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Image of fish.

Underwater Hunting

In pursuit of the perfect shot, a photographer dons scuba gear,
grabs his digital camera, and dives deep into Minnesota waters.

by Bill Lindner

Upon descending below the surface, I am transported to a tranquil, almost surreal world, weightless and lush with aquatic life. Each plant and animal moves gracefully with the rhythm of the water. As I breathe in and out, air bubbles steadily ascend. Suspended and moving along, I find a continuum of ever-changing habitat, light, color, and beauty.

It is always exciting to seek out new clear lakes or rivers for potential photo shoots. It is most important to find the right water with cooperative fish.

Sunfish are the easiest fish to shoot and are usually pretty abundant. On the other hand, crappies can be tricky and are more skittish of bubble exhalations than bluegills are. Sometimes crappies can be relatively easy to photograph, especially along deep cabbage beds.

Smallmouth bass are the most curious. Once I dive onto a reef, they often find and follow me for an entire dive.

Largemouth bass are tough to shoot. They usually stay just out of range of a really good shot. They spook when I exhale and create bubbles, so I have to hold my breath for a long time to get good shots. Sometimes, largemouth can be a bit approachable. It all depends on the conditions—very much like fishing, it is always different and never predictable.

Muskies have been tough for me, though I have managed to get some nice shots. There are never many of them, and they typically spook before I see them. Eric Engbretson, an excellent underwater shooter from Wisconsin, suggested they might be easier to shoot in May and June when they're spawning. I've found them concentrated on Lake Vermilion and Leech Lake. But the shot I've been chasing for years is one of a muskie striking a lure. So far, I've met with limited success.

Walleyes can be surprisingly easy to shoot in certain situations. In deep weed beds and rock reefs at 28 to 32 feet, they seem more at ease. One thing I notice about walleyes: They seem to be always moving. I used to picture walleyes resting on the lake bottom. But on most of my dives, they are on the move, often circling and passing by in schools as I creep along a reef edge. I have noticed big smallies will bully and chase walleyes off of structure.

Northern pike, especially big ones, are hard to shoot after the spawn. My best shots have been when they run in spring. But big pike frequently go to open water as it warms, and they suspend, making them quite elusive. Small to medium pike tend to be easily spooked and can be difficult to approach without alarming them.

I have watched a lot of fish react to baits. I often bring a rod and reel under water and try to entice fish as I am shooting with one hand and fishing with the other. The photography is challenging, but I have been able to get some amazing shots this way.

I've spent hours recording reactions to lures by walleye, perch, sunfish, crappie, pike, and bass. I have learned so much by doing this. For example, fish can grab a lure and spit it out so quickly that an angler holding a rod would never detect it. Even the most sensitive spring bobber can miss the subtle pop of a fussy sunfish. I've been fascinated by a walleye making several approaches to a jigging rap before finally sucking it in. And a big pike might tentatively circle three or four times before it finally comes flying in to crush the bait.

In the serenity of being under water, you realize how loud unnatural sounds can be. The whine of an outboard is strong. The sound of a trolling motor being flipped on and off is much louder than you might imagine. Under water, you can even hear the heavy pulse on a transducer from a depth finder. The blades of a big spinner bait or rattling plug make impressive noises. It is easy to hear how sound can be so critical for fishing success.

Under the ice, noises are also magnified. When under water, I have observed that just a footstep on crunchy snow or ice can be loud enough to send a school of crappies reeling. So can the sound of a person sitting back on a chair. An auger boring into the ice roars like a tornado.

Camera options for underwater shooting need not be expensive. Beginners can purchase an inexpensive, disposable underwater camera or an underwater housing to fit a common model of a digital camera. Going under water with a camera is like hunting to me. I love the act of getting out and doing it. The sense of freedom I get while diving is hard to explain to someone who has not done it yet. Many trips are a bust, but sometimes I hit it just right. It just happens, and that's what keeps me going.

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