By Jeff Sturgis, Habitat Design Specialist / Owner of Whitetail Habitat Solutions
Since the late 1990’s the trail camera industry has truly revolutionized the way we scout, hunt, and fantasize about the whitetail woods. The ability to click through hundreds if not thousands of photos while zooming, inspecting, and scrutinizing every inch of an animal we’ve probably never seen with our own eyes is something modern hunters certainly take for granted. As the years have passed, technology has made leaps and bounds. From film and flash, to digital, infrared, and now cellular cameras, the trail camera industry has evolved to produce the best scouting tools that money can buy. While the cameras have undoubtedly progressed, the best strategies to effectively utilize them have remained the same.
Locating, identifying, and patterning deer with trail cameras creates inherent risk. Camera theft and the possibility of spooking deer are among the top reasons why proper trail camera strategies are essential.
Before you purchase your next trail camera, keep in mind what exactly you’ll be using it for. The purpose of these cameras is to show you what’s there when you are not. The investment should ultimately yield accurate intel on what deer are there and how they are moving through the landscape. The latest developments in cameras have greatly reduced their ‘Footprint’ on your scouting efforts. Blackout infrared flash, increased battery life, and cellular photo sharing are all great features to consider depending on your budget.
What I use: While I have yet to utilize cellular trail cameras, I have become a huge fan of blackout infrared flash, trail cam monitoring software and prolonged battery life. I currently use and recommend the Exodus LIFT cameras from Exodus Outdoor Gear in conjunction with DeerLab's.com trail camera software. High quality images, video, Blackout IR flash, 5 year warranty, and incredibly long battery life when using Lithium Ion batteries are all reasons I trust these cameras for reconnaissance year round.
How you set and access a specific trail camera location can determine when and how often you will be able to safely check it. By placing cameras on travel routes between bedding areas and food sources, you can create a great easy in, easy out camera location. Deer are typically only on their travel routes for brief periods at relatively predictable times, so the risk of spooking deer is minimal. These areas can often be checked prior to an evening hunt. So the intel on the SD card will be current, offering you the best information on where you might have a successful sit.
How you mount your camera has everything to do with the locations scouting potential. Over the years, I have learned to hang my cameras 6-8 feet from the ground or on trees that offer adequate cover from branches and foliage. Both people and deer can easily spot a poorly placed camera. Deer behavior is influenced by poor camera placement. They often become wary, alert, and sometimes spooked by cameras hung within their reach or line of sight. Mature bucks will tolerate very little stress and will learn to avoid obvious trail cameras quickly.
When people see cameras, they too get spooky. Whether it’s greed or the fear of being caught trespassing, trail cameras become an easy target. I have had several cameras stolen and SD cards taken or cleared as a result of poor camera placement. By placing cameras 6-8 feet up or tucked between limbs, vines, or stump shells, you will greatly reduce the risk of spooking deer and camera theft.
There are numerous scenarios and features that make good camera locations. I like to spread them out to cover multiple facets of the property.
These heavily trafficked areas are great for keeping tabs on large numbers of deer while exploiting the idea of easy access. If you can easily sneak in and out of the location when deer are not feeding or bedded nearby, out up a camera!
One of the most common questions I hear regarding trail cameras asks, “how often do you check them?” In my opinion, there is no right answer. I typically check cameras wile entering the woods to hunt. Most of my cameras are placed so that I can easily sneak to check them or swap an SD card on the way to or near my treestands. This gives me accurate and up to date photos that can influence my choice of which treestand to sneak into depending on which bucks have or have not had their picture taken. Aside from major wind, rain or snowstorms, I typically do not enter the woods solely to check trail cameras during the season for fear of spooking deer. These weather events can effectively conceal the scent sound, or sight that I create while accessing camera locations.
Waterholes and scrapes are both excellent features that define mature buck movement. This makes them an excellent place to take inventory. By pairing a waterhole or scrape and trail camera near a treestand, you can get up to date information on what deer have been in the area every time you plan to hunt that treestand. These camera locations are also great for knowing when the rut is kicking off in your area! Because deer typically use waterholes in the afternoon, you can monitor when morning and mid day cruising buck activity increases at these locations.
As bucks age, their core areas become smaller and highly defined. Trail cameras that monitor these areas can give you priceless information on which bucks are using the area and how to hunt them. Travel patterns often repeat themselves season after season. When a mature buck is killed, another buck often slides into his patterns. While these cameras must be accessed wisely, they can offer you information that is useful for years to come.
When your photos are being taken says a lot about your property and efforts. Daytime photos should be the ultimate goal. If mature bucks are moving on your property during the daylight hours, you are on the right track! However, if your trail cameras capture the majority of buck movement in the dark, you have room for improvement. Your hunting efforts can have an enormous influence on how deer move on your property.
Nighttime photos are a tell tale sign that someone or something is negatively influencing the local herd. In short, it means that deer don’t feel safe moving in the daylight. Restrict your hunting efforts and access so that you leave no trace of your presence. It can take time for deer to recover and feel safe moving during the light, but your sacrifice will positively impact deer movement and your hunting efforts.
If your camera strategies and hunting efforts are sharp, core bucks will show themselves often on your cameras. Core bucks frequently move on your property in or near daylight hours and are great targets to focus on throughout the season. Non core bucks live on neighboring parcels and are not easily patterned. You may get sporadic nighttime photos of these bucks, but they ultimately come and go as they please. These bucks are more difficult to target, but most often are harvested during the rut while bucks are cruising longer distances.
The ratio of bucks to does on your property can tell you a lot about your herds health and management efforts. Mature bucks require space; they can easily be overcrowded by doe family groups. If you consistently get an overwhelming number of does compared to bucks, it may be time to thin the local doe herd.
Trail cameras can enhance your scouting efforts immensely. By utilizing them in the most advantageous way possible they can offer insight to directly influence your potential hunting success. Whether you’re just gathering intel on what’s out there, or honing in on your next hit-lister, your trail camera efforts matter. Developing your strategies and determining how you’ll interpret the data you collect is key!
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