Few technological advances in recent years have changed the way we scout and prepare for deer season like the trail camera has. First made of crude (by today’s standards) housings for standard film and then digital cameras, modern units feature some of the most advanced motion and infrared sensing capabilities with integrated cameras that can produce series of single photographic images, video and even time-lapsed photos. But just as the devices have changed the way we scout, for the savvy hunter, they are quickly changing the way they hunt, too. For the real value of a trail camera, whether it costs a hunter less than $100 or in the near ridiculous realm of $600, is not found in the days before hunting season opens, but after it begins.
By keeping cameras set up and in operation from the first days of deer season all the way through the rut and on into the winter, hunters can better observe changing deer activity and select stand locations, times to hunt and even food sources that are being hit at a given time. Keep the cameras rolling and follow these tips to seal the deal on your best season ever.
1. Monitor Multiple Stand Sites – Ever had trouble deciding which stand to hunt, finally selected one and never saw anything only to wonder what you might have missed had you chosen a different stand? Trail cams can provide the answer. Even if you have only one camera-though I strongly suggest you buy at least three or four, over time if you need to-hang them near you other top stands and monitor activity to know what and when deer are on the move past that stand. This also works to monitor favorite deer funnels, food sources, scrapes or trails in the same manner, which can help you figure out where you might need to quickly set and hunt a stand as well.
2. Interpret Deer Behavior – As early season wears on, bucks will break up and begin to challenge each other. Been catching groups of bucks hanging together and then suddenly start catching images of lone bucks or even better, bucks sparring, and you know it might be time to start rattling and playing on a buck’s desire to enforce his territory.
If you suddenly begin to capture images of new bucks you’ve never seen before, it’s time to hunt your top travel corridors that lead between traditional bedding and feeding areas. It means bucks are moving beyond their usual ranges in search of does to breed. This is game-on time and a good time for you to maximize your time in the woods. Conversely, when activity seems to go dead-few bucks, few does and even few fawns-it can mean the rut is at peak breeding time where bucks and does are on lockdown. Sitting a stand at this time will be less productive than getting aggressive and begin stalking and calling in hopes of setting up close enough to pull a nearby buck in to check you out.
3. Presize Your Bucks – As bucks-new to the area and longtime residents-move through the area, use the images to study a buck’s rack and body size to determine his trophy quality and age if you are attempting to manage your herd. Catching a deer on the hoof in the heat (or boredom) of a hunt can make field judging a tricky deal, particularly if the only glimpse you get is of a buck as it is walking away or in low light, both of which always make him look bigger than he really is. Use images to get to know and size up the local bucks and when you spot a particular one in the field, you’ll be better prepared to make the right call on whether to shoot or not.
4. Read a Buck’s Personality – Just as you size a buck up, it can be just as important to determine a buck’s personality before hunting it. Ask wildlife consultant Neil Dougherty of NorthCountry Whitetails, and he’ll tell you when you catch images of a buck with his ears laid back, hair bristling and head held up, this deer is displaying an aggressive personality and needs to be hunted as such.
“You want to challenge that buck with aggressive rattling and snort-wheeze calls,” Dougherty says. On the other end of the spectrum, if you spot a buck with his ears tipped slightly down and head low, he’s more subordinate and laid back. “You never want to challenge this buck,” he says. That means just light contact grunts or bleats if anything at all. And never bust out a decoy on this deer. He’ll cruise. But don’t ignore these bucks either.
“It’s the bucks that don’t participate in breeding, the more laid back bucks, that can actually grow bigger, ” he explains as they are harder to hunt and like less thrill-seeking humans, put themselves in danger less.
5. Time Late Season Hunts – David Sichik of Real Deal Decoys in New Jersey places cameras on late season food sources and sanctuary areas he’s left alone throughout the season and monitors them almost daily until he catches a buck hitting the feed or slipping out a trail on a regular basis. Once he identifies when the buck is on the scene, he slips in early and waits, nailing the big boy red handed. This is where a higher end camera such as the SmartScouter or BuckEye Cam, which can be monitored remotely through a computer or even your smartphone, can really be of value as it allows you to minimize disturbance of the area as well as monitor locations that you might not otherwise be able to check on a daily basis.
6. Begin Next Season – Keep cams running even after the season ends until bucks begin to drop antlers. This will let you know which ones survived the season and provide you with a solid idea of where to begin your surveillance and your hunting efforts for when the next season rolls around. It’s never too early to plan your next life-changing hunt.
Quick Tip: Don’t set cams right on or beneath your stands as they can still weird super wary bucks out and make them circle around or avoid a spot. Instead, set them on trails or feed 20 to 30 yards away.
Think About It…
Last year I was kicking back in camp relaxing after lunch and running a little late slipping back into the woods when I checked my Blackberry and noticed a couple of new pictures sent to me from my SmartScouter trail camera. The cam transmits captured photos to my account on the company’s website via a cell phone signal and then emails me that I have new pics. I gave the images a quick look and was shocked to find a pretty nice eight point feeding on a plot less than a quarter mile away. I was gaining real time intel on a feeding buck-one that I could have possibly put a stalk on and likely caught in the open.
At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was legal where I was hunting (it’s definitely not expressly forbidden, yet appears to be a gray area). The point was moot, however, as the buck appeared just under the minimums we’ve set for the property, so I wouldn’t have hunted it anyway. It did, however, open my eyes to some amazing possibilities, along with, of course, a host of ethical considerations as well.