HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR TRAIL CAMERAS
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Trail cameras are nifty — but are you learning anything from them?
If you’re reading this magazine, odds are good you own a few trail cameras. In a basic sense, trail cameras expand our deer-hunting enjoyment. Checking trail cameras — for me at least — has become almost as fun as hunting itself. The simple act of capturing a world-class buck on camera, even if it is in the middle of the night and I have exactly zero chance of killing him, is a real thrill. I collect trail-cam images like we once amassed baseball cards. There was no real purpose, it was just fun.
But most of us also deploy trail cameras to collect useful information on the area(s) we hunt, or particular bucks we covet. This has transformed modern trail cameras into one of the most remarkable innovations of our time. They provide invaluable insight into deer movements and behavior. Where we once climbed into stands based on educated guesses, we now select stands based on solid intelligence. Even if you can read sign like a Bushman tracker, who’s to know what kind of headgear a buck is wearing without visual conformation?
But there’s more to killing big bucks than simply knowing they make periodic appearances at particular sites. I view my beginnings as a trail-cam junkie with amusement. I recall a particular white-tailed buck, a real dandy. During a particular month, I captured maybe 130 images of him. I also hunted him relentlessly during that month, without a single glimpse. It finally dawned on me that not even one of those images was captured during legal shooting hours — one of those “Duh!” moments to be sure. I’ve also been guilty of seeing a particular buck repeatedly at one or more sites and diving in without really taking stock of how many days transpired between those appearances. Hunters are perpetual optimists; we sometimes see what we want to see.
Learning to employ trail cameras more effectively, more pointedly, examining gathered information more critically, is the key to using this remarkable technology to help tag bigger bucks.
I own about 25 trail cameras. As I write this, 20 of them are afield. Running that many cameras can turn into a chore — and a time-consuming one. But I’ve slowly learned that haste makes waste. Just this week, I returned to a camera I’d deployed at a water hole to find the SD card had not been fully inserted and the camera had remained inoperable — made more frustrating by the proliferation of sign around that water, and the fact that the season opener is only a few days away.
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I’ve also forgotten to turn cameras back on after swapping SD cards and leaving a site, or failing to notice batteries had run low, returning to a dead camera. Having a camera sit idle a week or more on a potentially hot site can induce a serious case of potty mouth. Other frustrations stem from forgetting to reset clocks and/or dates after changing batteries, leaving you guessing as to when bucks actually appeared.
The point is this: slow down, think things through and make sure everything is tiptop before moving on. You don’t receive credit for wasted time, and deer season — the whitetail rut — arrives only once a year.
In the interest of spending as little time on site as possible, all of my cameras own two matching, coded SD cards. Never mix cards between different makes/models, because cards formatted for another camera can introduce software incompatibilities and wreak havoc. I store SDs in a snap-top container fitted with slotted foam. Camera IDs are penned on the lid to match corresponding slots, and matching IDs are also penned inside each camera. I slip into a site, open the camera and power it down, swap cards, switch it on again and am away. Card readers are excellent tools, but encourage standing on site for long minutes, introducing more scent. Checking images on home computers gives you more time to scrutinize.
Finally, I’ve learned when addressing trails or points of interest to avoid positioning cameras to capture passing shots. By positioning cameras so deer walk directly into or away from them, animals spend more time in the detection zone and more useful images are captured (especially with budget cameras owning slower trigger speeds). I generally avoid budget-priced cameras, gravitating to units retailing for $150 to $200; a price-point threshold representing a good cost-to-reliability/feature ratio. I’d also rather own two $200 cameras than one $400 model. Where legal, using food or scents results in stationary targets and better images.
There’s much to be said for day-to-day trail-cam monitoring — during the rut, or special situations such as water sources during hot periods, or agricultural fields early on. Some sites commonly go cold-to-hot overnight, making frequent visits more useful. My normal camera-running schedule is once a week maximum, but every other week is more common. During the rut, I make rounds every three days, bare minimum. A single doe slipping into estrus during the rut can instantly turn a ho-hum site viral.
Checking cameras in this run-and-gun manner includes being prepared to climb into a stand right away. Even during the rut, when all-day sits become common, I periodically use midday hours to check cameras. I’ve killed at least two exceptional bucks after finding a site suddenly turned hot and immediately climbing aboard.
This is where card readers, or trail cameras with incorporated viewing screens (Moultrie M-series or Trophy Cam HD models, as examples) come in handy. The ultimate, of course, are cell-based, remote-access cameras that allow you to view and download images via hand-held devices (see sidebar). This typically requires cell service, the reason I’ve little first-hand experience with such technology. In mountainous northern Idaho, cell reception is spotty at best.
Trail cameras are also invaluable for conducting pre-season inventory, providing a better idea of what you can realistically hold out for. Offering food — shelled corn or prepared feed from companies such as Evolved — or minerals is the easiest way to see what a season holds in store. This is common in states where baiting is legal. In other states (such as Idaho) feeding deer is legal, while hunting such sites is forbidden. A friend in Iowa tells me he feeds before season to catalog bucks on his property, pulling all feed 30 days before season opener. Check regulations carefully in your state. If feeding isn’t legal, try monitoring watering sites during the hot days of late summer.
Where most whitetail hunters get lost is maintaining long-term records to gain better insight into area deer. We focus so much on the here and now we fail to fully absorb all our trail cameras can teach us — information that helps us become better deer hunters years down the road.
Easy example: There’s a stand I hunt often. Big bucks appear there regularly, but mostly under the cover of darkness. By studying notes and images gathered over the past five years, I discovered a trend: The biggest bucks in the area reliably appear on very specific dates during legal shooting hours. What made this even more exciting is these appearances occur during the very-real October lull. I can’t explain why (and I always seem to be elsewhere when this occurs), but you can bet I won’t miss it this year.
Such records are more easily organized and reviewed if you clearly name specific stand sites and particular bucks. This makes notes more concise, avoiding guesswork during later review.
My annual game plan typically involves picking several bucks, or stand sites, and concentrating on establishing patterns for those animals or sites. I actually maintain individual notebooks on particular bucks/sites, making record keeping easier and poring over notes more efficient. Important information includes obvious times and dates, but also temperature, overall weather conditions, wind direction and moon phase. If something changes environmentally, agricultural fields are harvested, crops rotated or livestock gathered, for instance, I include such info as well.
Right now, for example, my goal has been to tag a particular buck while he still wears velvet. He appears regularly at two watering sites located 2 miles apart. At first I attempted to decipher his circuit schedule between those two sites. But as I began to take careful notes, I noticed he showed at one site more reliably than the other (a place where he was also much less likely to be disturbed). I’m now concentrating on that single spring.
This buck — a gorgeous 4½-year-old 4×5 — appears most reliably when temperatures hover around 57 degrees, though daytime highs have ranged from the mid-70s to upper 80s. During the dark of the moon he appears exclusively during late evenings, when temperatures drop into the upper 50s to lower 60s. Since the moon has grown, he’s now making midday appearances when temperatures run in the high 60s. All appearances occur on days free of wind. He is as comfortable at that public-land spot weekends as weekdays.
Now, while this information guarantees nothing, it does give me more reliable insight into when I should make time to be on stand, and when I can concentrate on work. This is an example from a single late-summer/early fall.
Now imagine a scenario where you’re dealing with something a bit more uniform than a drought-ridden, unseasonably hot early season and water-hole magnet: an apple or white-oak tree, major signboard scrape appearing in the same spot annually, corn- or soybean field corner or saddle between bedding and feeding areas. Multiply observations by three or four or five years. That kind of empirical average can really begin to amount to some useful information — when the first tarsals began to darken (an indication of rutting activity), scrapes began to appear, particular bucks appearing in daylight and so on. Again, nothing’s guaranteed, but such information serves as a solid foundation for making important decisions that tip the odds in your favor.
There’s no doubt trail cameras increase our enjoyment of the outdoors, because simply seeing undisturbed deer is always a treat. But if you’re a hard-core hunter intent on killing bigger bucks, more thoughtful deployment and record keeping can make you a better hunter over the long haul. And while you might believe you can rely on memory, I’ve found writing things down often reveals patterns I wasn’t even looking for.
— Patrick Meitin is a widely traveled bowhunter and former big game hunting guide. He hails from northern Idaho.
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