Engbretson Underwater Photography

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

Where Have All the Perch Gone?

There's an interesting new story that just appeared in Minnesota Outdoor News.  Researchers with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources say that in 900 lakes they've surveyed in that state, numbers of yellow perch are down significantly.

Over the years, I've noticed the same thing while diving and photographing fish in Wisconsin lakes... there just aren't as many perch as there used to be.  The news report says in part that DNR researchers are looking at not only what might be holding back yellow perch, but also potentially dragging them down. 

"A new study looking at yellow perch is being led by DNR research biologists  Jeff Reed, of Glenwood, and Bethany Bethke, of Duluth. Related research conducted by Bethke during the past couple of years pointed to a likely decline in perch numbers; in more than 900 lakes studied, perch numbers had dropped on average, from about 10 fish per gill net to around five fish per gill net during DNR surveys.
“When you see something going in half over a 25-year period, it’s something you want to look at,” Reed said.

Examination of netting data yields some clues regarding why perch might be declining in some places. High water levels have created fertile breeding grounds for northern pike, and a corresponding increase in the pike population could be putting a bigger dent in the perch population, Reed said. Also, invasives – such as zebra and quagga mussels, and spiny water fleas, where they exist – could be reducing the foods available – like zooplankton – for very small perch.

One other factor could be in play, too. Longer growing seasons in lakes are helping species like bluegills, which compete with yellow perch.
Bethke adds yet another item to the list of possible culprits for perch decline: the loss of near-shore habitat, which could be lakeshore property owners removing woody debris or bulrush."

To read the entire article, go to this link.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

5 Walleye Hotspots That Nobody Fishes (Inside Tips from an Underwater Photographer)

Often times when I'm coming off the lake and loading my scuba diving equipment and cameras into the car, fisherman will approach me at the boat landings to ask "Did you see any fish?"  Or, "Where are all the big ones?"  Since I'm actually under the water swimming with the fish, I do notice some things that escape most fisherman.  So in answer to the question, "Where are the fish?" I've compiled a list of the five most surprising areas where I regularly encounter walleyes that few fisherman pay any attention to. How many of these locations do you completely ignore when targeting walleyes?

1) Shallow Water. Since I'm trying to photograph fish, I tend to concentrate on areas where the light is the best.  This often means depths of 8 feet or less.  This shallow water is where I take 90% of my walleye pictures.  It's surprising how many fish can be found close to shore in water that's barely over your head.  If there are large submerged trees close to shore, I almost always find walleyes there.  Most walleye fisherman ignore shallow water, but I can tell you that the fish are there.

2) Under boat docks.  Not all boat docks have walleyes under them, but the ones that share certain characteristics will hold walleyes most of the year.  Nobody seems to fish for walleyes around shallow boat docks, but if you can find ones that have a hard or gravel substrate, extensive areas of shade, and deep water nearby, you'll find walleyes there.

3) Eurasian Watermilfoil.  This invasive plant is almost universally regarded as bad, but fish love milfoil.  If I'm on a lake where EWM is present, I head right for it. It's a fish magnet for all species including walleye.  Sometimes I'll find walleye cruising along the deep edge of milfoil colonies, but usually they're buried inside the thickest and most dense parts of milfoil beds.  It's hard to photograph walleyes in cover this thick and just as difficult to fish for them in these areas, but they're always there.

4) Fish Cribs.  Everyone knows that there are fish around fish cribs, but they aren't as famously known to be places to find walleyes.  The walleyes I see around cribs fall into two categories. Inactive fish are typically underneath the cribs, or buried deep inside them in thick brush.  Active fish cruise cribs in a radius that can extend up to 20 feet.  While it's easy for me to photograph them here, catching them here is harder because there's often an abundance of bass or panfish around that are higher in the water column that will strike the baits or lures before the walleyes get a chance to.  In the presence of other fish, walleyes are timid and won't fight a rock bass or smallmouth to get to a bait first.

5) Sunny days.  The last location where I always find walleyes isn't a location at all, but a conditionWalleyes have a reputation for avoiding bright sunshine, or going deep on sunny days.  When I'm photographing fish, I relish bright sunny days with calm surface conditions and I'm usually in the water around high noon when the light penetration into the water is the best.  You might think these would be terrible conditions for walleye fishing, but I can tell you I encounter plenty of large walleyes actively feeding during these times... often in shallower water.  If you're a walleye fisherman and as a rule, avoid fishing during the midday hours or on bright sunny days, you're missing out on good opportunities to encounter fish.

For over twenty years I've been photographing walleyes underwater and those are some of my go-to places.  They're certainly overlooked locations and might even seem counterintuitive to most walleye fisherman, but I wouldn't be wasting my own time with them if they weren't highly productive. 

(To view our walleye image gallery, click here.)
(For more on walleye behavior click here.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Wild Ohio Magazine

From Chad Crouch, Photo Editor of Wild Ohio Magazine:
"I would like to give a long overdue "electronic high-five" to Eric Engbretson for his fantastic underwater photography of native freshwater fish. On the cover of Wild Ohio Magazine, we have had the opportunity to feature Eric's underwater "models" four times since 2009. Visit http://lnkd.in/dDTFyWm and check out Eric’s vast library of life under the water … you will not be disappointed!"
Thanks so much for the kind words and the wonderful endorsement Chad.  It's working with people like you over the years that's made it all possible and so much fun. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Amazing Underwater Trout Photos From Montana

Westslope Cutthroat Trout (c)Patrick Clayton/Engbretson Underwater Photography

Patrick Clayton, our top trout photographer here at Engbretson Underwater Photography, has just returned from the back country of the Montana wilderness with some sensational new trout pictures!  Patrick has trekked into remote areas at high elevations to find and photograph native Golden Trout and Cutthroat Trout.  His new images are astounding.  You can view all of Patrick's work in our on-line gallery here.  All of his images are available for editorial and commercial licensing through our agency.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Engbretson Underwater Photography Featured on Minnesota Bound Television Show

It was very cool to have Ron Schara do a little feature piece on our underwater photography on the latest episode of the Minnesota Bound television show.  I thought Ron did a nice job of telling my story and showing what an average day "at the office" is like. To see the video, click on the picture above, or go to this link.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Biggest Challenges to Underwater Photography

I'm often asked what the biggest challenge is to taking underwater fish pictures.  Well, 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 takes a lot of 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 shoot 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.
Conditions underwater are typically very hostile to a photographer.  The lakes and rivers where I shoot can be very cold.  In rivers, currents can be strong, and visibility is always an issue.  Underwater photography is inherently tricky.  Water is 800 times thicker than air, and there's always particles floating around or algae and things like that, so you've never going to get the really "clean" look you can get shooting through air. The water is often cold, the fish can be elusive, and you've got to always be concerned about your air supply, so there's a lot to think about. The light underwater is very poor too, so often I have to carry underwater strobes to illuminate subjects in deeper water. If you can imagine taking photos on a dark, cold, foggy, windy day… that sort of comes close to the everyday conditions of the environment I work in.  Saltwater environments are infinitely easier.  The water’s 100 times clearer, there’s 100 times more light, and ocean fish are used to seeing very large things swimming around them.  In freshwater, you look like Godzilla to those poor fish.
So, yes-the challenges are many, but as I always say, "If it was easy, everyone would be doing this".

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fishiding Leads the Way in Artificial Fish Habitat-Designed By Fish, For Fish

Newly placed, this Fishiding High Rise model towers 12 feet off the lake floor and will soon become a haven for fish in lakes where natural cover is at a premium.  (C)Eric Engbretson Photo

Artificial fish habitat structures are becoming more popular today.  They're being used more and more, especially in large southern reservoirs devoid of important structure fish need.  Fish managers have traditionally placed bundles of Christmas trees or cedar trees on the lake bottom to try to provide cover for fish.  While effective, the lifespan of tree bundles or brush piles is limited, so replenishing them has always been an ongoing and expensive process.  Today, artificial habitat structures are gaining popularity because they don't decay or deteriorate. 

Of all the outfits manufacturing artificial habitat, David Ewald's Wonder Lake, IL company Fishiding, is ahead of all others, at least if you ask the fish, which is what David does.  Ewald has recently introduced his latest models:  The High Rise.  Ranging in height from 8 to 14 feet, these new designs are the only artificial fish habitat on the market today that incorporate the vertical element.  They tower off the lake floor and provide legitimate structure for fish, unlike his competitors who largely manufacture small and short structures that are inconspicuous to fish and do little to provide them with the kind of cover they're looking for.  The vertical dimension used in Ewald's High Rise models gives fish a range or depth at which to stage, and mimics the effectiveness of sunken vertical timber.      

Ewald's company, Fishiding sells a variety of different fish habitat structures that continue to evolve.  The reason for this is repeated testing.  Ewald monitors test structures over time and modifies them based on how fish respond to them.  The prototypes that don't attract as many fish are retooled and modified until they do or even scrapped altogether.  In effect, the fish vote, and new habitat is designed based on the observed preferences of fish.  No other artificial habitat structures are custom made for fish preferences the way Fishiding is.  When Ewald learned about the often overlooked but highly important vertical dimension, he got to work designing new models that would address this important fish preference and give fish what they want.  The result is his High Rise line of structures.  "Fishiding's artificial fish structures are designed not by what we think will be effective, but what they fish tell us they prefer", says Ewald.

For more information on Fishiding structures or the innovative High Rise models, click on this link, or go to http://www.fishiding.com/

Monday, May 5, 2014

Fish Sticks-The Habitat Management Tool That's Giving Wisconsin Lakes A Make-Over

Fish Sticks are assembled on lake ice over the winter. (DNR Photo)

In pre-settlement times, the near shore areas of all of Wisconsin’s lakes were filled with vast amounts of fallen trees.  Due to natural decay and storms that toppled large trees into lakes, our waters contained impressive amounts of timber that provided important habitat for fish and other species.  Today, those natural shorelines and their abundance of downed trees can only be found in a few places.  Lakes like those in Michigan’s undisturbed Sylvania Wilderness Area for example, give us a glimpse of the way all our lakes looked at one time.

As Wisconsin was settled and lakes were developed, shoreline trees were removed to make swimming beaches or to create an “uncluttered” look.  Large trees still growing along the shores were cut down to provide vistas of the lake for home owners to gaze at from their cottage windows.  In a short period of time, most of the wood on Wisconsin’s lakes was gone, eliminating a critical habitat element important to a wide variety of animals who made their homes in or near the lakes.
Today, we recognize the damage we’ve done by removing trees and interrupting the eons old process that replenished our lakes with a constant source of wood.  While it may take hundreds of years to restore our lakes to begin to resemble their original state, one innovative idea is jump-starting the process.  Referred to as “Fish Sticks”, it’s a way to move wood back to our lakes that’s been lost.  Fish sticks were made popular in Wisconsin by Bayfield County Fisheries Biologist Scott Toshner.  He’s worked on more than twenty fish sticks projects in the past four years.  "People tend to clean up their shorelines and remove fallen trees," said Toshner. "Sometimes the trees never get the chance to naturally fall into the water because lawns have taken over eliminating trees, shrubs, and ground cover. Fortunately, some northern Wisconsin communities are taking action to turn back the clock and restore the habitat on which fish, frogs, turtles, bugs, songbirds, ducks, and other critters thrive. Not only that, but they're good for water quality and shoreline protection, too."
Last year, a similar project, called “tree-drops” began on Florence County’s Lake Emily.  Tree drops are helpful but differ in that they usually involve single trees.  While their impact is important, a single tree can’t do the same job as multiple fish sticks.  Dr. Mike Bozek, formally of UW-Stevens Point, has studied this distinction.  “Submerged trees located closer to other submerged trees result in greater numbers and diversity of fish compared to individual trees. Larger numbers of submerged trees create a mosaic of habitats over greater shoreline areas than single trees do. This underscores the importance of riparian areas. We need to manage entire riparian areas and develop complex littoral zone habitats, not just individual trees.” 

As science has begun to better understand the importance of woody habitat in lakes, one type of habitat enhancement that’s been used on Wisconsin’s lakes for generations is on the way out.  In recent years, Fish cribs, have fallen out of favor with fish managers.  New studies show it’s a poor substitute for more natural and legitimate types of fish habitat like fish sticks.   "With the fish cribs, the one thing you kind of miss with them is the link between the near shore area where a lot of these fish spawn and spend their lives as juveniles ... [With fish sticks] the wood in this near shore area may be a missing link in terms of habitat in some of these lakes," Toshner said. 

To further illustrate the difference between single tree drops and fish sticks complexes, we can look to Bony Lake in Bayfield County.  This 191 acre lake was one of the first to employ fish sticks.  To date, more than 400 trees have been added to the lake, and they’re not done yet.  This may seem like a whole lot of wood, but in truth, it’s only a fraction of what the lake would have contained had shoreline property not been radically altered by development. Toshner hopes that as users of lakes, we’ll redefine our idea of what beauty is and discard our desire to create white sandy beaches and instead embrace the wild, unorganized, and natural look of shorelines comprised of fallen trees.  “Fish sticks projects are paying off in northern Wisconsin lakes by providing critical habitat for fish and insects, birds, turtles and frogs," says Toshner. “Beaches are really ecological deserts which don’t support any habitat or sustain any life”. 
A new streamlined permit available from the state and an easy step-by-step guide for fish sticks is now available from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.  This will help lake associations or individuals get started with their own lake improvement projects that incorporate fish sticks.  Scott Toshner is excited about the changing landscapes of our lakes and is optimistic about how as stewards we’ll make better decisions in the future.  "If people can see that trees in the near shore area are a valuable resource, they're less likely to remove a tree that might fall in along their own shoreline."

Sunday, April 6, 2014

How Important are Cameras to 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?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Creating Great Fish Habitat

A fallen pine tree creates shelter for schools of small bluegill which attract
largemouth bass and other game fish.  (c) Eric Engbretson
When I speak to various organizations or lake associations, one of the questions most often asked is "How can we create good fish habitat?"  One way to do that is actually easier than you might imagine.  One of the best things we can do is... "nothing". 

Every time there's a storm and trees get blown down in our yards, we respond right away by picking up the brush and debris and quickly cutting up the fallen trees and branches with chainsaws to restore our yards to their pre-storm state.  This is fine to do in your yard, but if you have lakefront property, it's one of the worse things you can do near the water.  Trees, large and small that fall onto our beaches or into our lakes due to storms or natural decay are one of the most valuable habitat elements for fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians.  We're tempted to remove the trees to return our shorelines to a state that resembles Waikiki Beach, but when we do, we're robbing the lake and it's inhabitants are critical elements that enhance fish populations.    

Even small trees or branches in shallow water provide critical habitat elements
for a wide variety of fish. (c) Eric Engbretson
I visit many lakes that are ringed with homes and bordered by forest, but in a great many lakes, there’s scarcely any downed trees in the water. Since trees must go down from time to time in storms, falling into the water, I can only assume that lakefront property owners quickly remove them.  This should be avoided because wood and trees that have fallen in the water are a critical habitat element important to a variety of aquatic and terrestrial life. I strongly encourage all lakefront property owners to keep fallen trees in the lake instead of removing them. If they absolutely impede navigation, they should be moved, but not removed.

Trees that fall into lakes are magnets for crappie and
other panfish. (c) Eric Engbretson
I have thousands of underwater pictures that show what great habitat fallen trees provide and how fish utilize them.  Trees of all sizes provide important shade, cover for minnows and juvenile fish, ambush areas for game fish, and protection that's important for successful spawning.  They attract aquatic insects, crayfish and other food sources important to fish.  Studies done in northern Wisconsin show that lakes without coarse woody habitat show declines in fish growth rates and the amount of fish a lake can support. 

So, one of the best ways to actually create terrific fish habitat in our lakes is simply not to destroy or remove the habitat that is naturally made by nature when trees are blown down in storms. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Lake Ellwood Update: Without Chemicals, Fish Return

Eurasian Watermilfoil (c)Eric Engbretson

Last year on this blog, I wrote a piece about Lake Ellwood, the Florence County lake where reproduction by bass and bluegills had come to a halt due to lack of aquatic plants in the lake.  (You can read my original posting here.)  In the meantime, there's been some interesting new developments that I'd like to share with you in the following Lake Ellwood Update:

In the spring of 2013, an application from the Lake Ellwood Association to further chemically treat about three acres of Eurasian Watermilfoil was denied by the Wisconsin DNR.  Instead, a 5 year whole-lake study began on the lake in the summer of 2013 headed by Dr. Greg Sass of the WDNR's Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Research Section. The goal of the study is to better understand why a drastic change in the fish community occurred between 2002-2012 and to test for effects of chemical treatments/reduction in aquatic plants on the Lake Ellwood fishery.

In the early stages of the study, noticeable changes have already been observed.  Since chemical treatments have ceased, the fish and aquatic plant community has responded.  The most recent fish surveys conducted during September and October of 2013 revealed robust year classes of bluegills and largemouth bass.  Native aquatic plants have also rebounded.  Littoral areas that were barren just one year ago now have lush colonies of native plants.  "I couldn't believe how fast the native plants returned", remarked an amazed Greg Matzke, Florence County Fisheries Biologist.

Matzke is optimistic about the five year study (which doesn't include any further chemical treatments for Eurasian Watermilfoil.) "It's my hope that after taking a very thorough look at the fish community, we can better understand what drives natural reproduction of fish in Lake Ellwood, and provide a plausible explanation of why the fish community crashed and how the fight to control Eurasian Watermilfoil has contributed to it." 

Lake Ellwood still has a few acres of invasive milfoil and likely always will. What's returned are the native plants and young largemouth bass and bluegills.  It's a trade off that feels like an immediate victory for fisheries managers at this point.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What are the Clearest Lakes in Wisconsin? 2013

I was talking to Jennifer Filbert at the Wisconsin DNR the other day. Jennifer manages the data for the 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 sechi disc readings.  This is a universal way of assessing and comparing water clarity.  I was interested to know which Wisconsin inland lakes were the clearest.  Jennifer sent me a spreadsheet of some really comprehensive data and I thought it would be interesting to pass this along.  Here are the lakes that recorded the highest average water clarity in 2013. In short-here are Wisconsin's clearest inland lakes and their average water clarity in 2013:

1)   Black Oak Lake-Vilas Co.-37 feet
2)   Pine Lake-Waukesha Co.-27 feet
3)   Maiden Lake-Oconto Co.-26 feet
4)   Keyes Lake-Florence Co.-25 feet
5)   Whitefish Lake-Douglas Co.-25 feet
6)   Eagle Lake-Bayfield Co.-24 feet
7)   Lake Metonga-Forest Co.-23 feet
8)   Lake Lucerne-Forest Co.-23 feet
9)   Stormy Lake-Vilas Co.-23 feet
10) Blue Lake-Oneida Co.-23 feet
11) Bolger Lake-Oneida Co.-23 feet
12) Lac Courte Oreilles-Sawyer Co.-22 feet
13) Lake Owen-Bayfield Co.-22 feet
14) Millicent Lake-Bayfield Co.-22 feet
15) Deer Lake-Polk Co.-22 feet

For the 2014 lake list, click here.  For the 2012 list, click here.