Trail cameras are not just for taking whitetail snapshots for the deer camp family album. These handy camera devices originally designed for those "gotcha deer moments" have grown up, matured and advanced technologically to the point that they are now considered essential equipment for landowners, game managers, wildlife biologists and white-tailed deer researchers, as well as deer hunters.

Today, digital trail cameras are used to collect vital information on deer. These sophisticated cameras are now used effectively for conducting herd surveys, game population estimates, profiling specific bucks, deer movement trends throughout 24-hour periods and a myriad of other practical uses for deer hunters.

 

Big buck bio

Bill Garbo of Madison sort of slipped in the back door when it came to getting into using trail cameras by receiving his first one as a Christmas present several years ago. He quickly learned the utility and value of using multiple trail cameras on his own hunting property. Now the photos and recorded data he collects has become his obsession.

He also discovered in short order that the information yielded by analyzing many seasons of camera data has clued him in on the status of his deer herd, especially certain aspects about the bucks on his property. In the process, having this data and knowing what it means for his property has also improved his hunting skills.

"Being an engineer by trade gives me a real penchant for data, statistics and organization," said Garbo. "This has contributed greatly to my interest in collecting, analyzing and using trail-camera data to become a better deer hunter."

 

Trail-camera scouting

"My property encompasses roughly 450 acres in the west-central part of the state," Garbo said. "It falls in the lower half of the Big Black River Basin, which is now commonly referred to as the Big Black Corridor."

Some call this region the "big buck basin" based on the number of trophy class bucks that have been produced in the area. Proof of this can be seen on the Magnolia Records Program found on the www.mdwfp.com web site. For example, click on Madison County.

"My property contains a diverse habitat that includes creek bottom floodplain, thickets of heavy cover, fields and food plots, water resources and heavily wooded upland hills and hollows," Garbo said. "In other words, it is an ideal field laboratory for testing and learning how to use trail cameras to my advantage."

Garbo believes in conducting baited trail camera surveys to gather estimates of herd density, age structure, fawn recruitment and adult sex ratio. Baited surveys are conducted just before or just after hunting season.

"For me, scouting with trail cameras means ongoing data collection from early fall through the end of the hunting season," he said.

Garbo definitely believes in using as many cameras in as many different places on a property as is efficiently feasible. He believes in opting for more photos rather than less.

Of course, using trail cameras to scout for resident as well as transient bucks means collecting lots of photos in lots of places. It also requires analyzing them in a timely manner in order to catch any trends or patterns in terms of prime times of the day for movements and how often specific bucks are recorded in the same spots or in different areas of the property. He also monitors weather conditions, particularly cloud cover and temperatures.

"I try and visit each camera site at least every few days to no longer than once a week to check the batteries, review the camera set up and swap memory cards," Garbo said.

 

Collecting and cataloging data

With Garbo regularly running as many as a dozen cameras on his hunting property and checking them frequently, he undoubtedly has a number of memory cards to analyze. By any estimate, that is a lot of time on the computer inspecting each photo, recording and filing all the photos produced by that many cameras. Even bad or marginal photos have to be examined for any bit of useful data.

Then Garbo matches photos with dates taken, time of day, conditions and other criteria to paste up his record books. Next, he runs the data on computer spreadsheets so it can be easily read and understood.

A sampling of the data graphs Garbo configures includes data sets such as 1) total bucks photographed per 24-hour period, then broken down further into mature and immature bucks, 2) total bucks observed per week, 3) bucks by week day and night hours, 4) percent bucks observed by day and night, 5) buck movements by time of day, 6) scrapeline buck visits, 7) buck movements vs. moon phases, 8) bucks movement vs. temperature range, 9) buck movement vs. cloud cover, 10) buck movement vs. average daily wind, plus a few other graphs that overlay some of these data sets for further comparisons.

 

Transforming camera data

Deciphering all this information ultimately tells Garbo where best to hunt or to position hunting stands by frequency of buck movements at a particular camera site in the same area, time of day, pre-rut scrape visits, temperature, wind and cloud cover or weather conditions.

Of course, there is no guarantee with all this, because the deer hunter still has to hunt hard and smart. But having access to such photo data sure does narrow the choices a hunter has to make about where to start looking to start hunting.

"From the hunter's standpoint, you learn how to convert piles of photos into predictions about deer movement," said Garbo. "This is especially true when trail camera data results in predictions that put you in position to harvest bucks that have been previously photographed."

Garbo followed one buck he dubbed "Old Wide Eight" on cameras for two years. He plotted his recorded movements, and a pattern began to emerge revealing the buck's tendency to visit a certain area. He began to hunt that area until the buck finally walked out one morning within easy range. His trail camera data system worked. Besides that, those cameras take great whitetail snapshots, too.