Engbretson Underwater Photography

Search The Fish Photos

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

Friday, December 21, 2018

Sixty Seconds Underwater

Today, I started a new video series on my YouTube Channel called "Sixty Seconds Underwater". In each episode, I'll feature a specific fish and present sixty seconds of stunning underwater footage of that species in it's natural habitat. In the premiere episode, I spotlight Black Crappie.  In future episodes, I'll cover bass, walleye, musky and many other freshwater fish.  Join me in going beneath the surface of crystal clear lakes and rivers and seeing fish close-up in their own environments.


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Special Underwater Friendships

Steve, the Smallmouth Bass. His image has appeared dozens of times over the years in many magazines. He's likely the single most famous fish in Wisconsin.
Occasionally I’m interviewed about my underwater photography and experiences I’ve had photographing fish in freshwater environments. In today’s post, I’d like to share a portion of a recent interview I did that I think you’ll enjoy.
Question: When did you first start interacting with fresh water fishes and why? What drew you to them?
Answer: I’ve told this story many times.  I’ve loved fish for as long as I can remember.  Growing up, my father had many aquariums in the house.  As a child, I remember staring into them for hours watching the tropical fish and imagining what it would be like to be in the tanks with them. Later, I became an avid fisherman-and what fisherman doesn't wonder what it all "looks like down there".  In 1990 I moved to a home on a small lake in northern Wisconsin.  Then, a few years later came the day that changed my life.  One sunny August afternoon, I was just sitting on the deck looking at the lake.  For some reason, I noticed how clear the water was. Whether it was an epiphany sparked by the natural surroundings or a simple act of fate, I impulsively drove to a local chain store and bought a cheap swim mask, snorkel and fins. The mask leaked and the fins were too small. It was a disaster.  But once in the water I couldn’t believe the clarity and the beauty. The underwater world was radiant.  The play of light on rocks, emerald plants, sunken trees, and glowing green algae. It was an astounding realm of pure silence and unsurpassed visual delight.  And then there were the fish.  So many of them!  I was finally inside that aquarium I had fantasized about as a child.  I saw more fish that first day than I had seen all year as a fisherman.  But for the first time I saw them differently.  I saw them in their realm, relaxed and peaceful.  At home.
The mask and snorkel became my passport into a whole new world I never imagined.  It wasn’t long before my fishing rods were banished to a dusty corner in the garage and instead of looking at the new lures at the sporting goods store, I was looking at the snorkels, the wetsuits and the fins.  These were the accoutrements I was interested in now.  These were the tools that would best serve me in exploring this new world.  These were the instruments that would enable me to commune with fish in a way that I previously could scarcely imagine.  I began visiting other lakes and for me, every day became another “moon landing”-Another trip to the top of Mount Everest. Every trip under the surface was filled with awe, wonder and discovery.  I wanted to share with others the amazing things I was seeing.  In the following weeks a whole new purpose revealed itself to me and I started taking pictures.  I began to devote myself to documenting fish in their natural environment.  I wanted to show others the inherent natural beauty of these fish and the uniqueness of the freshwater environments they live in. 
Question: Can you recall or describe any very special encounters you've had?
Answer: Impossible question for me to answer.  There’s been so many.  They’ve become almost routine.  But here’s one that happened last summer that comes to mind, because it was a new one for me. There’s a lake I go to often where there’s a bass that I know and have been working with for about five years.  I call him Steve.  Every time I go to this lake it doesn’t take him long to find me.  I think he must hear my bubbles from the scuba gear.  I don’t know how far away he can hear me or how far he swims to reach me.  Sometimes it only takes him 10 minutes…. Other times it’s an hour.  Once Steve finds me, he stays with me for however long I’m in the lake, follows me everywhere, poses for pictures, and we’ve had lots of adventures together. 
So anyway, one day last summer, I went to Steve’s lake.  I looked for him as I always do, but he wasn’t around.  I was carrying two cameras that day.  My main camera for taking still photographs, and a GoPro mounted on a rack with strobes.  While it’s no problem to swim around with two camera outfits, once you start shooting, you need both your hands so you need to set one of the cameras down.  I left my main camera on the bottom in a clear spot.  You always try to leave it where it’s completely obvious.  It’s easy to lose your bearings underwater and find the exact spot you were at before, so you want to make it easily visible so you can find it again when you return.  So I leave my main camera out in plain sight on the lake floor and move down the shoreline about 200 yards to another place where I’m filming video with my GoPro.  I’m starting to get a little bummed out now because it’s been more than an hour and I haven’t yet seen Steve.  I always worry that a fisherman will catch him one of these days and… well… You get the idea. (Sigh)
So after more than an hour, I decide I’m done filming with the GoPro and now I want to take stills with my other camera.  I swim back to the place I’ve left it.  When I arrive at the spot, I see my camera just as I left it and hovering quietly next to it is Steve. 
It was a magical moment because while I know Steve recognizes me, it showed me that he also knows my camera.  After years of posing in front of it, he came to know it, with its dome port and all its knobs and buttons.  He was probably swimming by and saw it on the lake floor and recognized it.  While he didn’t know where I was, I think he knew that I set it down and that if he waited with it I would return for it.  After all, he’s witnessed me do that very thing many times.   This was an astonishing event.  I hope anyone who hears this story is amazed.  If they’re not, I need to do a better job at explaining how utterly amazing a feat this was.  It was absolutely one of the most incredible, and revealing demonstrations of fish intelligence I’ve ever seen.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Do Muskies Eat Walleyes?

In June 2007, Muskie Magazine published an article I wrote about my underwater observations photographing muskie.  In the last paragraph of that article I shared some conclusions I had made regarding muskie preying on walleye.  I said at the time that I believe muskie routinely prey on walleye and cited many of my own observations that led me to believe that.
In the last ten years, I’ve witnessed additional muskie behavior underwater and while humbling, I think it’s only fair that I set the record straight and tell you why I now believe I was wrong about my original conclusions.  
Here are the facts:
I have never once seen a muskie actually capture a walleye.  Certainly, when walleyes are around, a muskie will show interest as they do in all fish they encounter that might be regarded as potential prey.  I often saw muskies following walleyes-a term I called ‘stalking” or “targeting”.  On occasion, I had seen muskies “rush” a walleye in what could only be considered an attack.  The muskies were always unsuccessful.  The conclusion I made from these observations is that while I saw only misses, they must be successful most of the time when targeting walleye.  I now think that I completely misinterpreted those observations.  
Today, ten years after I wrote the article, I have a different idea of what I really saw.  I’ve had almost a decade more to observe many more muskies interact with other fish and I feel I’ve learned a great deal.  I’ve now seen a great many “misses” and still not a single successful capture. Today, I’m convinced that muskies actually eat very few walleyes.  The reason for this will seem counter intuitive to everything you know about muskie, but it’s a conclusion that seems well supported.  I don’t believe muskie are very efficient predators… at least not of walleyes.  In reviewing my underwater video of muskie attempting to prey on walleye, they fail time and time again because of many huge disadvantages they have.  Walleyes on the other hand, seem to be uniquely designed for the purpose of evading muskie.  Walleyes have excellent vision and are always keenly aware of the location of any nearby muskie.  It’s nearly impossible for a muskie to actually “sneak up” on a walleye.  My videos show that walleyes are speedy and agile and they escape with very little effort at all.  Muskie, it has to be said, are rather clumsy.  They have some speed but only for very short bursts.  Their long bodies are difficult to turn and they lack the mobility to out maneuver walleyes.  They have good vision that they use to their advantage in low light when preying on perch or suckers, but it’s no match against a walleye’s vision.  The videos that I’ve taken underwater show how positively feeble and overmatched muskie are when attempting to chase down a walleye.  In short, walleyes seem specifically designed by nature to possess the exact traits needed to evade muskie.  
It’s not surprising that walleye fisherman sometimes have muskie attack their catch as they’re reeling it in.  Only a walleye already hooked and struggling on a line would be incapable of escaping a muskie attack.  When this occurs, it’s easy to assume that muskie must eat walleye all the time.  I came to the same false conclusion myself.  But now I think only walleyes that are compromised ever become prey for muskie.
For people who appreciate or even revere the muskie, it almost seems blasphemous to suggest that muskies have any shortcomings whatsoever, but I think they do.  I now believe that muskies don’t eat many walleyes, not because they wouldn’t want to, but because they’re unable to.  At last, the mighty muskie has met his match and it’s the wily walleye.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Black Bullhead Tornado-Underwater Video

After the eggs hatch, thousands of black bullhead are guarded diligently by the male parent. Predation reduces their numbers, and by fall only a handful remain. No longer under the protection of their parents, survivors from multiple nests begin to reform in large schools in shallow water, as a new year class of fish is created.  At first the schools can be small, consisting only of the survivors from any given nest. But eventually, by early fall, each nest has merged with others creating giants schools that can number in the thousands.

In this unique, HD underwater video, you'll go below the surface to see black bullhead fry navigate the underwater landscape in their first year of life.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

How To Shoot Better GoPro Videos of Fish Underwater

We've been getting some nice underwater footage lately from the clear lakes of northern Wisconsin, like this short clip of walleyes relating to sunken timber and rocks.

I'm often asked for advice on ways one can improve the quality of underwater fish videos shot with GoPro cameras in freshwater.  Here are my three best tips for aspiring underwater shooters. 1) Shoot in the clearest water you can find. Lakes or rivers that are cloudy or discolored will ruin image fidelity and definition. If the water isn't clear, nothing else really matters. 2) Use strobe lights to bring out colors and fill in dark shadows. 3) Don't chase the fish! Let them come right into the camera. This is a much more interesting view of them than the "tail shot" you'll always get if you chase them.  Fish are naturally curious and if you're patient, you'll find that they'll swim directly into your lens on their own.

Of course, there are many other tips, but in my mind, these are three things you can start doing today that will dramatically improve your underwater videos taken of freshwater fish.
To see more of our underwater fish videos, visit our YouTube Channel.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Can you Recommend a Good Underwater Camera?

Scott P. wrote to me recently asking about Spearfishing and Underwater Photography:

Been spearfishing for a while. Wanting to get into underwater photography. Any tips on a decent, but simple to operate camera? – Scott P.”
As an underwater photographer, I can always tell when a lake or a river gets a certain amount of spearfishing pressure because the fish become very wary of divers. They learn to avoid us. In waters where spearfishing doesn't happen, the fish tend to be friendlier and you can approach them closely and quite easily.  I mention this to you because if you start doing any underwater photography, you will definitely want to avoid lakes you spearfish and vice versa.

Spearfishing is outlawed in most counties of the northern Wisconsin where I spend a lot of time so luckily I don't encounter fish that are inherently frightened of divers. When I go to southern Wisconsin, or even Lake Michigan, it's a different story. When photographing fish, ideally you want to be about 2 feet away from them. As you can imagine, on lakes where spearfishing occurs, the fish never let you approach that closely.
There's a lot of digital cameras on the market that work well underwater. As a rule, the more expensive they are, the better they perform. If I had to single out one to recommend to you, I'd say go with a GoPro Hero. The latest one is the Hero 6, but the Hero 5 and Hero 4 models are also excellent. You'll be able to get some nice photos with any of these models along with truly exceptional video. You won't be disappointed. Trust me. They're small, easy to use and the results are very impressive. Both the GoPro Hero 5 and Hero 6 are waterproof to 33 feet. The Hero 4 requires a waterproof housing.  All the GoPro models shoot exceptional videos. However, their still photo capabilities are limited to 12MP images, which is a little less than we like to use for professional purposes.  All that means is that unless you’re a professional photographer, the images from the GoPros will be more than satisfactory.

Thanks for your question Scott.  If you have a question about fish, underwater photography or any related subjects, feel free to email me here.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Biodiversity of Florida's Springs

Our Isaac Szabo, continues to amaze us with more stunningly beautiful pictures he's taken from the clear spring-fed rivers of Florida.  The biodiversity of Florida's springs is astounding.  Not only has Isaac captured many freshwater species like gar and brown bullhead, but he's also masterfully photographed many coastal species that are generally regarded as marine fish, such as Tarpon and Snook.  We're pleased to add all of Isaac's new images to our online collection.  He is a superbly talented underwater photographer and we're excited to continue representing his work at this agency. You can view all of Isaac's latest underwater work, including new images from Florida Springs in our Isaac Szabo gallery here.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

From The Mailbox "How Do I Find Fish Cribs?"

I thought it would be fun to share with you some of the questions I get about the underwater environments I visit, the fish I see, the structure fish are attracted to, and other observations I make when I’m photographing fish underwater.  (If you have any questions, fire away, and I’ll do my best to answer them.)

Today’s email comes from George Mycroff of Antioch, IL. who writes: 

”Hi Eric.  I've been looking for a source for 'marked' crib location maps for various lakes I fish in Northern Wisconsin.   Very hard to come by!  While the 'primary' purpose of fish cribs is to promote the growth and proliferation of fish species in a lake,  the secondary purpose is that it's an excellent spot to find fish....The reasoning goes, 'find the cribs, you'll find the fish'!  So my question is how do I find 'fish cribs', marked on a DNR 'topo' map or 'GPS' coordinates?  If the DNR installs them don't they use permits and note the location for later study? So wouldn't they be 'public record' anyone should be able to obtain?  WHERE? I've checked with the DNR, they say since 'fish cribs' don't last over years, they may not have records, or the locations move from year to year. I’ve checked the internet, but have not had much luck finding 'marked' fish crib maps for, the lakes I'm interested in.  Any comments or suggestions or recommendations from you would be greatly appreciated!” 

George, Just to be accurate. Fish cribs DO NOT promote growth and proliferation of fish. This has been studied extensively, and fish cribs do not lead to more fish in the lake. If anything, they decrease over-all abundance because fish tend to be concentrated and can be over exploited. I don't spend a great deal of time around fish cribs myself.  When I'm taking pictures, I prefer more natural backgrounds like plants or sunken trees.  It just looks prettier in photos than a big cube of wood. Also, many cribs are poorly constructed or deployed in bad locations. Therefore, finding cribs doesn't at all mean that you'll also find fish.  I'd go as far to say that most of the cribs I've seen hold few if any fish. It depends on where they were placed and how they were constructed. 

Here's what I've noticed with marked fish crib maps.  Usually, those cribs were placed decades ago and have fallen apart.  Meaning, the wood is still on the lake floor, but the structure no longer has any vertical height and consequently no longer attract fish.  The cribs I occasionally visit aren't on any maps I've seen.  So I wouldn't put too much stock into the credibility or integrity of maps.  The best info comes from fisherman who know where the cribs are. They can usually direct you to the most active ones.  They share this info readily with me, but perhaps are more tight-lipped with fellow fisherman. 

The DNR topo maps that you refer to are a notoriously unreliable resource for finding any structure that was placed. So many of these maps were drawn in the 50s and 60s.  I think if I were you, I'd just spend some time slowly motoring around the lakes in the 10-20 foot depths and looking at your electronics.  I know this can be a tedious way to locate cribs, but if you're looking for a short cut, the DNR maps aren't going to help you.  Another trick is take a drive around the areas lakes before the ice goes out. You'll be able to spot any new cribs sitting on the ice and note the location.  But I don't expect you'll see many these days.  They aren't as popular as they once were.

Wisconsin DNR has never marked GPS coordinates of the cribs and made them public. Other states do this religiously.  WDNR is now of the opinion that fish cribs are detrimental to fish populations, and no longer deploy them. They now favor fish sticks, which actually do help to grow fish.  All the reasons the DNR gave you for why they can't help you are valid in my estimation. Cribs do disintegrate and move, and they didn't have GPS back when they were building and placing them.  Thanks very much for your question George. 

I love talking about the lakes, fish and of course underwater photography. If you have a question, feel free to email me.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Best Time of Year For Muskie Pictures

Muskellunge Underwater (c)Engbretson Underwater Photography

Spring is the best and easiest time of year to photograph muskies. I shoot most of my musky images before Memorial Day. After spawning, they will continue to hang around in shallow water (generally 6 feet or less) along the shorelines. This is where it's warmest for them. I can approach them quite easily up until Memorial Day. Then, boat traffic and other increased human activity on the water drives them from these locations toward their typical summer haunts where you're less likely to easily find them.

How do you get so close to fish like Muskies? Don't they spook?
That's a question I get asked frequently by many people. To photograph fish well underwater, it's necessary to get very close to them. So how do I do that? One thing I've done is to develope a series of techniques that communicate to the fish my lack of hostility, and my general inability to compete with them as creatures perfectly designed for life underwater. One way I do that is to present myself as obviously as... possible. I don't try to ambush or deceive them. I don't wear a camouflage wet suit. I don't sneak around or hide behind boulders or timber. I don't try to advance toward a fish when he can't see me. I don't even try to be particularly quiet.
In fact I do the opposite of all those things. I make sure the fish see me coming from a long way away. I try to show myself out in the open and to demonstrate what my limitations are. Ideally, you want to convey to the fish how slow and incompetent you are in it's environment; how clumsy you are; how incredibly un-stealthy you are; this is so opposite of what a predator would do that many fish are able to detect that you're not a threat to them, based on your complete lack of cunning or covertness. You want them to see you and think that you're completely ridiculous (which you are of course). The faster you can get them to understand this, the faster their fear will disappear.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Florida Springs

Our Isaac Szabo, has been busy this spring photographing a variety of fish that make their homes in the springs of Florida.  The clear water here helps to contribute to some truly stellar underwater images, like this spotted sunfish pictured below.  You can view all of Isaac's latest underwater work, including new images from Florida Springs in our Isaac Szabo gallery here.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Wanted: Fish Photographers

Engbretson Underwater Photography is always on the look out for new photographers to join our team.  If you take underwater pictures of North American Native Fish, we’d like to talk to you about representing your work. 
As a stock photo agency that specializes in this niche, we’re uniquely able to reach photo buyers looking for these kinds of pictures.  We’ll work hard to market your underwater fish images, negotiate licensing agreements that benefit you and help you earn money for your fish pictures.

While all serious freshwater photographers are welcome, we’re especially interested in photographers who can regularly provide great underwater images of Channel Catfish and Flathead Catfish.

If you’re interested in joining our team, please contact us for more information.  We’re excited to see your work.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Wisconsin's Clearest Lakes: The 2017 List

Time for my annual list of 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 sechi 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.  Thank you to Jacob Dickmann at the Wisconsin DNR for putting this years data together for me so that I can share it with you. Here are the lakes that recorded the highest average water clarity in 2017. In short-here are Wisconsin's clearest inland lakes and their average water clarity in 2017:

1)   Pine Lake, Waukesha Co. 29.75 feet
2)   Whitefish Lake, Douglas Co.  29 feet
3)   Sawyer Lake, Langlade Co.  24.86 feet
4)   Maiden Lake, Oconto Co.  24.77 feet
5)   Lake Metonga, Forest Co.  24.40 feet
6)   Lake Millicent, Bayfield Co.  23.90 feet
7)   Presque Isle Lake, Vilas Co.  23.75 feet
8)   Lake Owen, Bayfield Co.  23.38 feet
9)   Delavan Lake, Walworth Co.  23 feet
10) Lake Lucerne, Forest Co.  22.13 feet

To see the lake list from 2016, click here.To see the lake list from 2015, click here.  To see the lake list from 2014, click here.  For the lake list from 2013, click here.  And for the 2012 list of clear lakes, click here.

Monday, February 5, 2018

How Do Spawning Benches Work?

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

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Do Fish Have Individual Personalities?

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

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