Trail cameras just take photographs. They are not a magic bullet and will not make you a better hunter.
However, they can yield vital deer herd profile information, and this data can be very revealing for a landowner, game manager, and certainly a deer hunter. This photo information can make hunters better game managers, and in turn become more successful deer hunter as well.
A trail cameras is just a tool, but for sure a very handy one. Think back to the hunting seasons not all that long ago, when as deer hunters we simply relied on field observations, boots on the ground scouting, and hours sitting in a deer stand to see what was out there. Many times we hunted all day long and never saw a single deer, much less a trophy class buck. We simply did not know what was really in our woods.
Most of the discoveries of big bucks or large numbers of does were mainly by sheer accident, with hunters being in the right place at the right time. Even then, that single observation of a decent buck might have been a one-time event never to be repeated again. We had little chance to really pattern a buck.
Now we have high tech cameras all over the woods. They are on trails, hung around food plots at multiple angles, high-use crossings, in funnels, bedding areas, and virtually every nook and cranny of deer hunting property. These “eyes” on the habitat can ultimately give us critical insight into how many deer are in the area, what kind of deer are there or other wildlife including predators, the time of day or night, and for sure a clue to bucks on the hunting property. We love to see that.
Obviously trail cams help hunters evaluate certain bucks. How big are they? What size and point structure does the rack have? Is this a good buck to hunt this season or let him pass for another year? Trail cameras help answer these questions and more.
How frequently cameras spot a particular buck is important. Hunters look for clues to the timing when deer are caught on the camera. They search for patterns of when the buck is passing. This information can be critical to working out hunting strategies in an attempt to harvest that buck.
All of these insights into what information and data trail cameras can yield are great, but then actually capturing quality photographs on a regular basis can be another issue altogether. There are strategies involved in pulling deer to your cameras so you can verify what whitetails haunt where you hunt. These strategies and tactics can be nearly as compelling as actually hunting the deer your cameras captured.
Camera site staging
“When trail cameras first came out, the old kind with a half dozen big D-cell batteries and actual 35mm camera film, we tried them out all over the place,” said Andrew Dulaney who put them out on his hunting property in Holmes County. “Laughing now, we got little results and a good many of the photographs were so poor they did not tell us much. It was a steep learning curve for sure.
“Now years later with all the advancements in the technology of the quality, reliability, and ease of using trail cameras, we are finally starting to get some information we can use. Even so, we had to learn the best ways to use these cameras and exactly where and how to place them to get some positive results. That was a trial and error mission.”
Dulaney said innovations that seem to improve photo quality with every passing year have had a tremendous impact.
“Our newest cameras with high quality pixel capabilities are yielding some unbelievably good shots of does, bucks and all sorts of wildlife,” he said. “We’re also getting good photographs of coyotes, red and gray fox, a lot of raccoons, squirrels, as well as a lot of wild turkeys in the past few years. We also surprisingly catch a few of our own camp hunters passing by camera areas where we asked them not to ride ATVs or walk by. Busted!”
Dulaney said that cameras are not only tools, but also toys that add to the fun of deer hunting.
“It has been great fun, with excited anticipation, waiting to pop the data cards into the laptop at the camp house when we’re hunting to see what we caught on the cameras,” he said. “Now we know a whole lot more about the deer on our hunting property.”
Dulaney, like most hunters, had to learn how to get good photos from various cameras. It took some practice and changing strategies to collect good results.
“I guess the first thing we learned was, of course, where to put the cameras in places we traditionally observed deer every season,” he said. “But then it was a matter of hanging the cameras in just the right places, and at just the right height and angle. It also meant positioning the cameras where the lens was not blotted out by sunshine most of the day.
For sure, read the use manual with the camera to be sure it is placed at the ideal height ranges to capture the full profile of deer that pass by. It is important, too, to know where the sunshine will not cast a bright glare into the camera lens.
“Now with being able to put out deer feeders, this has revolutionized the success percentage of collecting more close up photos,” Dulaney said. “With a trail camera focused right on a feeder where deer are going to gather, we get a whole lot more deer photos. Cameras on feeders have dramatically increased our viewing more bucks in the area, and also finding the same bucks on camera again and again. That is what we were looking for.”
A club without feeders that relies on food plots can still find camera success, especially by downsizing those plots.
“A few years ago, I helped a hunting buddy scratch out a few mini-food plots on trail roads cut through the woods,” said Marvin Moak of Raymond. “It was a simple process to take a heavy rake to remove leaf and stick debris, then scratch up the soil. After a quick application of a cheap seed like ryegrass with some fertilizer, we covered it over lightly. Then we hung a camera nearby to see what would come by.
“These plots did well and sprouted quickly after a timely rain came. We let the grass grow up a couple weeks before we slipped in to change out the camera cards. We caught a lot of pictures of deer, many does, but mostly only small bucks. Still the concept worked and we will be trying this strategy again.”
Redirecting deer to the lens
Landowners, game managers, and deer hunters have developed techniques to actually direct deer to go in certain directions, and, equally, to direct them away from certain trails or areas.
One technique is trail blocking, which is often created by hinge cutting trees along specific trails or deer travel routes.
But cutting smaller saplings to push deer or block them toward specific directions takes some study before simply laying down the trees across a trail.
First, by using camera evidence, find which way deer seem to be going, like to or from bedding or feeding areas. Once this is known, then choose which directions you had rather them travel, such as to a specific food plot or maybe by a hidden tree stand back in the woods, or, in this case, by a camera’s lens.
Hinge cutting is done by sawing a sapling 2 to 3 inches in diameter from half to nearly through and then simply laying the tree over to the side. Plan this cut carefully so the hinged tree actually blocks the route you selected. Deer coming down the trail are then stopped, having to turn in a different direction.
Now, place cameras in these areas to determine if the redirection is working. You may be surprised just how effective this technique can be to pull deer to your camera, and later, to a specific hunting spot.