October 28, 2022
By Bill Winke
You can’t really know where a buck will be on any given day. All you can do is make assumptions, based on trends you see in his behavior. The more you know about the deer, the better your assumptions and the more often you will find yourself one step ahead of him.
So, unless you have a good bit of information about the buck you are hunting, you will be wrong most of the time. That’s OK; it is still part of the fun, because sometimes you will be right. And all you need is to be right once per season!
Before I used trail cameras, I had to base my hunting decisions purely on sign and sightings. I learned the hard way that the sign was not nearly as useful as I had hoped. How can you say which buck made a certain scrape, track or rub? Some people could, or at least said they could, but I never had any success with that.
Sightings were equally problematic. Some bucks I have hunted over the years offered very few actual sightings — certainly not enough that I could learn much from them. Had I based my strategies on just what I saw, I never even would have known some of those bucks existed.
But all that changed with the advent of trail cameras. Not only do the photos tell me which part of my hunting area has a shooter (which makes me much more efficient in the use of my precious hunting time), but the cameras also give some clues about each buck’s behavior. Once I know something of his behavior, I can start to make educated decisions about where to hunt.
In this column, I am going to lay out three levels of patterning and what you can expect from each. Not surprisingly, the further you take your efforts, the greater your odds for success.
Trail-cam photos will tell you where a possible target buck is sometimes spending his time. Even if you stop right there and don’t use your cameras to gain further information, you have learned enough to make a difference. This is a good starting point; one even deer hunters with limited time and budget can employ. In fact, my own trail-camera strategy goes only slightly beyond this point.
If all you know is where a shooter is sometimes living, you can focus all your hunting time on places where there is a chance. I think back on all the seasons when I hunted good-looking spots with lots of sign without ever knowing if there was a buck living there that I wanted to shoot. There was no way to know. I just assumed there was. The more I learn, the more I realize there probably wasn’t!
This is a good compromise that respects your time and budget but still produces enough information to give you a really good chance of at least seeing the bucks you are hunting.
Take the simple patterning process one step farther by studying the photos and making additional moves with the camera, based on what you see. Here’s how it works:
The first thing to look for (beyond just where the bucks live) is whether they are moving in daylight. If they are, your job is mostly done. He’s killable. If they aren’t, but the movement is close to daylight, you are likely not far from the buck’s core area — where he spends most of his time, day or night. If the photos are well after dark in the evening, and well before daylight in the morning, you aren’t really in the game yet. That means you can either write that buck off and focus on other ones, or you can move the camera to see if you can find his core area.
If you choose to move the camera, look at the first photo of the buck you get in the evening and move a few hundred yards in the direction from which he is coming. While this is not foolproof, as he could have laid down a winding course in getting to your camera, it is at least a starting point.
Keep moving the camera this way until you either get the buck closer to daylight or give up trying. That’s why it is always good to have a couple bucks you’d be happy to shoot if given the chance.
Of course, when the time comes to hunt the buck, you want to hunt him as close to his core area as you can without bumping him or other deer. That is the heart of intermediate patterning, and it is as far as I ever go. Once I know, or can guess, where a buck is likely moving in daylight, it’s time to start hunting. Most years, this process takes me until mid-October before I gain the necessary level of confidence.
Some people just love getting as many photos of the bucks they are hunting as possible. These also tend to be the guys who use cellular trail cameras. By no means do you need a cellular camera to be successful; I have never owned one and feel that I am in the game every season.
The goal of advanced patterning is to know what is happening every day. This allows a hunter to adjust based on what the cameras reveal. During the rut, this kind of “most recent information” is valuable, because the bucks are out of their core areas a lot more. During this time, knowing where he was last night (or even this morning) will tell you where to hunt him this evening.
This is too much information for me. I don’t want to know precisely where the buck is every day. I want to hunt him. I want to be surprised when I see him. This is just my own choice, and I have a lot of time to hunt so it still tends to pay off. There is no question this advanced method is the most productive, and I don’t feel it is wrong. It just isn’t for me.
You can take the patterning process as far as your time, budget and personal choices will allow. There is no doubt that with today’s trail-cam technology, you can absolutely gather enough information to know you are hunting in an area where a killable, shooter buck lives. That alone is a huge step toward consistent success and also goes a long way toward keeping your confidence high during this wonderful, whitetail-hunting quest.