Long, stout beams. Curved and towering tines. Stickers, splits and inside points. The antlers rose from their heads like towering crowns of driftwood, reaching toward the sky and wrapped in velvet.
It was the second offseason in a row that I had captured these two bucks on camera, but other than the obvious adrenaline rush provided, were these pictures going to do me any good? Only time would tell.
The Importance Of Off-Season Trail Cameras
Over the past decade, trail cameras have become one of the most important tools in the avid whitetail hunter’s arsenal, and for good reason. Trail cameras give us eyes where usually we can’t see. They open doors that are most often closed.
All 365 days a year, trail cameras can help improve our chances of harvesting a mature whitetail. But most often, hunters focus their trail cam efforts during the hunting season and ignore many of the offseason months. This is a serious missed opportunity.
From the moment your season ends until the next season begins, there are good reasons to have trail cameras running on your hunting property. Most important of these, in my opinion, is the use of trail cameras to conduct herd surveys, to monitor antler drop, and then to take inventory of target bucks.
Trail Camera Surveys
If you’d like to better manage the whitetail herd on the properties you hunt, you should definitely look into setting up a trail camera survey.
Trail camera surveys and the analysis of the results can be intensive, but at a basic level the survey involves baiting a number of sites across your property, photographing deer with trail cameras at these spots for about two weeks, and then using a set of calculations to extrapolate population dynamics based on the deer photographed.
These surveys can be conducted just after hunting season, or more popularly, just before the season.
A properly conducted trail camera survey can help you understand whitetail herd dynamics such as deer density, buck to doe ratio, fawn to doe ratio, age structure, and much more. This kind of information is critical when trying to implement (and measure the success of) any kind of serious whitetail management plan.
If you’re interested in trying a trail camera survey, the Quality Deer Management Association has some valuable resources.
Monitoring Antler Drop
If you’re a shed hunter, the period just after the past hunting season is a great time to have your cameras in the woods and at the ready. For the serious shed hunter, properly timing your jaunts into the woods is crucial.
You need to be in the woods early enough to find antlers before the squirrels do, but not too soon, as you don’t want to spook deer off the property before they drop their antlers. The key to understanding the proper timing is to monitor your local deer with trail cams.
To do this, place cameras near the best winter food sources on your property and then, if legal in your state, place corn or some kind of feed block in front of them. Deer will naturally focus on these prime food sources (such as brassicas, corn, or soybeans), and then the bait will ensure that deer passing by will stop long enough for you to get a good look at them.
Replenish your bait and check your cameras once a week until your pictures show you that most the bucks have shed their antlers. When you see more pedicles than points, it’s time to start shed hunting.
Summer Inventory and Analysis
The time I enjoy using trail cameras the most is during the dog days of summer, leading up to the hunting season, when big velvet bucks start showing up in force. More than just fun, though, using trail cameras at this time can help you achieve several goals.
First, capturing trail cam photos of bucks in the summer allows you to gauge what the potential for your hunting property is for the upcoming season. In some cases, a summer inventory check can help you focus your efforts come autumn and help you determine where to spend your time.
Secondly, summer trail camera pictures can help you accurately age or score potential target bucks. For many of us, age or antler class are the primary factors that we judge a shot decision on, but field judging a deer during a hunt can be difficult in the moment.
By analyzing summer photos, you’ll be better prepared to make an in-the-field decision when a known buck approaches.
Third, you can use some of the information garnered from summer trail camera pictures to help develop a hunting strategy. Consistent photos in certain areas can help you better understand a buck’s core range, and although some bucks relocate to new ranges in September, a significant enough number of bucks will still stay close to their summer haunts.
Keep track of where and when you most often spot target bucks on camera and then confirm if they’re still present in September. If so, you now have a treasure trove of information to help plan your hunts, access routes and ambushes.
I continued my offseason trail camera surveillance, and the two giant bucks continued to show for another four weeks after the initial photo mentioned earlier. With the insights gleaned from these photos, I established estimates of their age, a good idea of where I thought they were primarily bedding, and I confirmed a few favorite travel routes. I was armed and ready to hunt.
The second evening of my hunting season was a wet one, and I sheltered myself from the rain in my Redneck Blind. Several hours later, here he came.
Thanks to some strategic trail camera placement in the offseason, I sat and watched the long, stout beams approach. Curved and towering tines. Stickers, kickers and a few broken points. All that work in the offseason suddenly became worth it.
Mark Kenyon runs Wired To Hunt, one of the top deer hunting resources online, featuring daily deer hunting news, stories and strategies for the whitetail addict.