The Scouting Camera Advantage

News & Tips: The Scouting Camera Advantage

The last five years have seen an absolute explosion in trail camera popularity and for good reason. They are not only cool and fun to use but when used correctly, they can dramatically increase your chances of scoring in the field. They are used by virtually every serious hunter and deer manager we know and are probably the most important advancement in hunting equipment since the compound bow and portable tree stands.


Game cameras can help you scout for big bucks while doing as little on-site scouting as possible.

We've been using scouting cameras for almost 15 years on our property and we can honestly say we would be lost without them. Back in the day of film cameras, we pretty much used them like most hunters did. Basically, we were running a beauty pageant, hoping to cover the cabin bulletin board with big buck pinups. We look back with affection on the old "beauty pageant" days. The excitement of rushing into camp, pulling film, and heading to town to the instant processer; it was all good and all fun.


But it's just as fun and a whole lot more efficient to pull a chip containing 800 images every few weeks and a whole lot more cost effective. Today's scouting cameras are, for the most part, high-tech digital affairs capable of producing photos of incredible accuracy. They don't alarm deer (usually) and are capable of storing hundreds of images on a single digital chip. They record date, time, temperature, moon phase, and the score of the Red Sox-Yankee game. Best of all, you don't have to stink up the woods every couple of days changing film.


While the advancements in technology have been huge, the most important advancement in scouting cameras has been how people are using them. If all you are doing with cameras is taking pictures of big bucks and showing them to your buddies, you are missing the boat. Serious deer serious deer hunters are using them to make better decisions about killing big bucks.


Taking Inventory

Most hunters are into hunting bucks, especially mature bucks. And most mature buck hunters believe in scouting, especially if you can do your scouting without disturbing the woods too much. That's where scouting cameras really earn their keep. Virtually every shooter we have had on our property in the last 10 years or so has shown up on camera sometime either before, during or after the season.


On our home property, we honestly try to do as little pre-season scouting as possible. We know how the deer move and when and where they are most likely to show up, and we pretty much know that they will be there so why run all over the woods tearing things up?


We start our hunting season camera work (around Sept. 1) by setting up as many cameras as possible on early season feeding areas like food plots or fruit trees. Deer eat about 6 times a day and they have to eat somewhere. Travel corridors and staging areas are OK if you are not able to locate feeding areas. The trick is to get the majority of bucks in your hunting area on camera as early as possible so you can begin to work the buck you want. To do a good job of identifying bucks, you should have at least one camera for every 50-100 acres.


We keep a running log of all the unique bucks using the Kindred Spirits farm. A three-ring binder is started every fall where a mug shot list of sorts is created for each buck captured on film. Once we photograph a buck, we print a decent shot of the animal and file it away by estimated age of the buck. We build a "shooter list" for the season and refer to it often. The binder is a useful tool for guests as they can look up bucks seen on a particular hunt or familiarize themselves with the shooter list.


Narrowing it Down


We like to try to catch a good buck on film before we go to work on him. By the time the actual hunting season rolls around, we have a rough idea of the bucks using our property. We know where and when they were photograph and how often. In addition to using cameras, we check out fields and open areas in the evenings with binoculars at long distances. At this point, we are just trying to put the pieces together. We feel if we can pattern a given buck, our chances are a whole lot better of taking him than if we simply hunt in the vicinity of where we photographed him. This would be way too much pressure and you would be hunting where he was not, instead of where he is.


We are careful not to over scout, especially with mature bucks. Running all over the woods with scouting cameras is just as bad as running all over the woods in camo with a bow slung over your shoulder. We check our cameras about once a week and that is usually in conjunction with a routine trip in and out of the woods. We are conscious of wind direction and try to avoid checking cameras if the winds aren't favorable to do so. We rig the cameras in easy-to-visit places where the deer are fairly used to our presence. We never put them in bedding or sanctuary areas.


Hopefully we can catch him a couple of times on a couple of different cameras. The more times you photograph a deer, the easier he will be to pattern. If we are lucky enough to catch him a time or two, we mark him on an aerial photo or topo map and make some notes to document the event. 


Photographing a "shooter" one night in a two-week time period doesn't necessarily mean that buck is using your hunting area. On the other hand, if you photograph him once on the ridge, twice on the corn field, and twice near the swamp, you might be on to something. Study the direction he is moving in, look closely at his behavior.


Is he "on the march," maybe just moving through the area or is his head down feeding? How long did he hang around? Was it day or night and what time of day or night? Was he a one-photo wonder or did he stand around posing for 20 minutes or more? Was he alone, with another buck or maybe a doe? Study all the pictures of this buck you have for any clue of where he has been or where he is going or better yet, why he is in front of your cameras. We can pretty much tell how tough a buck will be to kill by how he acts in front of the camera. It's a lot easier to intercept a buck that hangs around in a small territory where you photograph him once, maybe twice per day, than a guy who swings through every week or two.


Closing In


Once you have learned all you can from your locating photos, it's time to start zeroing in on his movement patterns. Here's where it's nice to have a few cameras to work with. If you aren't intimately familiar with the area, take out your topos and aerial photos again and start eyeballing the terrain. Look for the obvious funnels he might have used either coming or going from where you photographed him and set a camera there. Remember to check your photos for time of day (or night) as that is very important information. You should also be keeping track of wind direction and weather conditions as both of these factors can affect how deer move. Know a well-established travel route or crossing he might be using? Good, put out a camera for a couple of days. If you hit it right, you will pick up another photo in a day or two. And, if you hit it very right, you will catch him coming and going through one or two areas at specific (or almost specific) times.


If you are lucky enough to have a few cameras working in other locations on your hunting area, you can begin to narrow the area he is using through a process known as triangulation. When you triangulate, you should pay particular attention to when and where this buck was photographed as well as where and when he has not been photographed (where he "isn't" tells you a lot about where he "is"). Aerial photos and topos really come in handy here. Deer are territorial and many old timers would just as soon stay home than parade all over the area posing for cameras. If you have your area pretty well covered by cameras and he has not shown up, he is either a one time "pass through" or you may be on to something; especially if you catch him another time or two in the same general vicinity.

If you move a few cameras out, and you begin to catch him in other areas, you may be closer to his core than when you first caught him. Plot all sightings and look for a travel pattern or at least an area where he seems to be spending time because the clock is ticking and you need to get on him.


A set of cameras in the right hands can be very effective in pinpointing deer activity areas. They tell you where they are hanging out and where they aren't. They might not be GPS collars but, in the right hands, they are a close second.


The trick here is to learn enough about a given buck's habits and travel patterns to begin hunting him. Set a few stands for a few different winds and conditions. If you are working on an older-aged deer, you might not want to set up too closely to a camera set-up. Old bucks are very sensitive to pressure and don't like being crowded. The very fact that you have placed and perhaps checked a camera can put pressure on a buck so, when you set up to hunt him, give him some room.


If you don't see him after a few sits and you haven't caught him on camera in a while, you most likely have driven him elsewhere. If you are lucky, he may have shifted to another part of your property or he may just have left town for good. You should pull some cameras and set them up in another area. One thing for sure, if he is out there and he walks in front of a camera, you will know it.


Once you have an idea of the area he is using, set up on him again; this time you might get lucky. It is a far better strategy than just setting up in a good looking area and hoping he walks past. Seeing is believing and with cameras on duty 24-7 your chances of seeing the buck you are after are a whole lot better.