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What Do Trail Cameras Really Tell You?

Today's trail cameras can do a lot more than simply giving you something to look at in the off-season. Make sure you're making the most of them!

What Do Trail Cameras Really Tell You?

Whether it's taking inventory in the off-season, developing a strategy in the early-season, or determining when to go shed hunting in the winter months, trail cameras should now be a mainstay in the arsenal of a bowhunter.

Let’s just admit it — we have incredible technology in today's day and age that makes our lives a lot easier as bowhunters. Back in the day before trail cameras existed, hunters didn’t know what was out there until they set foot in the woods. Trail cameras have literally changed the hunting game, and honestly most of us couldn’t live without them anymore.

So what do trail cameras really tell us? Well if you're an avid bowhunter, just take a minute to think about if trail cameras no longer existed. Consider how different the whole process would be and all the unknowns you would face. That will really show you how much you actually rely on them.

Gathering Inventory

One of the biggest things trail cameras allows us to see is what bucks you have in a given area. When I first started bowhunting at age 13, I'm not sure I had even heard of trail cameras. I remember going in to the woods to bowhunt completely blind, not having a first clue of what could walk by my stand. It was exciting being in the unknown, but could also get frustrating not knowing if you were even on the right property or in the right stand. Fast forward 17 years later and I don't know if I could hunt that way. Running multiple cameras on multiple different properties gives me the upper hand — particularly with knowing all the bucks running in each area and what buck or given area I want to target come season. It allows me to collect full inventory without having to even step foot in the field and put extra pressure on the deer herd.

What Makes a Buck Tick?

Most of the newest trail cameras record moon phase and temperature on top of the usual time and date. By using all of these tools, you can really get a feel of what specific conditions push a buck to show itself in daylight. Even though we will never be able to fully figure out how a mature buck thinks, when taking the time to really look at all of these factors and making a record of them you’ll be surprised how you can better figure out what makes your target buck do what he does.

When I was chasing a particular buck I named “The Freak”, trail cameras played a huge role in harvesting him. I first figured out his core area by setting up multiple cameras on one farm, and then narrowed his normal path of travel down to a smaller area. Then, once he appeared in daylight, I noted that it had occureed during the red moon. Once I analyized all of those factors, I was able to hang a stand on the last night of the red moon and ended up harvesting my largest buck to date! Without the use of trail cameras helping me understand what made this deer do what he did, I never would have put an arrow through him.

Year After Year

What drives me most as a bowhunter is the ability to have multiple years of history with a particular buck. Creating a story with one particular whitetail over a several year span produces the emotion I have for these animals. Trail cameras give me, as well as other bowhunters, that ability.

Trail cameras give bowhunters the ability to create stories with particular bucks by watching them grow year after year.

Keeping a folder of one particular buck for each year allows you to learn the ins and outs of that particular whitetail. If you monitor bucks as much as I do from year to year, you'll learn they will continuously do the same things, at the same location, at the same time, year after year. This has actually helped me plan hunting vacations based on when a particular buck would show at a given area for multiple years in a row.

For instance, a buck I had on camera a few years ago would always start showing on camera the last two to three weeks of October at night. Then around the last week of October, he would always begin appearing on the cameras in daylight. The following year I planned my vacation to start around this time. Sure enough, the last week of October he showed in that same location as the previous year in daylight. That information allowed me to be there when he showed. This goes to show that bucks are creatures of habit — especially in the early season — and having cameras out there to give you this information is extrememly beneficial.

The Food Source Battle

When it comes to figuring out feeding patterns of big bucks, it can definitely be a challenge. Using cameras really helps takes the guess work out of it. When there is multiple food sources such as oaks, crops, hay fields, and supplemental feeding areas, many times the big bucks will use one specific food source. In early season, setting trail cameras over crops, hay fields, and oaks are your best bet. When the acorn crop is plentiful, you will be surprised how many deer utilize this as a main food source.

When it comes to pattering big bucks, you’re going to need to focus on their food sources first and foremost.

In 2020, I never could get a trail camera photo of the Freak over food until I set a camera going to and from a main mast producing red oak. That is where I was able to target him in the early season and was able to get a shot as he was going to that oak tree to feed. Locating bedding points after figuring out a buck’s main food source will allow you to have 100% confidence in where to hang a stand.

Determining Community Scrapes

Trail cameras are the absolute best way to determine the activity on scrapes, and in turn deciding which scrapes you should hunt over. Locating multiple scrapes or creating mock scrapes and setting cameras over them will be beneficial when it comes to hunting the pre-rut and rut. Determining which scrapes are most active during the daylight — and which ones are community scrapes — by monitoring deer activity through trail cameras gives you the best insight on which ones to hang a stand over. Community scrapes are the best scrapes because they tend to be larger and both bucks and does actively use them. They also tend to be in use year after year.

Finding Antlers

Shed hunting too early can put extra pressure that can harm wildlife that are trying to survive through the harsh winter months. Trail cameras have been a very beneficial tool in knowing when it is the right time to set foot in the woods to look for sheds — especially for whitetail hunters. The more you pressure an area, the more stress you put on the herd and the more you push bucks off your property.

Make sure to contain your excitement when it comes to finding sheds. There's no need to put unwanted pressure on your herd before they're ready.

I run trail cameras nonstop all the way through May of each year. I have learned that there's no point in getting too excited to step foot in the woods until most of the bucks have dropped in the area. I monitor the cameras very close and pay attention to see when most bucks has shed before putting boots on the ground in that given area. Setting up cameras on and around food sources will give you the best insight on when and where bucks have dropped their antlers. If a buck shows with both sides, and then appears again not long after that with one side, you know his antler is somewhere nearby.

Trail cameras have changed the bowhunting game for all of us, and are one tool that most of us can agree that we cannot hunt without. Whether you choose to use traditional trail cameras or some of the newest cell camera technology, there's simply no question that they make finding and pursuing big bucks a heck of a lot easier.


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