As I drove home one evening after spending the afternoon in one of my favorite stands, I got a call from a friend who had just arrowed a good buck. However, his voice wavered between excitement and disappointment. He proceeded to tell me that bucks were tearing up the woods where he lived as they honed in on hot does. This wasn't a surprise, as it was the second week of November in north central Missouri. He'd been seeing some great bucks at a distance for several days. The rifle season was set to open the next morning, and he was anxious to release an arrow before the guns started booming.
Shortly before sunset, he heard the telltale sounds of a buck in search mode only 20 yards from his stand. The buck was coming in at a bad angle and was only going to cross one of his shooting lanes. He had to be ready, so he drew back and prepared for a shot. As the buck entered the lane, there was only a split second to judge him and take a shot. His first instinct said it was a shooter. So, the arrow was released, and within a few minutes, the buck was in his hands.
Although my friend was quite pleased with the great shot placement and the buck's antler score, he was nervous about the buck's body size. "His body characteristics screamed immature," he said. After bringing the buck to the skinning shed, the jawbone confirmed his suspicion; it was a great-scoring 2.5-year-old. However, his friends and family had been working hard over the past few years to harvest older bucks. This buck was on its way to being a real dandy if it had survived another year or two.
This type of story is all too familiar as I talk to friends, family and fellow hunters across the U.S. No matter the caliber of bucks you are pursuing each fall, making a split-second shooting decision can be daunting. Fortunately, there are methods to allow you to make that decision well before the hunting season even begins.
WHAT CAMERA SURVEYS DO
A trail camera census for whitetails is a method used by hunters and managers to gather a bunch of important information about a deer herd in a relatively short period of time. They can provide current information on the herd's adult sex ratio, fawn production, buck age structure and total population. This information is used to determine how many deer can and should be harvested and whether habitat or other characteristics of a particular property need to be tweaked to improve herd health. In addition, camera surveys can provide pictures of more than 90 percent of the bucks on a property. With these pictures, a shoot/don't shoot photo album can be created to help hunters quickly identify target bucks.
Camera surveys are conducted two times of the year — late summer just before antler hardening and mid-winter just before antler shedding. These times are utilized because bucks are easily identified and they provide pre-season and post-season population stats. The presence of antlers is critical, because it allows individual bucks to be easily identified. The number of individual bucks is needed to do the analysis portion of the survey. Pre-season survey data give real-time information on the health of the deer herd. Oh yeah, did I mention you get to see more than 90 percent of the bucks using the property? It's like Christmas in August each and every year!
Post-season surveys let you know how many deer survived hunting season and their condition going into late winter. However, if you only have time to conduct one survey a year, focus on a late-summer survey. Late-summer camera surveys provide herd health information right before the hunting season, when decisions can be made about which deer to let walk and which deer should become table fare. This information makes those split-second shooting decisions much easier and keeps you moving in the right direction for accomplishing your goals for the property.
CONDUCTING A CAMERA SURVEY
After deciding when to conduct a camera survey, the next step is determining how many cameras you need and where to place them. The goal is to get pictures of every deer on the property, knowing they all have slightly different home ranges. This requires cameras to be placed uniformly throughout a property, with a camera in every 60-100 acres. The more cameras you use, the more accurate the survey results will be, until you reach about one camera per 60 acres. Say you have 160 acres in the shape of a square, and you have two cameras. You want to place one camera in the center of both 80-acre halves. Although the closer a camera is to the center of each section of your property the better, it doesn't have to be exact. If there is a higher deer use area nearby, place the camera there.
Remember, a camera survey provides scientific results. Therefore, it must be treated like a scientific study. There isn't any room for skimping on the required tools or failing to follow these instructions. The better your efforts, the better results they will produce.
One of the most important aspects of any camera survey is to use quality, reliable trail cameras. Trail cameras come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, but don't judge a camera by its cover. Internal components determine camera quality. In particular, there are four things I look for in a survey camera: reliable operation in all weather conditions, good quality images, long battery life and storage capacity sufficient to hold several thousands photos. These aspects are important, because once a survey gets rolling, you don't want a camera to go down. A camera that malfunctions means the loss of information and often forces you to start a survey over.
The next most important aspect is to select a bait the entire herd can't resist. The first bait that always comes to mind is corn. In most parts of the country, corn to deer is like gold to us as they just can't get enough of it. Add the fact that during the two survey periods of the year food is generally lacking in quality and abundance, and you can quickly see how more than 90 percent of the herd will be quietly standing for a picture in no time. There are other baits that can be effective, such as mineral licks and water sources. I often try to have several baits in one location. For instance, one of my most productive survey sites is where I have a small watering hole, mineral lick and bait station within 10 feet of each other. This just improves the number of deer taking part in my survey.
With cameras, survey sites and bait selected, it is time to begin the pre-baiting portion of the survey. Pre-baiting is needed to capture the herd's attention and get the deer accustomed to feeding in front of the camera. It is also a good time to become familiar with your camera's strengths and weaknesses before the survey begins. In particular, determine the distance at which your cameras take the clearest pictures. In most cameras, this distance is around 15 feet. This is where you will want to place the bait so every buck can be uniquely identified. This also is a good time to play with camera settings. I like to put my cameras on five-minute delay and in three-shot mode. The delay will need to be adjusted based on how frequently deer are coming to the site. Three-shot mode, which forces the camera to take three pictures every time a deer triggers the camera, is great for getting multiple pictures of wary deer peeking into the site and for getting pictures of multiple antler orientations as the deer turns its head.
Pre-baiting takes place for seven to 10 days, or when you feel most of the deer coming to the site are repeat customers. During this time, 25-50 pounds of corn can be poured on the ground in a horseshoe shape in front of the camera every three to five days. The back of the horseshoe should be farthest from the camera. This shape allows the deer to be somewhat spread out on the bait and facing the camera. Placing the bait in a big, round pile, on the other hand, often discourages subordinate deer from feeding next to a more dominant doe or buck. Using a feeding trough is not recommended because it often blocks portions of the deer's body, making it much more difficult to determine age or unique body and antler characteristics.
After the pre-baiting period, it is time to conduct the survey. A survey typically lasts 14 days. During this time, cameras are checked every three to five days to ensure bait is always available, cameras are functioning and the camera memory is not full. I have found it most efficient to have two memory cards for each camera. This way, every time I check the camera I can take the card out and replace it with a new one. Once back at my computer, I download the pictures and save them for later analysis. Remember, every deer picture during the survey (not including pre-baiting pictures) is important, whether it's a fawn, doe or the goofiest looking buck on the property.
ANALYZING YOUR SURVEY PHOTOS
With the field portion of the survey complete, it is time to analyze the pictures. This requires looking through every picture, tallying every buck, doe and fawn, and identifying each unique buck. For instance, if a picture contains three does, two fawns and a buck, you would tally three does, two fawns and one buck. In addition to saving all pictures until the analysis is complete, I also copy all buck pictures into a separate folder so I can come back and identify them later. At the conclusion of this, you will have the total number of doe, fawn and buck pictures, in addition to the number of unique bucks. These numbers can then be used to estimate your deer population using the following methods.
Determining your buck population is easy. It is simply the number of unique, individual bucks you identify by examining your survey photos.
To estimate your property's doe population, you first divide the total number of doe pictures by the total number of buck pictures. Then, multiply that result by the total number of unique bucks.
To estimate the number of fawns of your property, repeat that formula by dividing the total number of fawn pictures by the total number of buck pictures. Then, multiply that result by the total number of unique bucks.
Finally, to estimate the total deer population on your property, simply add the three figures -- unique bucks, estimated doe population and estimated fawn population -- together. Although this process may sound complicated at first, it's actually quite simple. Please refer to the accompanying example for a better illustration of how to do the math.
Camera survey results serve as baseline data needed to make accurate harvest and habitat management decisions on your property. Although each number is useful on its own, the results are much more beneficial when viewed from year to year. Is the population growing or shrinking? Is the adult sex ratio becoming balanced? Are more bucks reaching your goals? In addition to trends such as these, the unique buck file created during the survey can help all hunters decide what bucks they'd like to see grow another year and which ones are eligible for harvest. After clicking through literally thousands of pictures from your hunting land, individual bucks begin to stand out and become familiar. This familiarity is what improves your accuracy when making the split-second decision of whether to squeeze the release or remain a spectator in the woods. Either way, you are affecting the makeup of the herd for better or worse.