How to Utilize Your Trail Cameras During the Season
While summer images can be encouraging, trail cams offer critical insights during the season.
As a bowhunter, scouting intelligence doesn’t get any better than in-season trail-camera pictures delivered in real time via cellular technology. Confirmation that you’re hunting the right area, at the right time, doesn’t come in a better form than a shooter buck that has no idea his picture was just taken! Snapshots of mature bucks in August are encouraging; however, the odds of centering that buck in your peep sight come October are frighteningly low. That’s why maximizing the number of cameras you have afield during the season — and maximizing your use of the insights they offer — is so critical.
As a deer manager, the explosion of cellular trail-camera technology that we have seen in recent years has had a greater impact on my work than any other tool. It has now been a full decade since I wrote the chapter on trail-camera technology for the award-winning book Deer Cameras: The Science of Scouting, published by the Quality Deer Management Association. We certainly don’t wait 10 years to replace our cell phones or computers. So, why are so many bowhunters relying on antiquated trail cameras?
Then and Now
It was June 1997, and I was setting up a very crude “camera trap” on a research property while working as a technician at Mississippi State University. I wasn’t hunting. The use of trail cameras as scouting tools was in its infancy. My boss, a doctoral student, was working under the legendary deer researcher Dr. Harry Jacobson. In my hands, I held game-changing technology that was revolutionizing the way deer researchers would study whitetails. It was obvious this new technology would help us answer so many questions about whitetail deer. However, no one quite understood the magnitude of this new tool.
As I set each “camera station,” I’d pull a milk crate off the ATV that contained a two-piece (transmitter and receiver), active infrared trail-monitoring system, a separate Olympus 35mm camera, a tripod camera mount that screwed to the tree, a long cable to attach the receiver to the camera and a whole host of tools and accessories that resembled a MacGyver episode from the ’80s. I’d attach the transmitter to a tree on one side of a trail or bait pile, making sure it was accurately placed at the chest height of a deer. Then, I’d either employ a well-placed tree on the other side of the trail or pull a T-post off the ATV and pound it where needed. Once the transmitter and receiver were set securely in place, I’d power them up (huge batteries), set the units in test mode and make sure the invisible beam was perfectly aligned with the 3⁄8-inch window on the receiver unit. And you thought YOU left too much scent around your camera during the setup process?!?!
Once I confirmed transmitter and receiver alignment, I’d search for a third tree, within 20 feet but at the right angle to the target zone, for the camera tripod mount. Then, I’d stretch the cable from the transmitter to the camera, loaded with fresh AA batteries and a new roll of 35mm film.
As Thomas Edison once said, “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.” Trail cameras may have originally been developed as “camera traps” to aid scientists in studying animal behavior around the world, but their continued improvement created an entire product category within the hunting world and has allowed every bowhunter with $100 to spare to become an amateur scientist with a private eye.
After working with whitetails for 25 years, I can tell you with confidence that they thrive in areas where humans never step foot. Does that sound like your hunting property? I doubt it! The truth is, such a hunting property doesn’t exist, because your presence is required to pursue and tag an animal. However, I have been involved with hundreds of properties that severely limit human intrusion, and the consistent hunting success enjoyed on these properties is a reminder that mature whitetails prefer to keep their distance from humans.
So, where do trail cameras come in? Well, I like to compare my camera strategy to a football coach who uses game film to prepare for an opponent. As a big football fan, I enjoy the strategic aspect of the game and the chess matches coaches play with one another. To me, hunting mature whitetails is the same in that we try to understand our opponent’s thought process and anticipate his next move. In order to be most successful at this, our information must be fresh. How useful is game film from last season?
A successful football coach knows his job doesn’t end when the season is over. So, although he may still watch game film in June, it’s the recent information acquired from game film in October from an upcoming opponent that he’s after. This recent information allows him to develop a game plan to exploit his opponent’s current weaknesses. Sure, he can watch game film from past games, too, but many variables are constantly changing due to roster movement, injuries, formations, etc. In other words, watching game film in June helps pass the time, but studying recent game footage helps formulate a game plan.
Likewise, observing photos of the bucks that sneak past your stand during the season will afford you an opportunity to study their habits and tendencies. Football scouts “chart” every play in game film by making notes on where running backs and tight ends are aligned prior to the snap of the ball and what plays they run in those situations. I firmly believe the recent information gained from cellular cameras allows bowhunters to similarly “chart” the habits of certain bucks and then strike when the iron is hot. With cellular cameras at our disposal, we can now limit human disturbance in a given area until the time is right.
Beginning a few days before Halloween and continuing through November, I set cameras on large, community scrapes that are located under the same limb year after year. These scrapes are the quickest way to determine your current roster of “players.” I prefer cellular cameras so I don’t need to visit them except to replace batteries. This greatly reduces overall disturbance and the amount of human scent in the area.
My entire game plan is built around these scrapes. My camera “scouts” are scattered around the property in search of “player tendencies.” From there, I hone in on my target buck by developing a plan around exploiting his weaknesses. The best football coaches in history are often heard talking about developing a point of attack and exploiting a certain weakness. For whitetail hunters, that typically means we’re spending time near bedding areas, food or areas that attract does for food, water and security. Just as in football, this takes practice to perfect.
Cellular cameras afford bowhunters a huge investigative advantage when pursuing reclusive, mature bucks. While trail cameras worked in 1997, they were a far cry from the amazing and affordable cellular cameras available today. I’m happy to say we’ve finally found technology that works for bowhunters who seek accurate intelligence about the haunts and habits of the whitetail bucks they hunt. Your return on your investment, when replacing older trail cameras with cellular technology, will literally be right back in your pocket as those remote images begin to stream in from the field, boosting your odds of success on those wary bucks that managed to elude you last fall.