Advanced Trail-Cam Tactics
December 07, 2016
My introduction to trail cameras came quite differently than it did for most hunters. Back in the 1990s, while studying wildlife science at Mississippi State University, I was "awarded" an unpaid position by my advisor.
My goal, as a freshman student, was to gain experience working in my field. One of the graduate students was working on groundbreaking research for his master's degree employing "camera traps" to survey and monitor deer populations, and I was in charge of keeping cameras going in the field.
Although these early and crude 35mm film versions of what we now commonly call "game cameras" were not as technologically advanced as they are today, I immediately became excited about potential non-scientific uses of "camera traps." I regularly found myself imagining exactly what these cameras would reveal on the trails I grew up bowhunting back home in Pennsylvania.
Needless to say, the idea of having photographic evidence of the giant bucks I imagined was exciting. However, as I began to get involved with making my own "homebrew" versions of game cameras for personal use, I quickly realized that although my hunting spots had plenty of does, fawns, turkeys, raccoons, skunks, feral cats, coyotes, foxes, squirrels, bears, trespassers and young bucks, mature bucks were simply not there!
I suppose this is where my obsession with trail cameras and my passion for deer management met at the crossroads: it was time to grow more mature bucks to photograph and hunt!
After 15 years of intensively managing hundreds of hunting properties, I've learned that patterning
mature bucks — once they are present — is a whole new ball game. The advanced trail-camera strategies that follow have given me a competitive advantage, and they can do the same for you.
Home on the Range
Fact: when hunting a mature buck, you must get intimate with its home range, core area and how each fluctuates with the seasons. And unless you have access to GPS tracking collars, trail cameras are the tool for the job. There are many factors that affect a buck's home range and core area, and you need to develop a monitoring program to determine the behaviors of the big bucks you hunt.
Since these behaviors can change daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally and annually, your camera program should be in operation during those times. That's right, I never have camera down time on the properties I manage. If a buck is alive and establishing his routine of eating, resting and breeding, I want to know everything about it.
Most hunters pull their cameras out of the field in the "off-season," but the most successful hunters I know — the ones who consistently kill mature bucks — would look at me funny if I mentioned pulling cameras after the season's finale. When camera tracking mature bucks, there is no off-season!
There was a time when deer biologists generally agreed the home range of mature bucks was somewhere around one square mile, or 640 acres. However, dozens of popular studies have revealed bucks with home ranges even smaller and bucks with home ranges as big as 13,000 acres!
So, we now know the home-range size of a mature buck varies based on individual personality, age, habitat quality, population characteristics and more. That's where creative trail-camera deployment can provide insight on the bucks you are targeting.
About a decade ago, while working with my own property, I realized I needed to forget about the
research papers and do some things differently. So, I decided to take my own personal farm: a well-
managed 95-acre tract, formerly farmed and heavily hunted, and attempt to piece together the puzzle of individual, older age-class bucks.
I committed to five years of intelligence gathering, and no killing. Since my farm is located in Pennsylvania, I knew high hunter densities, trespassing, poaching, deer-vehicle collisions, a poor buck age structure and mortality from hunting on neighboring properties would all be sure-bet limiting factors to my ability to grow and hold mature bucks. Still, this is real-world stuff, and I had questions to answer.
When it comes to home range and core area, I find that although mature bucks are consistently inconsistent, seasonal shifts in core areas tend to be very predictable from year to year (provided the bucks survive!).
In other words, once you determine how a buck uses different portions of his home range during various seasons, you can begin to nail down his behaviors (rutting, summering, feeding, bedding) and ultimately his whereabouts during hunting season.
A buck's core area represents a much smaller area within his home range where a he spends a significant amount of time. The survival advantage is that he gets to know it very well and, in a sense, has home-field advantage when it comes to evading you! We know that when a buck is born, the likelihood of dispersing to a different habitat (neighbor's property) is likely.
Research on the percentage of yearling buck dispersal shows some variation in both the proportion of the buck population that naturally disperses and exactly how far they will go. Once a young buck establishes his "home-field advantage" he tends to stay, barring any major habitat disturbances. This doesn't mean, however, that he won't exhibit seasonal shifts within this home range.
In fact, I've found many mature bucks exhibit two totally different core areas within their home range: one for summering and one for the breeding season. Bedding and water sources also change as they make the shift.
When I start "camera trapping" a property, I like to cast a wide net and then methodically narrow my focus. For example, when I purchased the 95-acre Pennsylvania farm where I live, I started with 10 camera stations.
I placed my first camera 15 yards from the edge of an inside corner with great results. Not only are inside corner food plots great killing zones, they are tremendous areas for cameras to survey a high percentage of the bucks in an area.
My second camera placement may surprise you. This camera, and the two that followed, changed the way I manage deer today and greatly enhanced my value as a deer consultant. Cameras two, three and four didn't even land within my property borders.
Instead, I strategically placed them on land owned by friendly neighbors. Think outside the box, literally! During my five-year project, I identified at least nine mature bucks that summered several miles from my farm. Even though I had a food-plot research facility within my 95 acres, these mature bucks took advantage of the large agricultural buffet several property boundaries away.
When rumors of a giant buck got back to me one summer, I decided to ask a neighbor if I could teach him how to use his trail cameras. It was a win-win situation, as the first time I pulled his SD card I realized the rumor of a big, mature buck was true. My neighbor got excited about the big buck he was sure to kill in bow season (of course, he immediately placed two stands in the area).
Meanwhile, I knew better; the buck would later die in my food plots! The more interesting part was that this buck was one I had been "camera tracking," and the missing piece of puzzle was where he summered. This buck always traveled with a much larger, older buck that disappeared from my radar.
Like clockwork, these bucks disappeared from my feeders just prior to spring greenup only to return late August/early September! Even after the older buck disappeared (I suspected poaching), the younger buck continued to exhibit the same seasonal pattern. It was evident they had figured out the best core areas within their home range to feed, rest and breed.
As a result, several law-abiding hunters in the neighborhood failed to kill either of them. The younger (7'‰½ years old) of the two was finally killed by one of my friends in one of my food plots. I'm satisfied batting .500 on a small property that represents a fraction of a buck's home range. In Pennsylvania, a 7'‰½-year-old buck is a "Powerball" buck, and I understood his habits better than he did, simply because of my trail-camera strategies.
When to Move Cameras
When using trail cameras, a particular buck of interest is found in one of two ways. First, a "known" immature buck is photographed from year to year until he reaches maturity; second, a mature buck shows up due to a shift in his home range or core area.
When a known mature buck is on the hit list, you will have enough intelligence to know which stands represent your greatest odds of success. The second situation — when a "new" buck shows up out of the blue — is worth a more detailed look. Inheriting big, mature bucks someone else raised tends to get me bonus points with my clients (and my kids).
This scenario is why I keep a few trail cameras sitting in my office as supplements to what I'm already running. I like to attract these bucks from the neighborhood when we can legally kill them! With the development of high-quality, year-round food plot programs, this technique is surprisingly easy. Well established food-plot programs, with the right forage products for the situation, make this possible by "keeping" these rut roamers around for a few more days.
As a client once commented, "Does in food plots ultimately equate to bucks on walls." Quality food plots, coupled with a savvy trail-camera monitoring program, make consistently killing mature bucks exponentially easier.
After owning and/or hunting a property for a few years, you will begin to establish known camera stations that are consistent mature buck producing sites. As a result, I don't move many of my cameras after mid-summer. I know which cameras are likely to blow up with mature buck photos when day lengths shorten, and I know which camera locations will reveal primarily does, fawns and young bucks.
The presence of heavy scraping activity does change the game. In fact, I will move a camera to a new spot when heavy scraping activity begins. A scrape is frequented and utilized by all ages and both sexes of deer from pre-rut through post-rut.
There simply is not a better place to monitor which bucks utilize your hunting property during the fall and winter breeding season. If you know your area well enough, you're already aware of specific scrapes that appear in the same location year after year. These traditional scrapes are, by far, the best locations for establishing which bucks include your "deer dirt" in their rutting travels.
Many times I hear hunters argue that a handful of photos of a particular buck at a scrape don't mean much, since he may have merely been on a journey that particular day/night. As a hunter, biologist and fan of old bucks (regardless of headgear), I can't relate to that thinking.
In fact, when I hear someone talk like that I immediately know they do not have much experience hunting mature bucks. The fact is mature bucks don't act like the photogenic Hollywood yearlings and middle-
aged bucks that flood your SD cards. They couldn't be any more different in every activity and behavior, and that includes how often they stop at your smelly, noisy box attached to a tree!
Developing fresh intel on mature bucks is guaranteed to become easier as trail-camera technology advances. New features such as wireless trail cameras and 360-degree fields of view will allow big buck hunters to uncover the habits and whereabouts of savvy, mature bucks.
As a fan of trail-camera history and technology, I'm really looking forward to having more high-tech tools to minimize my presence in areas where mature bucks lounge, feed and breed. That is, until adequate knowledge has been gleaned to suggest I should sneak into one of my well-chosen ambush sites and cash in on years of surveillance.
Value-Packed Camera Options
A thorough buck surveillance program requires multiple cameras. Thankfully, Wildgame Innovations offers plenty of high-quality models that will allow you to blanket your hunting property without breaking the bank.
The Cloak 6 ($69.99) is a 6MP camera featuring a 60-foot detection range, 24-piece infrared LED flash, trigger speed under a second and video mode. Other highlights include a TRU Brown finish, wide-angle 16:9 aspect ratio, fixed 30-second delay and water-resistant case.
For even more stealth in the field, a Cloak 6 LightsOut version ($79.99) is available featuring an invisible black LED flash with and 55-foot detection range.
The Vision 8 ($89.99) is an 8MP camera featuring a 70-foot infrared flash/detection range, trigger speed under a second and video mode. Other highlights include a TRU Brown finish, wide-angle 16:9 aspect ratio and water-resistant case with lockable door.
A Vision 8 LightsOut TruBark version ($129.99) featuring an invisible black LED flash with a 65-foot flash/detection range is also available.
All Cloak and Vision cameras use eight AA batteries and accept SD cards up to 32GB.