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




Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Michigan's Underwater Paradise

 

The following article appeared in the Ludington Daily News on 7/19/2022. 

Ludington a snorkeling hotspot? Someday, group hopes

By JUSTIN COOPER Daily News Staff Writer

Could these waters one day be dotted with snorkelers? A small but international group aims to bring freshwater snorkeling into the mainstream, with a particular focus on the Ludington area. One member, Martin Ruiz, described snorkeling the Big Sable River, as "the most wonderful experience that you can have."

The Ludington area has no shortage of outdoor activities to engage in. But someday, snorkeling could make its way onto that list.

A small but global group is imagining the city as an international destination for freshwater snorkeling, which they see as an untapped opportunity in outdoor recreation.

It’s all in the very early stages, and some of those involved aren’t even sure if it will involve a formal organization, a physical location or simply a website.

But at the heart of it is a belief that peeking under the fresh waters of the world is an overlooked but rich way of connecting with nature.

“Anyone who’s ever been on vacation to Florida or Hawaii … they all (snorkel) on vacation, and they all have a good time,” said freshwater photographer Eric Engbretson.

“I think people just don’t realize that we have these opportunities right here in our local lakes. … We’d just like to see it become more mainstream.”

Engbretson is part of the snorkeling enthusiast group trying to push its hobby — and Ludington’s opportunities for it — into the public eye.

Their plan could tack one more outdoor sport to the long list of them the Ludington area is known for.

But for them, it’s also a way of honoring a fellow freshwater explorer, whose favorite spot was right here in Ludington State Park.

‘The best place in the entire world’

The glue binding the group together is their admiration for Nancy Washburne, a Michigan woman whose underwater films attracted an online community of like-minded snorkelers before her death in January this year.

“She was so involved” in showing people “the incredible treasure that they have just below the surface of all these lakes and rivers all over the world,” said her husband, Martin Ruiz.

In her 60s, Washburne spent three years snorkeling nearly 500 of Michigan’s inland lakes, traveling solo in what Ruiz called “a clunker.”

Along the way, the former travel agent discovered Ludington was “the No. 1 location for snorkeling in Michigan, without any doubts — and No. 1 by far,” according to Ruiz.

“When she found the (Big) Sable River for the first time … she called me that night, and she said, you are not going to believe this. I just found the best place in the entire world,” Ruiz said.

He said the two of them returned to snorkel the river, which drains Hamlin Lake into Lake Michigan, for 15 consecutive summers.

With shallow water, no boat traffic and “hundreds” of colorful fish schooling by the riverbanks, he said it’s “the most wonderful experience that you can have.”

“It is nature at its best, and it’s always full of surprises,” he said, adding that “it’s very easy” and “free, basically.”

It’s in honor of Washburne and her favorite snorkeling spot that her husband and followers have zeroed in on Ludington as the focal point of their efforts to promote the sport.

Once the group has its ideas firmed up, Ruiz hopes to get state agencies involved in advancing Michigan, and Ludington in particular, as the “headquarters for the global alliance of freshwater discovery.”

The whole point is “to create an ecotourism industry,” he said, adding that just as Michigan draws snowmobilers in the wintertime, the Great Lakes could be a regional magnet for summertime snorkeling.

“That represents millions of dollars when you start getting this at the level it should be,” he said.

‘Oh, it’s so cool’

Mary Larson, a “big” Washburne fan from Indiana, said she started out as a hiker who “didn’t even think to look underwater.”

But she found inspiration in Washburne’s videos, and today, she is driven into freshwater by “a curiousness. I want to see what I can find, and once you actually do see the fish — oh, it’s so cool.”

For her, snorkeling has “taken over” hiking, and she regularly shares on Facebook what she sees under the waves.

She thinks it could do the same for anyone who “has that love for nature.”

“If you love hiking and seeing what kind of birds you can see — what kind of deer, animals, turkeys, bugs — if you like that, then you’re probably going to love the fish, too,” Larson said.

As for why freshwater snorkeling isn’t already big, “people don’t really understand what freshwater is all about,” said Mark Barrow, a Washburne fan in the United Kingdom who has been filming underwater for more than 30 years.

“They’re unsure of the species that live in (freshwater), and they tend to look at it as unimportant, even though they do rely on it,” he said.

It’s also partially because “the oceans always had Jacques Cousteau as an ambassador, and freshwater just doesn’t seem to have anyone,” he said — except, for some, Washburne.

Engbretson, who lives in Wisconsin, said freshwater bodies might fly under the radar because they’re “so close, and we drive by them everyday, (so) we just don’t think of them as being a destination” for snorkeling.

“And, to be fair, a lot of them are Coca Cola-colored, or chocolate milk,” he said.

But he noted Michigan is “a special place for clear lakes." And those who look into their depths may find more than just fish and seaweed.

In her “Snorkeling Guide to Michigan Inland Lakes,” Washburne described snorkeling as “a great spiritual experience.”

“Within seconds of parking the car and entering the lake, I can literally feel the tension oozing out through my fingertips,” she wrote.

“One can come out of the water in a state of spiritual and mental healing.”


Monday, June 27, 2022

Overcoming Obstacles: Why Photographing Fish in Their Natural Habitat Isn't as Easy as it Looks

Largemouth Bass Underwater
Largemouth Bass (c)Engbretson Underwater Photography

I'm often asked what the biggest challenge is in taking underwater fish pictures.  There are quite a few obstacles and many things that have to be right to be able to get a good picture.  First, the water has to be clear, which is actually a greater challenge than you might think.  Freshwater lakes are typically pretty crummy so finding lakes that have the necessary clarity is an ongoing process.  I usually won't even look at a lake if the clarity isn't at least 18 feet.  Water clarity can change from week to week and season to season too, so even though I have my favorite lakes, they’re not always clear enough to work in.  Everything starts with water clarity and if you don’t have that, nothing else matters.  It’s always a challenge to find clear water.

Once I find a clear lake, I have to find fish.  Next, I have to find fish of desirable size.  This is easier said than done too.  It's always a problem especially these days when it seems like there’s fewer and fewer really nice fish available.  If I do find a lake that’s clear and it does have a few good fish, another challenge is getting close enough to photograph them.  I like to be 2 or 3 feet away.  Any further and I won’t take a picture at all.  Fish often times have a problem with a diver being that close, so it requires patience to even get close enough to think about composing a picture.  But once I have clear water, good fish, and get close enough to photograph them, I still have to make the shot.  So even if everything else is right, sometimes I blow it all on the final step because I was moving, or the composition is bad or I forgot to turn on the strobe, etc.….

A lot goes wrong.  Sometimes I feel like it’s truly a miracle to get any good pictures at all because so many things that I can’t control have to be right all at the same time. But as I always say, "If it were easy, everyone would be doing this".

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Photographing Walleyes in Their Natural Habitat

 

It's been my experience that photographing walleyes underwater in their natural habitat can be either ridiculously easy or extremely difficult.  I'm convinced that there's a lot of luck involved.  As most fishermen can attest to, even finding walleyes in a lake can be a tough assignment.  Some fish are especially sensitive to air bubbles from divers, and walleyes are one of these species that seem troubled by the unusual sound.  They will usually move away quickly when they hear the sounds of a diver's air bubbles streaming to the surface.   Other times, I've found walleye to be completely at ease with my approach, my bubbles, and my general presence.  At these times I'm able to easily take close-up pictures with my cameras just inches from the fish.  I've spent a great deal of time analyzing the various factors and conditions that sometimes make photographing walleye easy and sometimes make it impossible.

After 27 years of encountering walleye underwater, I still don't have a definitive answer.   One theory I have is that if the fish feels secure, a close approach is possible.  If there are predators nearby, a lot of recreational watercraft traffic, or any other kind of perceived threat or disturbance, they will be anxious, nervous, and "edgy".  When the lake is quiet and they feel secure near a piece of cover, they seem to be more relaxed and at ease.  I think it all has to do with a sense of safety.  Fishermen believe walleyes always prefer deep water and avoid light because of their sensitive eyes.  I don't think that's necessarily true, or the real reason why walleye seem to seek out deeper, darker water.  On some of the quieter lakes I visit, they can be found in very shallow, brightly sunlit water close to shore.  On busier lakes, they almost always seem to be in the deeper stretches.  It could be that the perceived threat to their safety has more to do with locations walleyes are found than depth or brightness of the sun.

I work with many fishing magazines and exceptional walleye images are seemingly always in demand.  Consequently, I've spent a great deal of time learning about walleyes and their behavior to gain a better understanding of how to best find and approach them to take their pictures. Certainly, being in the water with the fish gives you a glimpse of their "real" behavior-a snapshot few people ever see.  Correctly interpreting what you observe is another matter and is the beginning of understanding and wisdom.

Like all animals, walleyes have many secrets and as we begin to learn more about their endlessly fascinating lives, we'll be able to appreciate them more and more for their inherent beauty and magnificence.  I know I do. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

What are the Clearest Lakes in Wisconsin? The 2021 Report

 

For the best underwater photography, finding clear water with high transparency is essential. So what are the clearest lakes in Wisconsin?  Every year, I consult with Wisconsin's state-wide citizen's lake monitoring group. They're a network of individuals, usually lake-front property owners who monitor and regularly take a variety of water samples from lakes all across Wisconsin.  The data they compile helps to give us a look at how our lakes are doing. 

One of the many tasks lake monitors perform is to take regular Secchi disc readings. This is a universal way of assessing and comparing water clarity.  I'm always interested in knowing which Wisconsin inland lakes are the clearest.  Ordinarily, I rank the lakes that recorded the highest average water clarity for the previous year. This year, I'm looking at lakes that recorded the single highest Secchi disc reading in 2021. Because of Covid-19, not all the usual lakes were sampled at their usual intervals, so we have only the data that was collected. With that in mind, here are Wisconsin's clearest inland lakes and their highest single-day water clarity readings taken in 2021:

1)   Lake Metonga, Forest Co.39.5 feet

2)   Nagawicka Lake, Waukesha Co. 38 feet

3)   Sand Lake, Burnett Co. 35.5 feet

4)   Upper Eau Claire Lake, Bayfield Co. 34.5 feet

5)   White Lake, Marquette Co. 33 feet

6)   Delavan Lake, Walworth Co. 32 feet

7)   Lake Mendota, Dane Co. 30 feet

8)   Pearl Lake, Waushara Co. 30 feet

9)   Forest Lake, Vilas Co. 29.5 feet

10) Big Arbor Vitae Lake, Vilas Co. 29 feet

11) Sugar Camp Lake, Oneida Co. 29 feet

12) Blue Lake, Oneida Co. 29 feet

13) Butternut Lake, Forest Co. 28 feet

14) Lake Owen, Bayfield Co. 27 feet

15) Black Oak Lake, Vilas Co. 27 feet

To see the list from 2020, click here.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Why Do-It-Yourself Artificial Fish Habitat Fails:

Fishiding Artificial Fish Habitat is unique because of its size, complexity, and the protection it provides juvenile fish.

Constructing a conglomeration of rubber tubing, plastic barrels, and old hose, throwing it into the lake and calling it fish habitat because we saw a bass next to it, is like putting a cardboard box on the street corner and calling it “housing” when a homeless person takes refuge in it. Most DIY fish habitat is as much fish habitat as a plastic tarp strung between two shopping carts is “a house” to a homeless person.

Look around at your own home. Why is it comfortable? Why do you like it? Look past the man cave you’ve built in the basement, the expensive wall-to-wall carpeting, and the refrigerator with the built-in ice-cube dispenser. What makes your house useful and practical is its utilitarian functionality.

The insulation keeps you warm in the winter. The roof keeps the rain out. There’s a dark bedroom to sleep in at night. The doors and windows all have locks that provide you with safety and security. Your pantry is stocked with food and you have a kitchen to prepare it. Your home functions in a way that addresses all your family’s needs in a utilitarian way.

By and large, DIY artificial fish habitat doesn’t do anything close to that. To be comparable, artificial fish habitat needs to be large to accommodate many fish. (You wouldn’t want to live in a one-bedroom bungalow with a family of six would you?) It needs to provide a refuge for young fish the same way your children have their bedrooms where they can be away from grown-ups while hanging out with their friends. There needs to be on-site food so you’re not driving to McDonald’s every single time you want a snack. Size, security, protection, privacy, and food are just some of the important aspects of any home that we would never compromise on in our dwellings yet seemingly never consider when constructing habitat for fish. Instead, we create the equivalent of tent cities in the most impoverished part of town and congratulate ourselves when homeless people congregate there to get out of the rain. That’s not a solution to the homeless problem any more than lashing rubber hoses to cinder blocks is to solving the lack of fish habitat.

What’s needed in both scenarios is genuine housing/habitat for both impoverished people and fish.

When looking at the wide variety of homemade so-called fish habitat, one thing seems to be evident. Most well-intentioned builders don’t seem to know exactly what fish need and the poverty of their designs betray this fact. Bad designs continue to be copied, while far superior ones are ignored. This is because so few of us can tell the difference between good designs and poor ones. This failure is epidemic but also understandable. Fish live in a separate world largely invisible to us. We rarely glimpse them in their natural habitat and have little idea of how they live or how they spend their time. Our only interaction is when we hoist them into the boat on the end of our fishing lines. Occasionally we notice that fishing under the neighbor’s dock or next to that old Cyprus tree stump seem to be good spots, but we’re completely in the dark about why. We often leap to the false conclusion that any structure in the water is a fish’s home and any solid piece of material we find in the back of our garage could work just as well. Do it yourselfers are thwarted not only by their lack of understanding of fish but also by what materials might currently be available in their sheds and garages. I think this explains why we see so many awful constructions.

To design and construct authentic fish habitats and not merely dilapidated, makeshift shelters of the kind we might see on urban streets, we need to think backward. We need to think first about function over form. Utility over availability. We need our designs to meet the specific needs of fish. We can look to natural habitats for guidance. Natural habitat has a myriad of desirable characteristics but for this discussion, we can single out the three most often violated elements that any proposed artificially constructed fish habitat must have. The first is size. Is our construction large enough to accommodate a community of fishes? The second is protection. Are there tight spaces, crevices, alleys, pockets, holes, depressions, and retreats that smaller fish can occupy that larger fish absolutely cannot access? The third is complexity. Is the structure large and complex enough to offer shade, to block sight-lines, and to hide or conceal what’s in and around it? If it were in your backyard, could your kids use it when they play hide and seek?  Keeping in mind this trio of primary functions will help you begin to understand what fish need and enable you to reject bad design ideas and eliminate potential construction materials that don’t amplify these important characteristics.

Across our country, there are many bodies of water from large sprawling reservoirs to small backyard ponds. Many of them are lacking fish habitat for a variety of reasons. In many cases, artificial habitat can be a surrogate but only if it addresses in utilitarian ways the features of genuine habitat. 

If you work in the fish management sector, you and your colleagues have an obligation to be very critical of the designs being paraded in front of you. If we’re not more careful about scrutinizing and properly evaluating artificial fish habitats, we run the risk of unknowingly filling our waterways with useless materials instead of creating legitimate habitat. 

Certainly, there’s much to discuss about creating artificial fish habitat, and because true innovation has slowed to a trickle, we find ourselves mired in a kind of estuary between realizing we have a habitat deficiency and creating the kinds of authentic habitat that will make any difference. Artificial fish habitat needs to provide functional value to our fish. The scale of the problem is enormous in many locations, and won’t be solved by adding more sub-standard and inadequate structures any more than human homelessness can be solved by putting out more cardboard boxes and tents. 

Thursday, January 27, 2022

King of the Deep: Swimming with Muskies in Their Natural Habitat

I’m very lucky that I just happen to live in an area that’s home to some of the most legendary muskie lakes in the country.  Over the years, I’ve had a chance to swim in some of these famed waters and encounter muskies up close in their own environment.  There’s nothing quite like seeing a large muskie underwater.  They glide effortlessly through the water with the supreme confidence reserved for members at the top of their food chain.  Because of this, they’re not afraid of divers and I’m able to approach them usually fairly easily.  They are surely aware of all the other fish and animals that populate their world and because divers are an anomaly, they will routinely approach me with what I can only characterize as curiosity. They often make a complete circle around me as if to inspect this ‘strange creature” from every angle.  They also display keen awareness.  When I enter a lake, I don’t have to search for the muskies.  I’ve discovered that if I’m patient, they will find me.  Drawn, I’m sure by acute imperceptible sensory abilities and also probably just by the noise of my air bubbles too.