I can still remember how exciting it was to check my first trail camera and see the crisp, clear pictures of bucks moving naturally through lush vegetation near a few apple trees. It felt like I had a security camera in their living room! I got into the trail-camera game nearly a decade ago, and like most bowhunters, haven’t looked back since.
There is perhaps no other single tool that has advanced deer hunting more than trail cameras. They are the ultimate “tell-all” when it comes to gaining knowledge about the deer you are hunting. But, in order to maximize the value of scouting cameras, you must know where, when and how to deploy them — especially during the hunting season. During the early-season, pre-rut, prime-rut and post-rut periods, I move my cameras as buck behavior changes.
Camera tactics can also vary depending on your hunting area and how it lays out. For example, a property containing lots of conifers and thermal cover might attract a high density of deer during the winter. However, without an acceptable amount of food, this property might hold relatively few deer during late summer or early fall compared to neighboring lands with oaks or early-successional browse. Knowing how and why deer use your property throughout the archery season is critical to avoiding a camera dry spell and missing information.
On my property in Wisconsin, I operate seven cameras on 115 acres throughout the archery season. I typically deploy cameras in early July to begin gathering an inventory of local bucks. My goal is to collect as many buck pictures as possible. During the two weeks leading up to opening day, I make certain a few of my cameras are over my two perennial clover food plots and a traditional staging area at the head of a ditch that holds a few apple trees. This staging area at the head of two massive ridges produces my best quantity and quality buck pictures during late summer and the early season. This spot is no larger than a basketball court. I believe this location works for a couple reasons. First, it is pinched between two thick bedding areas on different ridges. Bucks can easily appear out of thick cover from either hillside to find falling apples in this small area. Secondly, this location is very low in topography, where cooling nighttime thermals fall and gather, providing a nice reprieve for bucks dealing with summertime heat.
Since it is not legal to bait in my county, using cameras over field edges, water or food plots are also excellent options. A well-used creek crossing, pond or manufactured waterhole are great areas to gather inventory and catch natural buck movement during early season.
When reviewing bucks captured on my cameras in late summer and early in the season, I do so with the realization that many of them will soon shift to a different fall range and disappear off my property. It doesn’t mean you can’t catch up with these bucks later during the rut, but don’t put much stock into believing every buck you had on camera in August will be around on opening day in mid-September.
If your property has a limited resource, such as the only water source in the surrounding 500 acres, that is a critical part of understanding how to use your trail cameras during early season, and every stage of the season for that matter. The next critical piece of early-season camera tactics is to find where bucks are moving in daylight hours. If you have a buck moving on a summertime pattern in daylight, be aggressive and move in for the kill.
During the pre-rut (roughly Oct. 15-28), I still place cameras on food plots but shift my focus to finding bucks over scrapes that may lead to food. I am like most hunters and put my main efforts into hunting the rut. Therefore, pre-rut camera strategies are the most important to me for a few reasons. First, I can pull these cameras in late October and gain important information about what deer have stayed on the property and use this information to help me hunt the rut during my scheduled vacation. Second, I can see whether bucks are beginning to move in daylight and decide what weather conditions could be causing daylight movement, helping me decide what weather is optimal for seeing bucks in each stand. There is no better time of year to place a camera on a scrape than late in the pre-rut, as scrape activity will be at its peak. Typically, I will utilize the “picture plus video” mode over scrapes to ensure I have a good view of the buck. While scraping, bucks drop and lift their head often, and you run the risk of capturing a poor photo if you only have your camera on picture mode. Capturing a short video is also ideal to determine where a buck might be headed after he works a scrape.
When placing a camera at a scrape, mount it in a spot where deer will not easily see the camera. If you feel cameras spook deer, hang your camera high or some distance away from the scrape. In my experience, the amount of disturbance a camera causes varies greatly from buck to buck. Some bucks are very wary of them, while others couldn’t care less and are very photogenic.
As for timing, I have found Oct. 20 an excellent time to move cameras over scrapes. And though I am not a regular user of deer urine while in the treestand, I do use scent drippers over scrapes and have seen great results. However, a word of caution here: too much of a good thing is possible when creating scrapes. I first heard this from Jeff Sturgis of Whitetail Habitat Solutions, who mentioned that having too many scrapes may devalue the pulling power of one “hot” scrape. If you create too many mock scrapes, you run the risk of spreading out buck visits among many locations rather than condensing buck visits down to one or two “hot” scrapes tucked near your bow stand. I was a little mock scrape happy in my early years and have since removed a few to increase control of the few prime scrapes.
It’s also important to limit your human scent when making your mock scrapes and installing and checking your cameras in these locations. I spray my boots with odor eliminator and avoid touching vegetation. If you can, deploy cameras in the middle of the day and drive right up to the location and hang the camera from an ATV. In highly pressured areas, I find deer to be less spooked with vehicle scent and sound. This is especially true if you check cameras on a regular basis and have deer somewhat conditioned to your presence throughout the year.
In summary, the pre-rut is all about finding the bucks’ fall range and getting prepped for the precious moment when they will be moving in daylight.
Peak-rut trail camera strategies are certainly important, but the payoff sometimes doesn’t occur until the following season. During the peak rut, I still have a few cameras on scrapes, even though scraping is typically taking a backseat to travel routes. My focus is placing cameras on major trails — especially those skirting doe bedding areas.
If you have a week or more of vacation to hunt the peak rut and can easily access cameras without blowing deer out, checking cameras on the way to hunt a stand could very well be the ticket to “patterning” a buck and tagging out. Most hunters only have a handful of days to hunt and do not have the luxury of experimenting with camera locations during the rut. For example, if you only have five days to hunt the rut each year, it is very difficult to gauge what stand location could be holding a hot doe. I used to believe placing cameras near a stand was harmful and put too much pressure on bucks, but if you hang the camera properly and somewhat out of view and only check the camera when you go in to hunt, hanging a camera near a stand can be a good strategy. Conversely, if you check the camera often without hunting the area, you are probably harming the spot for your next hunt.
Not all is lost for those who have limited hunting time. Yearly rut patterns do exist, and regardless of moon phase, wind, rain or temperature, my trail cameras have consistently shown daylight buck activity during the period of Nov. 3-8. If I have less than a week to hunt, those are peak days for me to be in the woods each year. If your cameras are not catching the action you would expect, that does not always mean bucks are not around. During the peak chasing phase, bucks take whacky routes to get from one area to another. Oftentimes, bucks will cut off doe trails and walk perpendicular trying to pick up doe scent, inadvertently avoiding cameras as well. Last Halloween, a family member harvested a buck while the deer took a very odd route to seven yards below his stand. There is no sure thing with peak-rut trail-camera strategies.
Post-rut camera tactics are perhaps least important to the typical hunter who puts all his or her eggs into hunting the rut. But for those who are still empty-handed come late season, it can be the absolute best time to pattern a buck on a food source. Considering bucks could take any trail imaginable to the food source, placing cameras directly on the food is probably the best tactic. One tactic I’ve found effective during the late season is to utilize the camera’s time-lapse mode and cover the food source for the last two hours of daylight. If the food source isn’t too big, this technique will miss very little activity.
If you do not have a food source available, concentrating on easy travel routes on hillsides receiving sunlight can also be an excellent way to gather information for your next hunt. Where legal, bait and supplemental feed will attract deer and give you an idea of what is around.
Throughout much of the nation in 2017, the acorn crop was substantial. If little snowfall exists during late season, do not count out placing cameras inside the timber to catch bucks feeding on leftover acorns.
For today’s bowhunters, better bowhunting is often the result of efficient trail-cam use. Regardless of the stage of the season, I have found my prime camera locations by trial and error. Give a camera a minimum of two weeks to see if the spot you picked is consistently seeing movement.
It may take a few years, but once you begin to study your hunting area and how bucks utilize it throughout the season, your cameras will deliver critical information and confident hunting is sure to follow.