As we move into the transition period between late summer and fall here in the deep-south, let’s examine some of the criteria that can be used to select the best sites for trail camera surveillance. Although the basic process of capturing and then reviewing trail cam photos can be a whole lot of fun, the underlying goals of learning more about whitetail habits on your hunting property, and figuring out where and how to hunt them, is the real payoff.
Movement habits and preferences of whitetail deer continually evolve and change throughout the entire “deer season.” My personal definition for “deer season” includes the entire time span from late summer on through the early season, the rut, and then finally the post-rut late season. The trick with surveillance cameras is to have a basic understanding of what to expect and to plan ahead and anticipate where your cameras need to be at any given point throughout the season. Let’s examine where we are seasonal wise right now.
During the late summer period, aside from tried and true travel way funnels to food sources, I have had some of my best results from mineral licks. I would suggest establishing one or two lick sites per every 80 or so acres on your property. Your lick sites will bring in bucks, does and fawns, so get ready for lots of photos. Each lick site should have a good camera mounting tree located about 20 to 30 feet in a southerly direction from the lick itself. I also tend to mount my cameras up at about a 6 to 7 foot height above ground level, with the camera cocked downward at a slight angle to face the lick square on. To accomplish this, I often just use a broken piece of stick set behind the upper part of the camera. Setting the camera high will minimize the chances of deer noticing the camera and its flash or glow at night.
When you find a good spot that has indications of moderate to heavy deer traffic, rake out a spot in the leaf litter about 2 or 3 feet across. Dig up and pulverize the soil to a depth of about 4 to 6 inches, pour about a half-gallon of deer mineral and/or rock salt into the loosened soil and work it in with your shovel, and then pour another half-gallon of deer mineral on top.
Once you start to see bucks that have peeled and shed their velvet, transition some of your cameras to mock scrapes. A great way to decide where to establish and set up mock scrapes is to look for areas with fresh rubs and rub lines. You may already have a line on specific areas of your hunting property that bucks use for perennial rubbing activity.
After bucks shed their velvet, with testosterone levels on the rise, they often relocate or expand their home range. If you were to rely solely on late summer photos for establishing your “resident” buck inventory or prospective “hit list,” the results can be pretty unreliable in my experience. Bucks move out and bucks move in across the course of the fall and winter season. Your actual buck population, at any given time, is a dynamic, ever-changing number. The real beauty of using mock scrapes now and real scrapes later for camera surveillance of bucks, is that they can draw in up to 90 percent or so of the total number of bucks that reside on or cycle in and out of your hunting property.
When you find a great spot and are ready to set up a mock scrape, look first for the closest tree that has a green overhanging limb about 5 to 6 feet above the ground, then rake out the leaf litter and grass directly below the limb or “licking branch.” I would recommend that your raked-out bare spot be in the shape of a rough circle about 2 feet or a little more in diameter.
To activate the scrape apply some commercial deer urine to the raked-out bare spot. I have seen and heard recommendations and testimonials from hunters who swear that human urine has the same effect, but I have not tried that technique myself. Supposedly, the chemical compounds and pheromones that exist in both human and deer urine are very similar. I just may try it one day to see what happens.
I don’t know if it is necessarily mandatory to bend and partly break over the outer 8 or 10 inches of the “licking branch,” but I usually do to visually emulate a real scrape. This should only be done though using surgical nitrile gloves so that absolutely no human scent is left on the branch or anywhere around the mock scrape. Personally, I would also take the additional step of wearing clean rubber boots that have been anointed with “scent killer” spray.
Set up your surveillance camera in a southerly direction from the mock scrape about 8 or 10 yards away and aim it so that the bare scrape and the licking branch are clearly visible and not obstructed by intervening limbs. Visiting bucks will usually paw the scrape and work the overhanging branch with their head and antlers.
This will take some experimentation and you may need to establish multiple scrapes, so, see what happens, and then concentrate your cameras on the most active ones. Do all of this properly, and once the photos begin to roll in and you go to pull camera cards, you will once again feel like you are 6 years old and are coming down the stairs early on Christmas morning to see what Santa left for you under the tree. The whole process can become truly addictive, as it has for me.