a primer to help you understand and utilize trail cameras as part of your pre-season scouting efforts

Midsummer marks the point in the year where many deer hunters start looking forward to fall and begin assessing their hunting options.  As part of a complete scouting program, trail cameras provide up-close insight on deer movements. With the evolution of trail camera technology over the past two decades, hunters have never had a wider selection of units to choose from to capture photos, video and important information relevant to deer – and the presence of big bucks – in their hunting area.  What follows is a primer to help you understand and utilize trail cameras as part of your pre-season scouting efforts.

Camera Choices

Trail camera options have rapidly expanded, particularly in the last five years.  With that expansion, there is now a camera for everyone, from the die-hard hunter that invests heavily in his or her passion, down to the budget-conscious outdoorsman.  Top of the line models for 2017 include units that boast anywhere from 16- to 20-megapixel resolution, along with the capture of HD video and sound.  In addition to the crystal-clear images, sensor and trigger speeds on many trail cameras have now been reduced to one second or less, allowing trail cams to take photos faster. Additionally, delay between photos has dropped to five seconds or lower on some models, allowing more pictures to be taken of the deer that come into the camera’s sensor area.

4x4 Buck in Velvet

With the advancements made season-over-season, last year’s offerings (and those from years before) become a value for hunters looking to see what’s going on in their hunting area without breaking the bank.  Models from Wildgame Innovations have found a sweet spot in the market, providing excellent image clarity and good sensitivity and trigger speed, often combined with batteries and memory cards in budget-friendly packages for under $100.  With these choices available, hunters can cover long stretches of deer trail or wide areas of land for minimal investment.

Midsummer is an ideal time to set up a trail camera to get an idea of what deer – and big bucks – are in your hunting area. Note features like time and moon phase stamps on certain models to help pattern their movements leading up to opening day.

In addition to model features and price, there are many other important data points that trail cameras can provide, including time, date, moon phase and temperature, all of which help hunters pattern deer.  In particular, time of day and moon phase are key elements which have incredible bearing on knowing when that big buck is coming around to a particular camera or stand site. These patterns are especially vital for bow hunters, whose seasons start at the end of August or in early September and whose success is driven by keying in on late-summer travel patterns.  Therefore, selecting a camera with these options for archers is a key consideration.

After you find the trail cam that fits your needs, and before heading out into the field to put it in place, make sure to understand all of its features (which for guys like me means actually reading the manual) and taking a few test shots by walking past it in the backyard to get a better gauge on how the particular model works.  You will then be ready to position the camera in a way to best capture the deer in your hunting area.

Placement Pointers

There are three primary considerations when hanging a trail camera to photograph the deer which will walk by: the direction the camera is facing, what draws the deer to the area the camera is in, and proximity to your hunting site.  First and foremost, set a camera up so that it is facing north, or if a north-facing tree is not available for the trail or site you wish to observe, locate a south-facing tree.  Having a camera face north is best, but south will work as well in preventing sunlight from washing out half of your photos.  If a camera faces east or west it is highly likely, unless the area is well-shaded, that the morning or evening rays of sunlight will cause glare that will prevent the camera from taking good pictures of moving deer as they utilize these low-light periods, particularly around the new and full moon when activity peaks each month.

4x4 Buck in Low Light

Hang cameras facing north or south to avoid wash-out from late or early sunlight, and select one with infrared (IR) photo capabilities to take photos of deer moving between dusk and dawn.

Second, unless the camera is facing straight on a heavily traveled trail, or has a very fast trigger speed with little delay, there should be something in the vicinity which will hold deer, such as a water hole, food plot or a mineral lick.  Be certain that brush or tall grasses are out of the camera’s angle, as wind tends to move the vegetation, setting some camera sensors off, resulting in unnecessary photos.  Trim back unnecessary cover from the area in front of the camera, if needed.

There is still time to plant a small food plot which will hold deer in camera range and double as a shooting area in the fall. Using short-growing-season grains and other forage like the rye grass and clover found in Evolved Harvest EasyPlot, you can have a perfect stop set up in just a few weeks.  Eye the weather forecast and plant just before it rains to get the best germination at this drier point in the season.  Add a simple mineral stop to a deer trail with a Trophy Rock or till up a small patch of dirt and create a more sustainable lick area with products such as Deer Co-Cain.  The minerals will also help developing antlers on the bucks in your area, while providing a reason for them to stay in camera range.  Check your state’s regulations to determine what supplements can be used in and out of hunting season to attract deer to your camera or stand site.

Finally, make a determination of where you will hang your cameras based on what you want to know.  If you’ve already chosen a hunting site, or it is a location where your stand has been for years, and you’re just looking to find out what’s new this year, position the camera appropriately.  If you’re new to an area, however, you can hang multiple cameras along a trail using the tips above to determine how deer travel through the corridor and position your perfect hunting perch as the season approaches, based on that information obtained in the first few rounds of photos.

Checking In

Buck and Doe Grooming

As summer slants toward fall, check in on cameras every couple of weeks.  Like trail cameras, SD memory cards are becoming more affordable each year.  Start with two cards of at least 4 GB dedicated to each camera, so that when one loaded with recent photos is removed from the unit, another empty card can be put in its place.  While viewing the photos is as simple as sliding the card into your computer, you can avoid the excruciating wait by using 7″ Outdoor Android Tablet to check out those big bucks as you walk back to the truck. As you review the photos, make note of the deer that show up repeatedly throughout the season, and keep a record of times and moon phases that correlate with their appearances to develop a pattern.   As a reminder, check the power level on the camera’s batteries each time out, and know that later in the season, cold weather will drain them quicker than summer’s temperate conditions.

In addition to patterning deer and providing insight into the upcoming season, trail cameras catch deer (and other animals) in interesting situations, such as this buck and doe grooming one another.

Utilize these tips, and the advice from the friendly staff in your nearby Runnings sporting goods department for a scouting season that pays off not only with great pictures of the deer in your hunting area, but also with the knowledge you can use for a successful hunting season this fall.