Recon the Right Way: 10 Ways to Improve Trail Camera Effectiveness
January 06, 2015
The easiest way to enter the bowhunting season with false expectations about early season success is to use cameras wrong — or at least — lazily. Taking your camera out to the edge of a food plot or a soybean field, hanging it, and then checking it every week or two may feel like you're scouting correctly, however you're probably under-utilizing these new-age tools.
Instead, consider hanging your cameras to answer questions about deer movement. For example, it's Whitetail 101 to know that deer are going to use prime food sources throughout the summer. How they get to and from those food sources, where they bed, where they water, and where they browse are all questions that are far more difficult to answer. And they are perfect for scouting cameras.
Aside from taking inventory and getting some sweet pics of velvet-racked bucks, setting cameras in easy spots doesn't do you much good as a hunter. Cameras hung on places that aren't easily observable will tell you things that can lead to quality fall hunting spots, which is the goal. They'll also tell you whether the deer use those places at all, which is like pre-fishing for a bass tournament and eliminating dead water until a pattern or hotspot emerges.
If you plan to run cameras next summer, start thinking about where you're going to place them now. Although a subtle trail in a wooded finger leading to an alfalfa field or clover plot might not be as exciting as hanging the camera directly on the field edge, it might just tell you when and where a mature buck likes to travel before and after he eats. That's a good step toward getting an arrow into him, especially since he is likely to reduce daytime movement once he sheds his velvet.
If you're interested in truly scouting with your cameras, take a look at these 10 prime camera locations for pinning down deer movement.
Most of the love in the bowhunting world goes to the bucks, but we shouldn't forget the ladies. One of my favorite things to do early each season is try to fill a few antlerless tags and replenish my venison supply. I use trail cameras for this more often now than ever, partially because I can sometimes pin down doe movement in places where I won't affect my buck hunting should I get lucky.
Cameras also give me a chance to find fawn-less does to target, which is a bonus in certain areas where fawn recruitment can be an uphill battle due to predators, weather or high deer harvest. In addition to all of those reasons, I'd be remiss to not point out that killing a mature doe with archery gear isn't as easy as we make it seem. Archery overall success rates are low for many reasons, one of which is that matriarchs are far from pushovers.
Those tiny tracks leading between agricultural fields or out to food plots can be deer highways. This is no secret; however, one thing a camera situated on these roads can reveal is prime morning movement. A lot of early-season hunters will skip out on morning hunts, which can be a mistake.
A camera set up to capture images of bucks taking the easy way back to their beds can provide valuable info for a possible morning setup. This is especially true if the road is covered on both sides by either a standing cornfield or woods, which will mask an early morning approach to your treestand.
Throughout my years of whitetail hunting I've learned that my best bet is to try to outhunt the other hunters, not the deer. In fact, the deer are pretty easy if you get a chance to hunt in a place where they don't receive a lot of hunting pressure. One of the ways you can beat out your two-legged competition is to find overlooked cover. This seems obvious, but it's not as simple as it sounds.
An overgrown homestead, a brushy fencerow, or an acre of a sumac around a small pond can all provide more than enough to hide a whole herd of Popers — let alone a single mature buck looking to loaf away undisturbed. These types of areas can be the hardest to hang a camera on simply because of a lack of confidence, but they also can be the best places to find good-sized bucks that others will miss.
Like river crossings, areas where deer cross ravines and washed out gullies can pay off all season long. These same spots will feature deer movement throughout the summer and can warrant the placement of a camera.
If you can, hang your camera with a mount at least seven or eight feet above the crossing so that the field of view opens up. This will give you a chance to catch not only the first buck to cross, but perhaps the second and third. This is also a good time to use burst mode on your camera to capture successive images in a row to ensure the entire bachelor group ends up on your memory card.
Bucks love to travel ridges, especially when they are on their way to a bedding area in the morning. Cameras placed that cover to and fro movement can truly help you pin down individual buck patterns on ridges.
This may also reveal that certain target bucks have gone nocturnal or at least will offer very little chance of a daylight encounter. Knowing this, you can back off of certain spots until the rut kicks in when those same bucks may trot blindly down the same ridge well after the sun rises.
My absolute favorite scenario for trying to peg exact deer movement involves river or creek crossings. Few terrain features are quite as reliable as a good crossing, and few are as easy to monitor via scouting camera. If you've got running water on your deer ground, take a walk along the bank and mark gouged out crossings. Personally, I'll have a camera on every one if I can. Otherwise, I'll start with the first crossing and work my way down or upstream until I've covered every one.
These spots can be as good in the morning as they are in the evening, and a camera left up for two weeks on a crossing can reveal a lot of information about what the deer like to do. This info will carry right on through to the rut and even in some cases, like when hunting western whitetails, straight on through to the closing bell.
You're probably thinking it's hypocritical to run down hunters for relying on field edge cameras and then start right off with a field recommendation...and you'd be partially right. If you absolutely have to scratch a field-edge itch, look for a secluded corner or small field to hang your camera.
Better yet, try to find a trail or two leading to the field to monitor with your camera to see if you can catch bucks as they enter and exit in a specific spot. This strategy is best used in a place that you can't watch through a spotting scope without getting too close or potentially busting up the field.
Easily the most effective strategy I've got for tagging out before the rut involves identifying staging areas. This starts early in the summer and carries on throughout the season, and cameras play a big role in pinning down the best spots. Staging areas aren't cut and dry, they are dynamic. However, if you've got bucks hitting a specific field or food plot you can bet they'll probably stick to that food source at least early in the season.
Those bucks might stage 100 yards off of it all summer long and then continue that pattern right into the season as they decide to show up in the open later and later in the evening. When that happens, which it often does with the onset of the season, a staging area becomes your best bet for getting close during shooting hours. This can be a tedious process with cameras, but will pay off if you start getting pics of bucks browsing in a sure-thing staging area.
Swamps and Sloughs
Another water feature worth monitoring is a swamp or a cattail slough. I spend a lot of time whitetail hunting in Northern Wisconsin and the best sanctuaries up there are the bogs and swamps that seem more like bear or sasquatch territory. Since this type of cover can be daunting, it's best to narrow your search down.
I like to look at aerial photos of wetter areas to see if I can find an hourglass-shaped area with high land on two sides of the swamp with a slight ridge connecting the narrowest part. These places will almost always feature heavy deer travel throughout the entire year. Cattail sloughs and other wetlands provide a different challenge but high spots, points and ridges can all be identified. Bucks use them all and as an added bonus, often leave deep, muddy tracks to clue you in to where to hang your camera.
How often have you jumped a buck in the summer that was in a place he shouldn't have been? We've all done it and instead of writing that encounter off as a fluke, consider investigating further. That buck was there for a reason and a camera can tell you why.
This might have to do with the cooler microclimate of a low spot in a field, or it might have something to do with you going into a spot that the deer didn't expect you to be. Whatever the reason, if you have a chance encounter with a deer you'd be happy to arrow, follow up your initial intrusion with a camera. Perhaps when you pull the SD card three weeks later you'll realize that the area is home to a bruiser.