By Lynn Burkhead
At first glance, a trail camera appears to be a simple device to use — buy it, plug in an SD card and batteries, hang it in the woods, and get ready to see dozens, or even thousands, of photos of bucks you’ll spend a lot of nights dreaming about.
But as with most things in life, there’s often more than meets the eye.
Whether you want to call them hacks — simple ideas that help make life a bit easier, save time, and bring greater efficiency to a tool’s usefulness — or refer to them as good old-fashioned tips, there are a number of things deer hunters can do to improve their photo and video spying in the deer woods.
Have Enough Trail Cameras
It’s no secret that properly using trail cameras is one of deer hunting’s most important skills — after a hunter’s selection of a deer stand site and their proficiency with a rifle, muzzleloader, or bow.
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of trail camera options waiting to be discovered at your local Academy Sports + Outdoors and academy.com.
If you have enough hunt-fund cash available for your whitetail pursuits, having at least one camera per 100 acres of land is a decent place to start. You can either buy them all at once, or if you’ve got kids in college like I do, opt for a more budget-friendly approach by purchasing a unit or two at a time as you add to your growing trail camera collection.
Read the Trail Camera Manual
As an outdoor communicator, I’ve always described myself as a writer who writes first and takes a few photos second. But I’ve also made it a point to get to know several of the best wildlife photographers in the business, and have learned how to maximize my gear’s potential and improve the photos I do end up taking along the way.
Believe it or not, one of their most important pieces of advice pertaining to the use of my digital SLR camera also applies to the use of trail cameras: read the manual!
So important is this piece of advice, that I’ve been known to take the instruction manual with me for a sit on a deer stand so I can pass the time and learn how to more effectively use the camera unit at my disposal.
Power the Trail Camera Properly
When it comes to batteries and trail cameras, some users may try and cut corners. But because of voltage inconsistencies, lesser quality construction, and reaction to weather conditions, what often ends up happening is the effort to cut costs brings on missed photos, camera malfunctions, and increased levels of frustration.
To combat this potential situation, bite the bullet and buy high-quality replaceable alkaline batteries or rechargeable lithium batteries as recommended by your trail camera’s manufacturer (remember the hack about reading the manual?).
On a similar note, don’t try “homemade” power sources with your trail cameras (i.e. car batteries). Why? Because it could be too much juice, something that can end up destroying a trail camera’s inner workings and possibly voiding the unit’s warranty.
In the end, follow the recommendations made for powering your camera, either with batteries or external power sources. Then head to your local Academy Sports + Outdoors and get the necessary power gear for your trail camera — you won’t regret it!
Win the SD Card Game
At first glance, many hunters think they need the high-quality, high-speed SD cards designed for SLR cameras — cards that often carry the biggest price tag too. But when you read the manual on your particular trail camera, you’ll often find the manufacturer doesn’t always agree.
Why? Because high-speed SD cards designed for high-end cameras often use write speeds that are too much for most trail cameras. Simply put, most trail cameras don’t have the high-end internal guts of a professional camera. As mentioned several times already, read the manual for your trail camera and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. This may save you some money and help offset the cost of high-quality batteries.
How else can you win the SD card game? First, by choosing the highest storage SD cards your camera can utilize, a task made easier by the selections available at your local Academy.
Second, consider these cards as necessary tools and buy plenty so you can rotate them between visits to your different camera locations. Next, assign at least two specific cards to rotate with each camera, formatting them within the camera, and labeling them for use with that particular unit. Then, treat these cards well, putting them in a card-holder/carrying case to prevent loss and potential damage.
And finally, if an SD card starts giving you trouble, replace it without a second thought.
Get the Trail Camera’s Settings Right
Like Goldilocks, hoping to find a bed and bowl of porridge that was just right, a deer hunter wants to get their trail camera settings “just right” too.
How? First, by making sure your trail camera’s sensor-sensitivity settings are just right for your needs and where you hunt. Simply put, you don’t want to miss a photo of a good buck walking by, but you also don’t want a photo of leaves and grass moving every time the wind blows.
Next, you’ll want to get your unit’s image-resolution settings correct. For in-season use, it’s ok to opt for higher image quality — which chews up SD card memory quicker — since you’re likely going to be visiting your hunting ground more often. And you might want to get a photo suitable for framing when and if you get a big buck down.
Finally, understand and properly use the video mode on your camera as hunting season approaches and arrives. Still photos are great, but all they tell you is the “what”, as in “what’s passed by.” But video — which chews up memory, of course — can be invaluable, telling you the “why” as to deer movement patterns, how a buck comes in, and where they’re coming from and going to. That’s invaluable intel if a full freezer and taxidermy bill are your goals.
Keep Insects at Bay
Since trail cameras are left outdoors for long periods of time, insects can be a potential source of trouble as they crawl up inside storage components and camera housings. Spiders can leave sticky webs behind, even to the point of potentially obscuring the lens, while ants can get in and destroy the inner workings of a trail camera unit.
How do you keep pesky insects at bay, particularly ants? For starters, natural products like bay leaves, cayenne pepper, black pepper, cinnamon, lemon juice, and even spraying a mixture of vinegar and water can work. Go easy though since you’re wanting to keep ants at bay, not overpower a spot with unusual smells that can tip a whitetail off to human beings in the area.
It’s also fairly common knowledge that dryer sheets contain chemicals that keep insects at bay. To repel ants and still avoid unwanted scents in the whitetail woods, use the dryer sheets Academy sells specifically for deer hunters like the Wildlife Research Center Scent Killer Autumn Formula or the Dead Down Wind products.
In a similar way, spiders can prove to be problematic, particularly when they build webs and nests within the boxes that house trail cameras, batteries, etc.
To keep spiders from becoming a problem, carry a small umpire’s home plate brush or a nylon-bristled gun cleaning brush — see the gun cleaning supplies at your local Academy Sports + Outdoors store — to sweep away the webby filaments and nests each time you visit your camera.
Then, to encourage them not to return, use an HME Products Cedar Scent Biscuit, a natural smell that can cause spiders to crawl elsewhere. If your camera box is big enough, store the scent biscuit inside. If not, use a zip-tie to attach the cedar biscuit to the outside of the camera unit.
Get the Trail Camera Position Right
As my wife and kids might tell you, I’m not always the smartest guy on the block.
Unfortunately, this trait showed itself when I first started putting up trail cameras because, to be honest, it never dawned on me to position my camera where it wouldn’t shoot photos in the direction of the sun. But after the first batch of unusable photos, it didn’t take long before I had corrected that mistake, one I’ve not made since.
I’ve also learned — the hard way, of course — to position the angle of my trail camera’s all-seeing lens at a 45-degree angle up or down a trail as a deer moves into and away from the camera location. No more 90-degree camera angle shots since I want more than one photo of a big buck as it walks by.
Finally, it pays to get the camera’s height just right too, opting for something that is in the belly button range. Adjusting for elevation changes if necessary, this height usually gets a full photo of a passing whitetail, not a too-low shot of its feet or a too-high shot of its antler tips, back, and rump.
Clean the Lens
Since moisture can streak up the area around the lens, bring along a small bottle of glass cleaning solution and either a soft Chums Mossy Oak Microfiber Chumois Lens Cloth or a Leupold Lens Pen to clean the outside of the camera’s important all-seeing eye.
And since trail camera lenses can fog up, it never hurts to carry along a small bottle of anti-fog solution like the Vortex VTX Fog-Free Lens Cleaning Kit.
Protect from Theft
As it’s often been said, nothing’s worse than a thief. And that’s especially true when it comes to a thief that’s stolen a deer stand, a deer feeder, or a trail camera unit. While protecting the other gear mentioned above is another story for another time, how can you go about stopping a would-be trail camera thief?
For starters, you can camouflage your cameras up a bit or place them where they’re surrounded by limbs, leaves, and other vegetation.
There are also some other ways to combat a trail camera thief with some innovative products available at your local Academy. Those include a Master Lock Stealth Cam Python Lock to lock the camera up to a tree, an HME Products Tree Mount Trail Camera Holder that can be placed well up in a tree above a thief's reach (with the camera angled downward, of course), or a SPYPOINT SB200 Solar Camo Security Camera Box.
Give a Deer Reason to Stop
While all of these hacks and tips serve a great purpose, I’ve saved my favorite one for last — give a whitetail a reason to stop if the law allows for such practices where you hunt.
In Texas, where supplemental feeding and placement of mineral products is legal, that means using a bag of deer corn or a mineral block situated several feet out in front of my trail camera’s lens.
It can also include the use of a highly aromatic attractant like the myriad of products made by Big & J, items that include a bag of Big & J Legit 5-lbs. Mineral Mix, a Big & J CUBE Long-Range Attraction Block, or a 20-pound bag of Big & J BB2 Granular Deer Attractant.
With a little bit of luck, these products — not to mention some of the other hacks mentioned above — can help give me a good supply of photos to identify a target buck this fall, as well as lay the groundwork for a hunting strategy to fill an unused deer tag.
All of which leads to needing another set of deer hunting hacks — knowing how to properly cook up a delicious venison meal and finding a spot on the wall for a special big-buck taxidermy mount!