In the world of scouting cameras, a picture may be worth more than a thousand words.
It seems that the best bowhunters take their scouting regimen to rather intense levels. Now, years after the arrival of the scouting camera to the hunting market, bowhunters have refined these techniques as well as the bowhunting strategies related to the technology. Of course, taking advantage of these infrared and motion-detecting units isn't as simple as hanging one on a deer trail, hoping for a trophy game exposure and then connecting with the animal come hunting season.
Developing strategies, understanding basic photography principles and making sense of the photos all play a role in molding bowhunting tactics and ultimately, success. One thing is certain: for the bowhunter who's able to put together the intricate pieces of the puzzle, the scouting camera may well represent the most accurate look into the secret world of game animals. When the shutter goes click, the real story of game movement unfolds.
IN THE GAME
Anticipation nagged at me as my hunting partner, Ray Smith, and I approached the first of two scouting cameras that kept a small finger of woods under surveillance for the past eight days. It was our first experience with trail cameras and we were both anxious to see if our new scouting tools had captured anything of interest--they had.
The first camera, much to our surprise, had 22 of 24 exposures expired. The second camera was secured to a fence post on the corner of a cornfield where, in the past, I've documented many mature bucks traveling, particularly in bachelor groups of four and five with animals that would make any hunter's heart palpitate. This second camera had the entire roll of film exposed. In the dirt beneath us were large tracks and our anticipation reached a fevered pitch.
When the film processor handed me the package of photos the image leaped out at me---a good, mature buck of 10 points. The camera reinforced our hypothesis that a good buck was entering the field at this location. My confidence soared.
NEW LEARNING CURVE
Scouting cameras first appeared on the hunting scene around 1985 in an affordable version for hunters. The cameras typically employ one of two operating systems: active and passive. The active design uses a laser shot across a trail or suspected travel route to the receiver positioned across from it and is triggered when an animal breaks the beam.
If your scouting camera has a sensitivity adjustment, start with the medium setting and adjust from there. If you're getting exposures of nothing but a moving branch, lower it. However, if you are not getting many photos on a trail that you know gets heavy traffic, lighten up the sensitivity.
Passive cameras, by far the most common on the market today, use both an infrared and motion-detecting system. The camera is simply aimed in the desired direction and no beam is used. The unit is one-piece (typically) and self-contained. Two criteria must be met before the camera takes a picture: body heat and movement. This prevents moving branches on windy days triggering the camera. The other trend in scouting cameras is digital. The initial investment is more expensive with digital technology, but you will make it up by avoiding film and processing costs. Another advantage, according to Tom Indrebo, of Bluff Country Outfitters in Wisconsin's mineral-rich Buffalo County, is that digital has no flash that can potentially spook big bucks. For strictly scouting purposes, digital will be a winner. Then again, there's nothing like a good photo to share among bowhunting friends. Photos can also inspire potential new bowhunters by allowing them to share in your scouting excitement. In this regard, the scouting camera's value to bowhunting could be priceless.
To properly use scouting cameras, an understanding of some basic photography principles are essential. This doesn't mean you need a college degree in photography to use them--on the contrary, if you pay no attention to distance, angles, film speeds and natural lighting you'll still look like a pro some of the time. So while the models on the market today are all no-brainers to use, with a good baseline of understanding you'll waste less film, save money and increase your odds of capturing that one image that might just help you hang your tag on a big buck next season.
The cameras used in most units are auto-focus/auto-exposure. Translation: the camera's internal light meter will detect outside light and compensate for the closest exposure (shutter speed/aperture) combination to get the right exposure. When the light level gets too low at around dawn, dusk and after dark, the flash will be triggered. Because the camera will be "metered" for a general exposure, the variable will be the film. Here's the general rule for film selection--the higher the film speed, the more forgiving in low light and after dark--the lower the film speed, the greater contrast, sharpness and detail (but very unforgiving in darkness with auto-exposure cameras). For example, an ISO 800 film speed (very fast) will help ensure bright, well-lit photos of your subjects (the critters) after dark. The downside with fast film like ISO 800 is the "graininess" of the photo. It'll be less sharp and the detail will be mediocre.
You'll need to define what's important to you in the photos. If you're interested in seeing what's out there and want the easiest film to use, go with a fast speed. As you drop down in ISO speeds, to 400, 200, 100 and even 50, the image will become increasingly more detailed and sharp, but you'll have to get daytime or front-lit dusk or dawn photos to get an exposure. If you're interested in what's in the photo over the quality, go fast!
Scouting cameras are a great asset to supplement your existing scouting practices, but they will not do all the work for you. Use them to verify the sign you are seeing. If you glass your quarry in a field but can't determine by which trail he's accessing the field, use a scouting camera to help watch suspected travel routes and pinpoint the animal's movements.
The lenses in these cameras are typically a wide-angle. This means a large area will be captured, helping you get the photo of the animal, even if the animal triggers a shot well out to the edges of the field-of-view. It also means that you'll want to be fairly close to where you think the animal will be at the time the photo is taken. Walt Larsen, an authority on scouting cameras and who writes a popular monthly column, looks at tens of thousands of photos annually from scouting camera enthusiasts all over the world. According to Larsen, not setting the cameras close enough to the subject represents the single biggest mistake. "The ca
meras, by design, need to take a photo of a relatively large area so that if a deer walks by and it's moving at a pretty good pace, it gets its picture taken. So that wider angle, so to speak, needs to be considered and they need to be relatively close to where they are going to take the photo," Larsen said.
For shot distance, and assuming a level terrain, refer to the manufacturers' suggested distance, usually given in a range such as 10-20 feet, and stick with the closer value. Ten feet is a good starting distance. However, with more experience under your belt experiment with closer shots and different shot angles.
For example, instead of setting up the camera 10 feet from and perpendicular to the trail--which would give a broadside image of a whole deer--move it up to four or five feet from the trail and angle it at an acute angle facing along the trail. To get several photos of an approaching buck, each one larger and greater in detail, set the delay to a fast 15 seconds. With photos like these you'll be able to closely examine a buck's headgear.
"You have to separate the use of the cameras into two categories: one is scouting, and two is entertainment," Larson said. "We all love the perfect photo of the monster buck. But whether the photo's perfect or not, as long as you know he's there from a scouting standpoint, that's all you really need." He added, "it's important to try, if possible, to face the camera in either a north- or south-facing direction to prevent the sun from 'back-lighting' your subject. The rising or setting sun in the east and west, can 'back-light' the subject, rendering it an undecipherable silhouette."
It's been over 15 years since these neat little surveillance tools made their appearance on the hunting scene, and some of the country's best bowhunters have refined their use down to a fine science. Others, like me, are still learning. Whitetail tactician and outdoor writer Greg Miller, has been using scouting cameras since the mid 1980s. Miller said that the number one factor for his use of the cameras is just knowing that a big buck is in his hunting area; he then uses his knowledge of deer behavior, traditional scouting techniques and sign interpretation to begin developing a strategy around that knowledge.
This heavy 10-point whitetail, shot in Buffalo County, Wisconsin, by Darrin Muche, of Mayville, Wisconsin, was captured on film by Tom Indrebo between 3a.m. and 4 a.m. Indrebo said their was no direct coordination of the camera's use and the kill, but that it told them there was a good buck in the area. The buck was killed the last part of October on a travel route a quarter mile from where the photo was taken.
Photo courtesy Bluff Country Outfitters
"These cameras, more than anything, have enabled us to absolutely determine that there might be a mature deer or even multiple bucks using a particular rubline or scrapeline. Then it's up to us to figure out how to kill them," said Miller.
Miller stressed the importance of adhering to a basic strategy when setting up cameras and then developing a well-thought-out plan to interpret the photos. "The first thing you have to realize is that if he's coming to that spot, in front of your camera at night, you can't kill him there. You wouldn't believe the number of people who look at that and say, 'Wow, he is coming through here, I'm going to take a chance and hunt him here and eventually he's going to come through here in daylight.' Yeah, maybe but maybe not.
"Get your topo maps out, or if you know your hunting area that well, figure out that he's here after dark. Where do I suspect he's bedding? Is he moving around during daylight? If he is, it's got to be somewhere in between where I got the picture of him after dark and where I suspect he's bedding. If it's in the morning, just the opposite is true. If he's going by here I need to get farther back in to catch him after legal shooting time opens up in the morning. So there is some strategy and tactical stuff that comes into play." "The one thing the cameras have reinforced in me," Miller said, "is that mature bucks do most of their traveling after dark. Mature bucks are almost impossible to pattern because you'll get a picture of them one place, and then that's it and you might have to move the camera. Did you spook them with the camera? Or is that just the way he is? Then the differing time of the pictures makes the bucks totally unpredictable. So if anything, the cameras have just reinforced what I've always suspected about mature whitetails, that they are a unique character."
Perhaps the greatest impact this technology can have on our scouting and bowhunting is a psychological one, Miller emphasized. "If you're absolutely convinced there's a bigger deer there and you know there's a bigger deer there, you're going to be a different hunter. By different I mean better and more effective." he said. I concur with Miller--staying on stand all day long in cold, brutal conditions just got a whole lot easier when you've got photographic proof of what you're after, and that can be a tremendous confidence booster when the days are long and the mercury drops. Exercise as much diligence in your scent control efforts as you would if you were toting your bow and wearing your back tag during fall when trying to nail down the movement patterns using a trail camera. Once you've determined an area of surveillance, determine low-impact access routes to the spot.
Always wear rubber boots and make it a point to spray down the camera and its parts with a scent killer spray. Then leave the area, and, as Pike County, Illinois, outfitter Tom Ware suggests, "Leave it there at least 10 days. After seven days, it really picks up. The longer I let it wait, the human scent is present, and it seems like I get more pictures of bigger bucks."
Ware's strategy makes sense. Don't let your curiosity get the better of you and feel compelled to check how many photos you've gotten every couple days. If you're going after mature bucks in particular, give it a good week or even two. The only time you'll want to check sooner will be at lower-impact sites like field edges where scent contamination risk is slight. These areas will allow some human intrusion and because they are largely food sources, will readily expose a roll of film in short order because of the high volume of animals coming to and from the food source.
Mark Persons' 149 1/8 eight-pointer was shot in 2001 after previously being filmed alongside a scrape. The buck was arrowed less than 75 yards from where the photo was taken as the deer came to a pond to drink.
Photo courtesy of Bluff Country Outfitters
Another camera strategy is to match your units' timing delay with your specific situation. For example, if you're overlooking a bait station or food source, a long
delay is the answer or you'll be going through a lot of film looking at the same animal--this can get expensive. Under this scenario, set the camera's delay for at least five minutes, all the way up to 15 minutes or longer. However, if you're watching a fence crossing, let's say, trying to capture a bachelor group of bucks entering a field, you'll want a camera with an ultra-fast delay--perhaps 10 seconds or less--to capture each buck as they hop the fence single file one after another.
You should also use the same fast delay during the rut on trails frequented by does. Bucks, during this time of the year, can commonly have their snouts planted firmly in the rear-ends of does and may be moving at a pretty good clip. A slow delay will only get you a photo of a doe and the buck will be through before your camera is reactivated.
A CANDID CONCLUSION
Adding a trail monitor camera to your scouting system can give you an edge if it's done with some strategic methodology in mind. It will not, however, give you an unfair technological advantage that will virtually guarantee success. In what bold new directions analytical bowhunters will take the scouting camera remains to be seen, but one thing is guaranteed: Your self-assurance will take a decidedly upward turn once you know there's a mature animal inhabiting your area. You will be elated and you'll bowhunt more intensely as a result, with a deeper understanding of movements and patterns. Past guesses and theories will either evaporate like the morning mist or stare you back in the face on a glossy print. You'll never wonder again, and your confidence will soar.
Editor's note: For more information on hunting in Wisconsin and Illinois, contact: Tom Indrebo of Bluff Country Outfitters (608-685-3755); or Tom Ware of Bucks Beware Outfitters 217-245-BUCK, www.bucksbeware.com.