Engbretson Underwater Photography

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Watch Bass Swim Where They Live | Bassmaster


Friday, December 11, 2015

Clearest Video of Smallmouth Bass Underwater

Often in the spring, some lakes in northern Wisconsin can be astoundingly clear.  Under these conditions, it's possible to get some truly outstanding video of the fish life underwater.  In water this clear I feel like I'm in an aquarium when I'm below the surface filming these fish.  In this latest clip you'll see chunky smallmouth bass in their underwater home in one of the clearest, sharpest underwater videos from a freshwater lake you'll ever see.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Smallmouth Bass Feeding on Crayfish

It's interesting to see exactly how bass pick up crayfish and eat them.  In this compilation showing several different crayfish being consumed by Smallmouth Bass, you can see how the fish almost always head toward the surface.  Small stones, plants, detritus and even parts of the crayfish claws that break off are expelled from the mouth before the crayfish is swallowed.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Walleyes Underwater

I've been experimenting with shooting underwater video this year.  Here's a clip of some walleyes from a northern Wisconsin Lake.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Wisconsin's Shrinking Panfish

Large Bluegill

Often, when I’m coming out of lakes in my scuba gear with cameras, I’m approached by fisherman who ask me “if I saw any big ones?”  The answer is usually yes and no.  As you might expect, the large fish I tend to see are species where catch and release fishing is the norm.  It’s common to see giant smallmouth bass and large muskies, because while fishing pressure is often heavy on these species, they’re almost always released to grow bigger.  Conversely, species that don’t enjoy high levels of catch and release and are kept for the dinner table like walleyes, bluegills, crappie, and yellow perch have a harder time reaching their full potential.  So I don’t often see large panfish with regularity.  I still encounter some very large walleyes because regulations like slot limits that are in place in many waters help to keep fish in the system longer which means they have an improved chance to reach larger sizes. 

So how much does harvest affect fish sizes?  I think it’s pretty significant. 

Liberal bag limits on panfish for example will likely not lead to decreased abundance, but they do cause poor size structure.  When bluegills get around 7 inches, and are at a size worth cleaning and eating, very few of them are released.  So the population gets further compressed into mainly fish that are 6 inches or less.  It tends to be the same way with yellow perch and crappie.  The problem is not the total amount of the harvest, but the selective harvest of what fish managers call “quality fish”. 

Since larger panfish are less common than smaller, younger fish, they often can’t sustain this extra selective targeting.  While many fisherman have long encouraged letting the big ones go and keeping a few smaller ones for the frying pan, it doesn’t seem like this is happening on a scale that could make any real difference.  Quality panfish are being targeted and harvested and the numbers of larger, older fish have plummeted. 

I spend 70-90 days a year in lakes taking fish pictures.  That’s a lot of time underwater where I observe many fish.  In an average year, in dozens of different lakes, I might see only one or two 10 inch bluegills a year.  That’s how rare they are.  Perch of the same size are also rare as are large crappie.  I think it’s important for fisherman to realize that when they catch an 10 inch bluegill and put it on the stringer, they are very likely removing the largest bluegill from that lake.  On smaller sized bodies of water, this is most certainly true.  You might erroneously think there must be many others of that size, so taking that single large fish wouldn’t be reason to pause.  But if you could be with me in these lakes and see what I see, you would realize how truly rare and special these large panfish are.  If you knew you were removing the largest fish of that species from the lake, would it make any difference to you? 

Fish managers are aware of the declining numbers of larger panfish available in Wisconsin Lakes, and have been working on new panfish regulations that would address overharvesting of quality fish.  When I asked Andrew Rypel, the top panfish expert with Wisconsin’s DNR about the problem, here’s what he told me:

“There is no doubt that anglers probably affect bluegill size structure more than any other factor in Wisconsin. However in our statewide surveys of angler attitudes and public hearings, we were unable to find public support at this point in time for changing the statewide panfish regulation, but we did find support for doing something about problem lakes where we thought angling was the problem. The adaptive panfish management plan is definitely not a permanent solution to broad-scale overfishing of panfish, but it does allow us to conduct a large-scale science-based study that will allow us to learn more about conservation management of all three of our big panfish species. It's unique among approaches taken in other states (almost all of which still have only high bag limits) and allows for the potential to manage lakes in the future on more of a lake-specific basis. So in a sense, Wisconsin is becoming a leader on this topic, albeit on a limited basis. However, I believe the results of this work will be helpful to our managers in the near future. For example, some lakes can probably take more harvest sustainably, however others can tolerate only very little harvest. I'll bet you could take a pretty good guess at which lakes might fall into these categories based on your knowledge of underwater habitats, lake fertility and fish abundances. It is indeed amazing to see unfished bluegill populations - to see the full complement of ages in their population.  It would be nice to have some populations like this in Wisconsin that weren't in the middle of nowhere, and only have size-structures like this because people cannot access the lakes. However, we are taking a step in the right direction, and my sense is that most anglers want to do the right thing for future generations.”

Friday, October 23, 2015

Looking for a 2016 Walleye Calendar?

If you're looking for a cool 2016 wall calendar, check out the  2016 Walleye Calendar from Willow Creek Press.  It's widely available at many retail outlets including Amazon.com.  Seven of our underwater walleye images were used for this calendar. (These are some of our older images.  The awesome new walleye pictures we took this summer will appear in the 2017 version of this calendar.)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Another Fisheries Scientist Joins Our Team!

Rainbow Smelt (c)Sean Landsman/Engbretson Underwater Photography
Today, I'm very excited to welcome yet another outstanding fish photographer to our team of talented underwater shooters.  Sean Landsman is an accomplished fisheries scientist and is presently working toward his PhD in this area.  He currently lives in Canada on Prince Edward Island which gives him unique access to many interesting coastal species like Herring, American Eel, Alewife and Smelt to name a few.  Sean has wonderfully documented with his photographs the difficulties these migrating fish too often face negotiating man-made obstacles like pollution and dams to reach their historic spawning sites.  Braving water that's often frigid and with strong currents, Sean regularly captures amazing underwater images of some of the country's most difficult to photograph species.
I'm absolutely thrilled to welcome him to our team.  You can view all of his images here in our Sean Landsman Gallery.  Sean's work is available for commercial and editorial licensing purposes by contacting us here at Engbretson Underwater Photography.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Amazing Underwater Pictures of Invasive Carp!

Bighead Carp (c)Viktor Vrbovsky/Engbretson Underwater Photography
I'd like to welcome the newest talent to our "Dream Team" of the world's best freshwater fish photographers!  Viktor Vrbovsky is an award-winning underwater photographer who travels the world shooting the most amazing fish in both freshwater and marine environments.  His collection of Bighead Carp images are likely the best ever taken of this species in the wild. There's been enormous interest in invasive Asian Carp species in recent years and now we're pleased to have some incredible underwater images of this enigmatic fish.  Viktor's images are now available for commercial, editorial and educational licensing from Engbretson Underwater Photography

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Legendary Fish Photographer Joins Our Team!

Bluegills under dock (c)Doug Stamm

Engbretson Underwater Photography is honored to now be representing the work of Award-winning photographer Doug Stamm.  Best known for his action close-ups of fighting game fish and attractive scenes of people fishing lakes, streams and rivers, it’s Doug’s amazing underwater images that have mesmerized me for over 30 years. 
Doug’s underwater pictures were the first I’d ever seen of native freshwater fish in their natural habitat.  Watching Jacques Cousteau on TV was one thing, but here were pictures of bass and sunfish…. the fish I knew and fished for all my life.  To see them for the first time in their spectacular underwater world was captivating.  Doug was an instant hero to me. 
As a former aquatic biologist, Doug became the most published photographer in the country of fish and sport fishing images.  Many of his pictures of jumping bass are iconic.  You may not recognize his name but you’ve certainly seen his photos many times in magazines, books, encyclopedias, calendars, and field guides. 
Doug has traveled with the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History to the headwaters of the Amazon River in eastern Peru in search of fishes unknown to science. He’s joined Jacques Cousteau’s diving team to photograph fishes beneath winter ice in the northern Mississippi River.

Doug is the author and photographer of two books of underwater natural history which were the first of their kind.  His first book, “Underwater-The Northern Lakes”, (University of Wisconsin Press 1977) revealed and explained the clear lake environments in the northern United States. His second book, “The Spring of Florida, (Pineapple Press, Sarasota, 1994) photographs the underwater inhabitants and terrain of the clearest fresh water environments in the world.

It’s truly an honor to welcome the legendary Doug Stamm to this agency.  Doug joins Patrick Clayton, Bryce Gibson, Todd Pearsons, Christopher Morey, Isaac Szabo, Paul Vecsei and Roger Peterson on our “dream team “of the USA’s best freshwater fish photographers.  His work can be licensed for commercial and editorial purposes by contacting us here at Engbretson Underwater Photography.

(Update Jan 17, 2020-Doug has announced his retirement and he's no longer represented by this agency. I wish him all the best and thank him for a lifetime of truly unforgettable images. He remains a source of great inspiration and admiration.)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Underwater Photography is Window into Fish Habitat

 From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Lookout below: Underwater photography is window into fish habitat

Fish photos are arresting – and are windows into habitat. 
A depth to his work Eric Engbretson and his photographers make stunning underwater photos. Top, a northern pike moves amid pondweed and pencil reeds. (Paul Vecsei/Engbretson Underwater Photo)                                                         
Eric Engbretson clearly remembers the day he first donned mask, snorkel and fins to view fish underwater.
It was 1993. He was standing beside the 40-acre lake that ran into the woods behind his newly bought home. On this day, unlike all others, he decided to look into the lake rather than across it.
“So on a whim I went to town and purchased the best snorkeling equipment Kmart had to offer,” Engbretson recalled. “I got home. Geared up. Put my head under water and was astounded. I knew my next purchase would be an underwater camera.”
Today, Engbretson Underwater Photography of Florence, Wis., is the nation’s top supplier of photos of fish taken in their natural habitats. His photos appear in national fishing magazines, many government websites and publications and at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.
During the past 22 years, Engbretson also has evolved into an articulate spokesman and blogger for fish habitat conservation. He has shared his photos and underwater observations with stakeholders attending the annual Minnesota Department of Natural Resources roundtable. He has done the same with biologists attending the Midwest Fish and Wildlife Association annual conference.
“Most of my images are taken in water 15 feet deep or less,” said Engbretson. “Coincidentally, natural resource managers are intensely interested in this same depth because virtually every species of fish uses near shore areas during some portion of their life cycle.”
Paul Radomski, a DNR fisheries and aquatic vegetation biologist, focuses on Minnesota’s shorelines. His research from a decade ago suggests that between 1939 and 2003 about 25 percent of the lily pads, bulrush and other emergent plants disappeared from the state’s north-central lakes.
“No one was intentionally trying to destroy fish habitat,” Radomski said. “It simply became open space for boat channels, swimming areas and other recreational activities.” He said Engbretson’s images illustrate how fish use vegetation and other natural features for spawning sites, nursery areas, protective cover and more.
Engbretson sees the correlation of natural habitat and fish. In fact, when he arrives at a lake he has never photographed he looks for trees that have fallen in the water. “I can’t think of a fish that doesn’t like wood,” he said. “Unfortunately, all too often when a tree lands in a lake it soon becomes chain saw dust.”
What can anglers and others learn from Engbretson’s underwater photography? Said he:
Bulrush beds: They are buffet lines for fish. Insects inhabit the stems. Small fish feed on the emerging insects. Big fish feed on the small fish. Frogs are thickest in the near shore areas, where bass often lurk in exceptionally shallow water. “What’s cool about bulrush is that underwater insects use the stems as a ladder to climb up to the surface, and as they climb they get picked off.”
Lily pad beds: They provide shade and cover for bluegills, bass and other species. However, they often do not hold as many fish as many anglers imagine. That’s because lily pads have thin, stringy stems that don’t provide a lot of protective cover between the surface and bottom of the lake. Bulrush beds look like underwater forests; pure lily pad beds don’t. “However, bass do zero in on lily pad beds before the pads grow to the surface. These are good areas to target during the early season.”
Woody cover: The gnarly, old pine that tips into a lake is colonized immediately. The space between the branches provides excellent cover for fish. Wood that rises up to the surface is best because it provides a vertical element. “The neat thing about vertical wood is that you see fish stage at various heights based on water temperature. The difference may be only a degree or two but it makes a difference as to where the fish suspend in the water column.”
Aquatic plants in general: Fish relate to vegetation. Few are in the barrens, and those that are tend to be on the move because they know they are vulnerable to aerial predators. “Plants hold fish, keep soil in place, absorb the nutrients that would otherwise turn water green and they provide habitat for ducks and many other species. That’s why they are so valuable.”
Despite Engbretson’s advocacy for habitat, he chooses his words carefully. He is not a biologist. He knows his subjective observations are limited to the small number of lakes clear enough for his photography. “I am hesitant to make sweeping statements that are better left for biologists,” he said.
Martin Jennings, DNR aquatic habitat manager, is such a biologist. He concurred with Engbretson that habitat conservation in the littoral zone — water 15 feet deep or less — is important but stresses that conservation efforts above the water line are critical, too.
“Good fishing starts with good water quality,” said Jennings. “And good water quality starts with keeping soils and nutrients on the land rather than entering our lakes and flowing waters.” In central and northern Minnesota, he said sound forest management “at a scale that is meaningful” will be increasingly important for providing fish with the clear, well-oxygenated water they need.
“It would be a mistake to believe that simply dropping trees in a lake will sustain or improve fish numbers and quality,” he said. “However, combined shoreline and watershed conservation will get us a long way down that road.”
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer from Baxter, Minn.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ode to a Forbidden Lake

(Today's post comes courtesy of contributing photographer Christopher Morey. All photos (c)Chris Morey)

In 2013 a young man, tragically, drowned in North Twin Lake (near Traverse City, MI.).  Naturally, there were very strong reactions.  I heard and read a lot of sensible talk about respecting the water, and making swim lessons available for children.  Really important things in an area with many lakes, and many drownings each year.  But, after this drowning in that particular lake, there was an immediate and concerted effort on the part of the Parks and Recreation Commission  to assign blame. A lot of the discourse appeared to go beyond the desire to improve things.  There were allegations of inadequate warnings and facilities. (Which consist of a lovely park,  a defined swim area,  and very clear warning signs – which have been there for years) 
The warning signs have been there for a long time because the lake, being sheltered and surrounded by woods, and with a nice park, is a springtime gathering place for high-school seniors, and there had been other accidents. There were assertions, some of which bordered on superstition, that the lake was intrinsically dangerous. That it was brutally cold; had currents and undertows; abrupt drop-offs and ‘false bottoms’. County commissioners interviewed local divers. I was invited to come to the lake and help determine what the problem was.

While I understood the urgency, I was not comfortable with the publicity and tone of the proceedings so soon after such a sad thing had happened.  It felt disrespectful.  Even so, the initial steps taken by the Parks and Rec Department were prudent and practical.  They beefed up the warning signs.   They put in throw rings.   They put in an emergency phone.   Good ideas. Especially with kids hanging out there a lot.  After all of the publicity and discussion I was curious.  So, the following summer, my daughter, a dive buddy, and I thoroughly investigated North Twin Lake.  We went literally everywhere – repeatedly – throughout spring, summer and fall.   Top to bottom, side to side.
Here is what we found:  In the heat of summer – when the bay, and virtually every inland lake in the area, is full of boats – North Twin is blissfully quiet, and clear, and – no matter the wind; calm.  It gets warm enough to swim in a full month before West Bay.  There are no waves.  There are no rip-tides, undertows, or significant currents of any kind.

My daughter, enjoying the balmy depths about 20 feet down in North Twin.
Throughout late spring and summer of 2014 the surface temperature – out from the shallows, which are much warmer – ranged from 66-74f, down to a very consistent depth of around 23 feet.  Not paralyzingly cold.   Not unpredictable.  The shoreline of North Twin varies.   The defined wading area has a sand/silt bottom typical of inland lakes. It gradually and predictably drops off as you get further from shore. The angle at which it drops off is governed by something called ‘the angle of repose’. Generally speaking, water-permeated sand has an angle of repose between 10-30 degrees. The fine sand in North Twin is mixed with silt from decaying vegetable matter and tends to the low end of that range.

The ‘drop off’ in the swim area at North Twin Lake. Image taken at about 8 feet of depth – this is the steepest part of the angle – it is less to the right, in the critical 5-foot range.  The soft, silt and sand, bottom does not support steep angles.

In other words – it drops off at about the same rate as every other inland lake around here. There is not a lot of shallow water, but you do not just suddenly step off some kind of ledge.  In every way North Twin is pretty much like other small lakes in our area, except for some factors that make it much safer than most for moderately skilled swimmers.  No boats, No waves, No currents, and a very consistent and relatively deep thermocline (ie – it stays warm above 23 feet). West Bay, for example, can have rip-tides, undertows and, in the summer, is very busy with fast moving boats. The thermoclines in West Bay are all over the map depending on the day.  One day my daughter and I went freediving in West Bay and the water temperature was 73 degrees.   The next morning, at the very same location, it was 48. That’s approaching 30 degrees overnight just because the wind changed.  Not possible in North Twin.  Because the lake is spring fed it has a couple of other big plusses. Other than the sandy shoreline, it does not get super-warm; hovering in the upper-sixties to low-seventies throughout late spring, summer, and much of fall. This keeps the bacteria count down compared with other small lakes. It can also be stunningly clear, which makes for beautiful diving – particularly along the West Shore (far from the swimming area) where there are some fallen trees.
I fell in love with that lake. Here was a quiet, beautiful, meditative, freediving spot not five minutes from my house. The facilities there are great.  The underwater habitat, while limited in terms of species, is lovely and vibrant. On the far side I found fallen trees playing host to a curious audience of sunfish and largemouth bass. The surface was so still, the water so clear, that I could look up through fallen branches and see fish seemingly suspended in clear, blue sky.

‘Flying fish’ against a glassy surface

I thought it was an undiscovered wonder and made plans to do an article on the lake with Traverse Magazine.  I started contacting other freediving instructors about doing beginners residential clinics using the facilities there. It’s a tailor made safe environment for basic freediving classes.  I’d planned to bring my adult son, who has autism, with me on freediving expeditions.  At long last I’d found a place where he could safely kayak nearby and I wouldn’t have to worry about boats, waves, winds or currents.  The peace and quiet would be relaxing for him and, If he jumped in and paddled around, I knew he’d be fine. Despite his severe learning disability he has been able to tread water and breast-stroke for long periods of time since he was 7 – thanks to his teachers and to the wonderful staff and facilities at our community pool.  Now none of that can happen.  Putting in additional safety equipment wasn’t enough for the Parks and Rec Commission.  They went further.  A warning and rings and a phone were good ideas.  Making swimming outside the line a civil infraction?  A $100 fine? Not so much.  I asked if there were exceptions for scuba and free diving.  No exceptions.  The lake is effectively locked out of the very activities to which it is most suited – recreational/work-out surface swimming and free diving/snorkeling.  I’m feeling pretty ripped-off. 

North Twin lake does contain water.  Water can, under certain circumstances, be dangerous.
Thats about it.

Incontrovertible Evidence of Actual Water in North Twin

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Starting Our 23rd Year...

Engbretson Underwater Photography is about to begin our 23rd year of capturing stunning images of freshwater game fish in their natural habitat. If your agency or company uses stock photography, we invite you to have a look at our online library of fish images.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Twenty Years of Underwater Observations: What's Changed?

2015 will mark my agency’s 23rd year of photographing freshwater fish, underwater in the wild.  As I thought about that, I began to reflect on two trends I’ve noticed over the past two decades, especially in lakes in Wisconsin and Northern Michigan where I live.  A few things stand out regarding fish sizes and abundance and general lake quality. 
Water Clarity:

As an underwater photographer, water clarity is critically important for getting good images.  Because of that, we make it our business to know where the clearest waters are.  One disturbing trend over the past 20 years is that we seem to be losing many of our historically clear lakes in Wisconsin.  More than a dozen lakes that were once very clear are no longer suitable for underwater photography because they simply are no longer clear enough.  Whether it’s because of run off, phosphorus overload or natural eutrophication is unknown.  But since these dramatic changes have occurred over such a short period of time, it suggests that the causes are not natural and are probably indications of damage we as lake users are facilitating.  On the other hand, there are also lakes that were once turbid or had poor water clarity that are now excellent.  The bad news is that virtually every lake that has significantly improved water clarity, it’s because of the presence of zebra mussels.  That may be a nice byproduct for snorkelers and divers, but the expansion of invasive species may also cause long-term negative consequences that aren’t as desirable as clearer water.

Changes in Fish Size and Abundance:

In Wisconsin’s inland lakes I’ve noticed some real changes in the last twenty years in fish abundance and sizes. In the interest of brevity, rather than detail and discuss each one at length here, I’ve decided to instead post a chart of what my personal observations have been over the past two decades. 

Table 1 Change in abundance and average size of Wisconsin fish species I've observed: 1993-2014
Northern Pike
Largemouth Bass
Smallmouth Bass
Yellow Perch
Black Crappie
Rock Bass

It’s interesting to note that many of my personal and subjective observations regarding fish abundance and size structure mirrors what Wisconsin DNR fish biologists have also found over this same time period.  Walleyes and Smallmouth Bass are doing better these days but panfish in general are probably being overexploited in many areas, especially what fish managers consider to be quality fish.  (The Wisconsin DNR is in the early stages now of implementing new panfish regulations that hopefully will reverse a 70 year long trend of ever- increasingly smaller fish.)
The Future:
So what does these mean for us?  For someone like me who’s trying to photograph large gamefish underwater or fisherman who like to catch them, it means that in many cases, there are fewer trophy fish swimming in Wisconsin waters than there used to be.  Today, for me, it’s easier than ever to encounter and photograph nice-sized smallmouth and walleyes, but it’s getting harder and harder to find larger pike and quality sized panfish.  The future isn’t necessarily a bleak one however.  It’s my hope that we can turn this around.  Today, with camera phones being ubiquitous and replica mounts being both stunning and affordable, there’s little reason not to release not just the trophies but ALL the larger fish we catch.  If these same trends continue for the next twenty years, as fishermen, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Common Carp: Why They're The Most Difficult Fish to Photgraph

Common Carp Underwater (C)Eric Engbretson
Occasionally I'm asked what the hardest fish to photograph is.  Without a doubt, it's the common carp.  It's said that many years ago when a group of scientists set out to test the relative intelligence of various freshwater fresh, carp finished first in the fish IQ test.  When encountering carp underwater, one of the first things that's apparent is how keenly aware they are of their environment.  They seem to have terrific eyesight and hearing and getting close enough to a carp to take a good picture is a real challenge.  While other fish like bass, walleye and even muskie will often let you approach them within 2 feet or so, the carp remains extremely wary and cautious. In Fisherman Magazine agrees, calling carp "the wariest of all freshwater fish, by reason not just of superior brain power, but through their acute senses of hearing, feeling, taste, and vision."

Another trait not often discussed that I believe is a sign of extreme intelligence is curiosity.  I use this curiosity to my advantage when trying to photograph carp.  When a large carp sees a diver underwater, their first response is to leave the area.  But I've found that if I stop moving and stay in one place, the same fish will return to have a closer look at what must seem to him to be a strange visitor in his underwater world..  I can only call this curiosity-a desire to get another look at this foreign creature and perhaps understand "what it is".   It's this curiosity that brings the fish back to me where they will typically make a slow circle carefully studying me.  Occasionally, a carp will be so curious, he will actually stop and study me at surprisingly close range.  It's during this moment, while holding your breath that a picture or two can be obtained.  It's a brief opportunity that doesn't happen often and it's rather difficult to pull off.  Carp are extremely sensitive to the bubbles coming from a regulator, so holding your breath while remaining motionless long enough for the carp to move in close enough is critical. 

I find it puzzling that in this country carp have such a bad reputation.  In Europe, they are revered and held in high regard as the top sport fish.  Perhaps European anglers have a better understanding and consequently a deserved appreciation of the unique qualities and intelligence of carp.  After spending some time around them in their environment, watching how they swim, feed and react to my presence,  it's hard not to feel that carp possess an understanding that transcends what we normally think fish are capable of.

To view more of my underwater carp photos, click here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What are Wisconsin's Clearest Lakes? 2014

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 2014. In short-here are Wisconsin's clearest inland lakes and their average water clarity in 2014:

1)  Pine Lake, Waukesha Co. 31 feet
2)  Black Oak Lake, Vilas Co. 30 feet
3)  Hart Lake, Bayfield Co. 30 feet
4)  Whitefish Lake, Douglas Co. 30 feet
5)  Bass Lake, Washburn Co. 30 feet
6)  Des Moines Lake, Burnett Co. 27 feet
7)  Lake Owen, Bayfield Co. 25 feet
8)  Maiden Lake, Oconto Co. 25 feet
9)  Lake Millicent, Bayfield Co. 25 feet
10) Sugar Camp Lake, Oneida Co. 24 feet

To see the lake list from 2013, click here.  For the 2012 list of clear lakes, click here.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Back From The Brink-How Lake Ellwood, Once Doomed Is Being Rescued

(c)Engbretson Underwater Photography

(This article appeared in the Iron Mountain Daily News Saturday-Sunday July 26-27 2014, and in the Florence Mining News Wild Rivers Guide Summer 2014. It details how the application of chemical herbicides to treat Eurasian Watermilfoil led to unexpected consequences for one Wisconsin Lake.)

Imagine a town consisting entirely of seniors. The town has no children, no teenagers, and no young adults. All the schools, playgrounds, and sports fields have closed. The town is eerily empty and still. And every year, as seniors pass on, the town’s population grows smaller and smaller. With no young people to replace the departed, the town will simply disappear from the map. A grim future indeed.

Until last year, this same sad demise seemed destined for Lake Ellwood in Florence County, WI. In its waters, bluegill and largemouth bass had grown old. For the better part of a decade, no young fish were surviving to replace them. But now it seems that a corner has been turned and the news is good. Today, Ellwood is a lake on the brink of recovery. The story of the lake’s resurrection is a tale that involves invasive plants, a dedicated fisheries biologist, and a host of scientists working against the clock to save a small but beloved piece of Florence County.


A healthy lake gets a steady stream of newborn fish every year, and the newborns that survive to maturity constantly enlarge the adult population. Fish biologists call this process recruitment. Of all native fish, largemouth bass and bluegill are both extremely prolific and they have shown outstanding talent for recruitment. Unlike walleyes, which require very specific conditions to reproduce, largemouth bass and bluegills thrive even when conditions are far less than ideal. Typically, when two years pass without largemouth bass and bluegill recruitment, fish managers become concerned, and Lake Ellwood has now seen seven consecutive years with failed recruitment. Dr. Andrew Rypel is the state’s lead panfish researcher for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “It’s an eyebrow-raiser to be sure. What’s happened on Lake Ellwood has gotten our attention. It’s very weird.”

Greg Matzke is the DNR’s senior fish biologist for Florence and Forest Counties. When I visited him in his office at the Florence Resources Center a year ago, he was eager to discuss Lake Ellwood. “The fisheries biologist position for Florence was vacant for three years prior to my arrival,” he told me. “By the time I got here in year 2010, many of our lakes hadn’t been surveyed in a while. When we got around to looking at Lake Ellwood in 2012, the fish population hadn’t been surveyed for a decade. What we found was a lake with few young fish. By the end of our spring survey it was clear to me that something was wrong with some of the major fish populations in Lake Ellwood.” What Matzke documented in 2012 was an almost total collapse of the fish community. In Wisconsin, a failure of this magnitude in largemouth bass and bluegill recruitment is utterly unprecedented.

Matzke typed excitedly on his keyboard as a graph flashed onto the screen. Compiled from the data he had collected, the graph showed a sudden drop in northern pike recruitment after 2004, followed by bluegill and largemouth bass recruitment failures after 2006. Northern pike and largemouth bass recruitment had not occurred at all since 2004 and 2008 respectively, while bluegill recruitment fell off and became insignificant after 2006. “We surveyed that lake extensively, with 44 fyke net lifts and 7 complete electrofishing surveys totaling 20.22 miles (on a lake with 2.8 miles of shoreline) and couldn’t find a single fish younger than five, six and eight years of age, for largemouth, black crappie and northern pike. Not one.” said Matzke. “Nobody has ever seen anything like it.” In total Matzke spent 19 days surveying the fishery in one small lake, which is a great deal of time and effort, and I wondered how many lakes earn such scrutiny. “Not many,” said Matzke. I asked the big question: “What happened to the fish?” He paused and exhaled. In a reflective mood, he lowered his voice: “At first I had no idea, but after gathering and analyzing all the data it’s quite clear…. I believe it has to do with the milfoil treatments out there.”


In the bars of Spread Eagle, fishing is a hot topic among the locals. It fills the air in the summer months, when local businesses are booming and lakefront owners are spending more time on the water. Between rounds, someone mentions the fish crash in Lake Ellwood, and explanations flow like beer from a freshly-tapped keg. On a steamy night last July at the Chuck Wagon Restaurant, the fate of the lake engaged almost every person in the room. Barroom biologists blamed culprits ranging from low water levels to fish cribs and even invasive Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM) sucking the oxygen out of the lake.

Back in their offices, Matzke and his colleagues considered these possibilities and decided none of them were credible because these same conditions exist on hundreds of lakes throughout Northern Wisconsin, and none of the lakes has shown collapses in fish as was documented in Lake Ellwood. In their opinion, the crash stemmed from chemical herbicides applied to control the invasive plant Eurasian watermilfoil.

Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM) was discovered in Lake Ellwood in 2002. Treatments started during the next spring. The Lake Ellwood Association contracted with a lake management firm to monitor and treat the lake every spring thereafter with very good success. As chemical treatments continued, invasive plants began to subside. Encouraged by their success, the lake association continued treatments in the hope of eradicating small but persistent areas that would materialize. An unintended consequence was that native plants were also being killed by the herbicide.

Once considered the most crucial problem facing the Lake Ellwood Association, milfoil has now taken a back-seat to the lake’s most urgent issue: The fish crash. It was a shift in priorities that took time to embrace. Matzke recalls that "when it came to Lake Ellwood, too many people were focusing on the wrong thing. In the beginning, when I told them about the fish crash, they listened, but still seemed more concerned about the milfoil. I explained that milfoil was not the biggest problem. A milfoil-free lake is worthless as a fishery if it can’t sustain healthy fish populations.” Many people were still talking about invasive species ruining the lake when it was losing its fish at an alarming rate. “We needed to do something to encourage fish recruitment before it was too late.” Despite being alerted to the collapse of the lake’s fishery and a hypothesis that linked the crash to the milfoil treatments, in the spring of 2013, the Lake Ellwood Association applied for their annual permit to continue chemical treatments. The news of the disappearance of what was once a balanced, self-sustaining, and vibrant fish community had seemingly fallen on deaf ears. Matzke, along with WDNR water regs staff, denied the permit application. He defended what was an unpopular decision at the time by saying, “We need to take a time-out and find out what’s going on in this lake. It’s not a stretch to suggest that the milfoil treatments may be doing more harm than good.” At first, many were unconvinced that any connection existed, but since then, those who have studied the data compiled by Matzke admit that the evidence is hard to ignore.

So how could treatments aimed at invasive plants be hurting Lake Ellwood’s fish? The exact pathways behind the crash are still being investigated, but two plausible reasons might explain why multiple fish species have failed to recruit. One is that the chemicals disturb the aquatic insect community that young fish need for survival, and the fish literally starve to death in their first few months of life. Another theory that holds more water is that the chemical herbicides have depleted too much of the lake's native plant community that young fish need for refuge. Without dense plant beds to hide in, young fish may be preyed upon by larger fish, and by the fall, entire year classes of fish are gone with no survivors to contribute to the lake’s fish community. It could also be a combination of both of these scenarios. While it’s unknown exactly how the fish crash happened, it’s clear that the chemicals played a key role. Native vegetation is critical to fish. There are many examples illustrating this important connection. On other Wisconsin Lakes, the loss of native vegetation has proven to be the cause behind similar crashes of largemouth bass and bluegill populations. In those lakes, rusty crayfish or common carp were responsible for removing too much native vegetation, causing largemouth bass and bluegill populations to collapse. On Lake Ellwood, the same thing has happened. But on this lake, humans, using herbicides, are behind the loss of native plants fish need.

Dr. Andrew Rypel, Wisconsin’s leading panfish researcher, says that the complex relationship bluegills have with plants are just beginning to be understood by fish scientists. “We’re trying to understand how this occurred and we’re looking at other water systems with aquatic plant management programs around the state to see if this is an anomaly.” He added, “With bluegills, we know habitat is important. In fact, for the first time, we’re really starting to study how plants affect fish quality”.

Is there a way to save the fish, preserve native plants and still limit invasive milfoil? “Yes,” says Greg Matzke, “But not with continual use of chemical herbicides.” Denied permits to use any further chemical herbicides, the Lake Ellwood Lake Association cleverly looked to alternative methods of milfoil removal. Last summer, they contracted with an Iron River company, Many Waters LLC, to use Diver Assisted Suction Harvesting (DASH) as an alternative to herbicides. The DASH system features a giant vacuum cleaner atop a pontoon. At the bottom of the lake, scuba divers use their hands to pull out invasive milfoil (and avoid native plants) and then feed it into a tube that takes it to the surface for collection and removal. Unlike chemical treatments, DASH acts selectively by focusing only on milfoil and leaving other plants generally undisturbed. Matzke gave his warm approval to DASH: “We need to preserve and expand native plants in Lake Ellwood for fish to have a chance at survival. The DASH system removes milfoil without harming the native vegetation essential to fish.” Early results appear encouraging: In the summer of 2013, DASH took more than two thousand pounds of milfoil out of Lake Ellwood.


Dr. Jennifer Hauxwell is chief of fisheries and aquatic sciences research at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Headquartered in Madison, her team of scientists have been studying Eurasian watermilfoil for ten years. What they’ve discovered so far is that EWM is tough to pin down. It doesn’t seem to behave in any two lakes quite the same way, and there’s no way to predict if it will peacefully co-exist with native plants as it does in most lakes or reach overabundance as it does in others. Hauxwell says, “In some lakes EWM never ‘takes off’ or expands to levels requiring any management. In some lakes EWM is a major component of the ecosystem and may provide structure/habitat complexity if native species diversity is low or absent. In some eutrophic to hyper-eutrophic lakes EWM may be the only species keeping the lake from turning to algae dominated.” Hauxwell says her team has found other cases where it’s proven beneficial. “Lake Wingra, once suffered from murky water due to algal blooms and lots of suspended sediment”, says Hauxwell. “When carp that root up sediment were removed from the lake, the water cleared, and light was available to support plant growth. EWM quickly expanded in the lake and helped further clear the water and keep algae and suspended sediment low. It’s now a recreational nuisance, but it’s definitely playing an important ecological role in the lake community.” Currently, EWM occurs in 4% of Wisconsin’s lakes mostly in small colonies that are not problematic. “Our researchers quantified the amount of EWM in approximately 100 EWM lakes to get a sense for how widespread it may be in any given lake and across different lakes.” Says Hauxwell. “We found that there was a wide range in abundance. In the majority of the lakes we studied, it was sparse and occurred in less than ten percent of the inhabitable zone.” When does it reach nuisance level, I wondered? “’Nuisance’ is very difficult to define, and it’s in the eye of the beholder”, says Hauxwell. Her team is excited about a plethora of research studies currently underway that will shed even more new light on this enigmatic species.

Mike Vogelsang is the DNR’s fisheries supervisor for the Woodruff area and oversees all fish management in six counties in Northern Wisconsin, including Florence. He’s more concerned with the chemicals used to control EWM than with the invasive plant itself. “There’s some real questions by our biologists, since they’re the ones required to review, and ultimately approve chemical application permits. What are the effects of chemical use going to be twenty years down the road? We’re already finding that in some cases they don’t break down as quickly as believed-they have toxicity long after the manufacturers say they do.”

Vogelsang also says that because it’s expensive to control and impossible to eradicate, learning to live with milfoil is inevitable. “Where are we really going with these treatments? When do they become excessive? What effects are they having on fish communities? These are some of the questions we’re talking about now.” Vogelsang isn’t satisfied that EWM is the destructive threat that’s worthy of all the resources directed to control it. “When EWM first came on the scene, there was a lot of fear associated with the plant, because it was a new potential threat, and the Department wasn’t sure if it would negatively impact our waters. To help stop its spread, there was a lot of gloom and doom talk with lake associations and the general public. We heard all these things about exotics and how bad they are, but it hasn’t been the end of the world. The sky didn’t fall. In many lakes, fishing got better with the invasives. I’m not saying exotics are a good thing – and we should do everything we can to prevent their spread – but EWM hasn’t impacted our fisheries.”

Is an unwarranted level of fear driving lake associations to respond too aggressively to milfoil? If so, it’s a fear that today feels like an over-reaction to a plant that now doesn’t seem to be capable of ruining lakes after all. Ironically, while EWM hasn’t harmed fisheries, the unintended consequences of using chemical herbicides to control it has, as it did on Lake Ellwood. Is what happened on Lake Ellwood an indictment of chemical herbicides? “When over-used, I think so.” Says Vogelsang. “It’s simple: No weeds equals no fish. If I had my own private lake and it got milfoil, would I attempt to control it with chemicals? No. I would leave it alone and know that eventually the plant would become naturalized with the native plant community – like it has on many lakes where no chemical treatments have been used.”

Steve Gilbert, another fish Biologist, echoes Vogelsang’s observations. He reports that for the past 22 years that he’s worked in Vilas County, the negative impacts of EWM on fish in Vilas County lakes has been zero.

While the DNR has consistently denounced EWM, new plant science and testimony from fisheries managers now seem to undercut the agency’s long-standing rhetoric. The days of demonizing Eurasian watermilfoil may be nearing an end. Stated simply, EWM is not be as bad as we formerly thought. It’s a tough bell to un-ring and DNR insiders are struggling to navigate the complicated path to this more moderate public position, without undermining their credibility.


May 2014. A year has passed since my last meeting with Greg Matzke and I’m back in his office to discover what has happened with Lake Ellwood since we last talked. The spring of 2013 was the first year in a decade when chemicals weren’t applied and the results were instant and dramatic. Grinning now, Matzke tells me that his fish surveys from the fall of 2013 show an astounding thirteen-thousand percent increase in young-of-the-year bluegill since 2012 (the last year of chemical treatment). The 2013 survey also found young-of-the-year largemouth bass, which makes the 2013 year class the first successful recruitment of this species in Lake Ellwood since 2008. In fact, largemouth bass recruitment in 2013 was measured at a rate more than double the recruitment level in 2002 (before chemical treatments began). This immediate rebound adds solid weight to the theory that herbicides did indeed cause the famous collapse in the fish community. A thirteen-thousand percent increase in bluegills sounds incredible and I asked Matzke to put the numbers into context. “We captured just over 97 age-0 bluegill per mile during our electrofishing survey; this is up from less than one age-0 bluegill per mile in 2012. The 2012 year class still looked poor with only 0.67 age-1 bluegill per mile during the 2013 survey. For the first time in a long time, conditions are acceptable for bluegill and largemouth bass to reproduce successfully. And they’re responding.” Putting the question as directly as possible, I asked if it was simplistic to think that “no plants equals no fish” and that “with plants, we have fish.” Matzke said, “That’s an interesting point. I mapped out the aquatic vegetation in Lake Ellwood during August 2013 with acoustic equipment to get a picture of the plants.” Showing me a multicolored map of the lake, he pointed to red-shaded areas that contained the most concentrated areas of plants. “We didn’t find a dense plant community by any means, but in certain near shore areas, there was dense plant cover where there hadn’t been any before.” Matzke draws an optimistic conclusion: “This suggests that for bluegill and largemouth bass recruitment, overall plant abundance may not be as important as these narrow strips of dense aquatic vegetation that are now found in Lake Ellwood after the herbicide treatments have stopped. These areas serve as great nurseries for young fish, offering preferred prey items and cover from predatory fish, giving bluegill and largemouth bass a fighting chance to recruit.”

When news of the Lake Ellwood fish crash started to spread, says Matzke, “I started getting calls. Other fish biologists from around Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota had heard about Lake Ellwood and they were looking for more information.” They were consulting Matzke to learn about signs of incipient problems in their own lakes. Matzke also took “calls from regular folks around the State” who lived on lakes with invasive milfoil and who worried that chemical treatments were hurting fish populations in their waters. Was the same thing happening to other lakes? Matzke shrugged: “It’s really hard to say. To know for sure, you need to steer your sampling efforts to target young-of-the-year panfish. That’s not something fish managers typically do in their ordinary work. Unless you’re specifically looking for it, it’s the kind of problem that could go undiscovered for a long time and may go unnoticed until the adult population begins to be effected, as it did on Lake Elwood”.

Now retired, fisheries biologist, Bob Young oversaw Florence County Lakes from 2000-2007. He fondly remembers Lake Ellwood as once being a high quality panfish lake. He’s been following the recent changes closely and feels another important lesson can be learned. “The invasive species folks should be working closer with fish managers so they can avoid situations like this. I’ve always been uneasy with the notion that total chemical war needs to be made on any and all invasive plant populations. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing for Lake Ellwood.”


Events in Lake Ellwood have also drawn the attention of the Dr. Greg Sass. Sass is another member of the DNR’s elite Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Research Section. As the agency’s equivalent of a CSI unit, these fish detectives answer calls to solve the most perplexing mysteries in the fisheries of the State. They’re the team whose groundbreaking scientific work in many areas over the years have directly led to major improvements in Wisconsin’s fishing.Sass visited Lake Ellwood in 2013 to investigate and define the forces behind the crash in the fish community. His ongoing study will gather more data not just from Lake Ellwood, but from two other lakes (Cosgrove, and Siedel) in Florence County. Sass is hopeful that eventually his team will be able to mechanistically explain the bluegill and largemouth bass recruitment failures observed in Lake Ellwood.

In Florence, meanwhile, Matzke says his office will continue fish surveys to monitor the recovery now underway. He remains optimistic about the future (which doesn't include any further chemical treatments for Eurasian watermilfoil.) “It’s my hope that we can come to a clear understanding of the things that drive natural reproduction of the fish in Lake Ellwood.” Turning to the crash in the fish community, Matzke expressed his hope that “we can plausibly explain how the fish community crashed. So far the signs are quite clear;it was the treatments to eradicate milfoil—not the milfoil itself—that have seemingly indirectly caused the collapse in fish recruitment.” Lake Ellwood still has a few acres of invasive milfoil and likely always will. But native plants as well as young bluegills and largemouth bass are beginning to return. For fishery managers, that makes for a tradeoff with the sweet taste of victory.

Let’s go back to that town you imagined, the place where every citizen was a senior. The place is turning robust, as a new cohort of kids has taken to the playgrounds, sports field, and schools. “That’s not the same as a town with a lot of young adults,” cautions Matzke, “but it makes for a promising start.” At this time, the Wisconsin DNR’s careful work seems to justify the same spirit of cautious optimism about the future of Lake Ellwood.

(For further information, questions or comments about this article, please email Greg Matzke at Gregory.Matzke@Wisconsin.gov)