or similar objects, smallmouth bass may be forced to construct their nests out in the open.  When spawning and is over and the female has deposited her eggs in the nest, the male diligently guards the eggs and later the fry from predatory fish and crayfish.  When the nests are out in the open without natural protection, the male must guard up to 360 degrees of the crater he has dug.  This is exhausting and dangerous, since his back is always turned away from part of the nest.  Far fewer eggs incubate, and far fewer fry survive their first few weeks when fish have to use nests that lack the natural shield of a habitat's woody elements. 
Fish managers have studied the hard work put in by bass and have noted the decreased recruitment of young fish.  The managers came up with an idea for a simple structure they hoped would meet the needs of nesting fish and make it easier for eggs and fry to survive.  The idea for spawning benches was born. 
A spawning bench consists of a four to six foot piece of log sawed lengthwise in half and attached to concrete or cinder blocks on each end.  Spawning benches are therefore sometimes called half-logs.  Once placed on the suitable substrate, the spawning bench provides overhead cover from birds of prey.  The concrete blocks on each end protect the nest from raiders on two sides. 
Smallmouth bass guarding nest built adjacent to one of the concrete blocks of a spawning bench. (c) Eric Engbretson
It was a sound design and one that smallmouth bass readily used, but not exactly as intended.  It turned out that smallmouth bass weren't concerned about overhead cover. The benches usually sat in water deep enough to preclude threats from above by ospreys and other birds of prey.  While nests are occasionally built between the two concrete blocks as the designers intended, smallmouth bass usually construct nests next to one side or the other, thus allowing the male to guard the nest from only three sides.  The key element seems to be the concrete block itself and not so much the half log.  In fact, if the spawning bench falls on its side, it still provides excellent protection. 
Spawning benches are poor substitutes for the naturally occurring woody cover that fish prefer.  But in lakes devoid of suitable wood, rocks, or trees, spawning benches provide a superb means of helping smallmouth bass defend their nests and allowing more of their offspring to survive.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Do Fish Have Individual Personalities?

Largemouth Bass (c)Engbretson Underwater Photography
I'm often asked this question and I have some definite thoughts about it.  I’ve been photographing fish underwater in their natural habitat for over 25 years.  In that time, there are long stretches when I’ve worked with the same individual fish for years at a time.  Because of that, I think I’m uniquely qualified to comment on whether they have individual personalities or not.  The answer to this is unequivocally yes.
Just like the personality distinctions one could make between say poodles and collies, distinctions between different types of fish certainly exist. And not only do entire species like northern pike, largemouth bass or bluegills have their own group personalities, but individual fish in the group have theirs too.  The individual fish and their unique personalities have as much depth and richness as the personalities of our pets. Sometimes I want to assign all the fish of one species with a label.  At first, I’ll think something like, “You know, Black Crappies seem to be a little aloof”.  But then I’ll remember one or two that I’ve met that weren’t and it makes me reluctant to paint the whole species with a broad brush.    
If you're skeptical of the idea that fish have personalities, I would say that you have to get to know them to understand that.  Very few humans have forged anything resembling a relationship with a fish.  Certainly, few people have connections with wild fish.  When you spend the enormous amounts of time I have with fish, secrets like this reveal themselves to you.

So what are some of the different personality characteristics of fish? Here are a few common species and the traits I think they demonstrate, based on decades of underwater interaction with them:
Largemouth Bass: Clever; Focused; Innovative   
Smallmouth Bass: Curious; Enthusiastic; Assertive;   
Walleye: Stoic; Contemplative; Organized;   
Musky: Uninhibited; Clumsy; Suspicious;
Northern Pike: Timid; Patient; Obsessive;  
Bluegill: Friendly; Daring; Active;
Carp: Alert; Decisive; Anxious 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

How Important Are Cameras In Underwater Photography?

People interested in underwater photography often ask me what kind of camera equipment I use. 

I’ve always felt that underwater photographers put far too much    
 emphasis on their equipment and not enough on studying the behavior, habits and biology of their subjects.  The best equipment won’t help you if you don’t know where to go, what you’re looking at or whether you’re truly seeing something rare, unusual or out of the ordinary. 

How many photographers can tell the difference between a good looking clown fish and a bad looking one?  If they all look the same to you, you need to study clown fish better.  What I mean is this:  In every species, you’ve got your pretty Scarlet Johansson types and your skanky Courtney Love types.  It's easy to notice the distinction when we're looking at our own species, but not as easy when we're viewing other species, like fish for example.  If you don’t recognize the differences, you’re in trouble, because the people buying your pictures often times can.  And if you try to pass off a Courtney Love for a Scarlett Johansson, you’re going to be regarded as someone who doesn’t really know what you’re photographing, even if your pictures are technically perfect. 

Too much emphasis is put on the equipment we use.  But the "secret sauce" so to speak, is not the cameras and lenses, rather the familiarity with the subject matter.  That's what makes the difference between good photos and bad ones.  I’ve seen some amazing pictures taken with crappy point and shoots because the photographer understood the situation he was in and what he was shooting.  So the emphasis on the equipment you use is really overrated and of little importance.  Think of it this way: If your girlfriend told you she found a great dress on sale at the mall, would you ask her what kind of car she drove to get to the mall?

Monday, October 30, 2017

Prehistoric Paddlefish Underwater-New Images

Today we've added some very cool new Paddlefish pictures to our Stock Photo Collection.  They come to us from our Viktor Vrbovsky, who's brilliantly photographed these rare enigmatic fish in their natural habitat.  Like sturgeon and gar,  paddlefish have remained unchanged for eons.  Fossil records of  paddlefish date back over 300 million years, nearly 50 million years before dinosaurs first appeared.  You can view all of Viktor's exceptional underwater fish photography, including his excellent Paddlefish images on our website in our Viktor Vrbovsky Gallery.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Are the Muskies You See Really That Big?

Muskies underwater are only 3/4 of the size they appear.  (c)Eric Engbretson

One of my favorite websites for fishing information is Lake Link. The fishing reports posted on this site by the thousands of fisherman who fish the many lakes in the Midwest region can be useful, informative and entertaining. While some of the most experienced and knowledgeable fisherman post fishing reports and their observations while on the water, I am constantly amazed at one glaring mistake so many fisherman make. That error is not understanding the magnifying effects of water. Simply put-fish look bigger under water than they really are. The message boards on Lake Link are filled with hundreds of eye-witness accounts of fisherman reporting large muskies that "swam right next to the boat that were 50 inches!" Could there really be that many 50 inch muskies swimming around? The answer is a disappointing "No".  What these fisherman all fail to realize is that fish in water, viewed through air are only 3/4 of the size they appear to be. So, all those mammoth 50 inch fish are really just ordinary 37.5 inch long muskies.

Scuba divers all understand that one attribute of water is that when viewed through a prism of air, also known as a diver's mask, objects appear much larger than they really are. Underwater, a 45 inch musky will look a 60 inch whopper! Fisherman often ask me how large the fish are that I see underwater. Honestly, most fish look big underwater, and big fish look like Godzilla. In my early days of diving I was convinced that each musky I encountered was a world record.  Many scuba dives later, I've come to better understand the illusion, and realize that reports of monster muskie that "got off just as they were about to be netted" were likely ordinary sized fish.

Some may argue that the fish lined up exactly with something on the boat that's of known size and reference, but the viewer doesn't understand the illusion facing scuba divers all the time. Boats and the objects on them are poor comparison tools as they're in the atmosphere, visually accurate in size, while the musky is underwater, distorted in size. To test this concept yourself, measure your hand. Then lean over the side of a fishing boat or dock and stick it about a foot underwater. Hold the ruler above the surface while viewing your submersed hand, and measure it best you can. How'd the numbers come out? If you did this correctly, your dry hand will be roughly ¾ the underwater hand size.

While the fishing reports on websites like Lake Link can be valuable research tools, don't be fooled by eye-witness accounts of large fish that were seen underwater. They just weren't that big. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Wonderful World of Walleyes: Underwater Video

We’re getting some great walleye video in 2017.  Here’s a compilation of some of the remarkable underwater footage we’ve collected so far this summer.  Straight from the depths of Wisconsin’s northern lakes, see crystal-clear underwater video in HD of walleyes where they live.  Abundant crayfish, rock piles, sunken timber, and other habitat elements attract walleyes like magic as they pose for our cameras in their watery homes.  Thirty seconds of walleyes up close in incredible clarity and awesome fidelity.