By Tony J. Peterson
The most prominent trail camera strategy in today’s deer-o-sphere is using them to confirm what a hunter already suspects about local whitetails. This is why so many of us mount cameras over standing soybean fields or the edges of food plots in July. We know bucks feed regularly in those spots, and we want to get pictures of them.
It’s pretty simple, really, but often not all that productive. If you’ve got a property locked up and know that no one will come in and mess with the summer patterns, then yes, you can plan a strategy around those images. But be honest, you were going to hunt those spots anyway, because they’re no-brainer locations for early-season bowhunting setups.
The problem with scouting that way is that it works with a good summer destination food source — but then, those patterns crumble just before or right after you get your first chance to slip in with a bow and try to intercept a target buck. This is where trail cameras can hurt us if we’re not careful.
It’s easy to hunt on memory, but a buck that has bailed on his summer food pattern isn’t likely to return to it in a way that will allow you to encounter him during shooting hours. This is especially true if you’re hunting pressured ground, whether public or private.
A better bet with scouting cameras is to use them to figure out what is going on in the places where you’re really not sure what the activity level is, or to sort out the routes target bucks are taking as they travel to/from food sources. Practically speaking, this is what scouting is all about, and it’s possible with the right camera strategy.
KILLABLE DEER IN HUNTABLE SPOTS
The idea obviously is to identify good bucks that might be moving during legal shooting hours, then pin down locations you can sneak into, and actually hunt, correctly. Doing so isn’t nearly as easy as we’d like to believe, though. If it were, success rates would be much, much higher.
Each year I hunt whitetails on public land in four or five states, and if there’s one thing I find consistently, it’s that the easy spots are nearly always worthless to hunt outside the hottest part of the rut. The better bucks I see, and occasionally arrow, almost always have made the mistake of moving during daylight either on a travel route or in a staging area, both of which will be in security cover.
While some big bucks seem to be terribly ensconced in a nocturnal lifestyle, most aren’t. They just don’t move a whole lot during daylight in any place but their favorite sanctuaries. This information matters, because those might be the only spots in which you’ll ever encounter them with enough daylight to get a legal shot.
These spots will almost always relate to a destination food source. That’s true even in the Northwoods, where there isn’t an agricultural field or food plot within miles. The deer usually have a feeding place in mind, but they’ll take their sweet time getting there — and most often, you’ll run out the clock before they poke their nose into any open areas.
So while the soybean field on your farm or parcel of public land is where the bucks will probably end up each night, how they get there and how they leave are what matter most to us hunters. The same goes for the oak ridge in the big woods or an irrigated alfalfa field out west.
My typical strategy is to start at the most obvious destination food sources and place cameras in the first patch of good cover off them, hanging in what appear to be high-traffic spots. This might be a ditch or ravine crossing or simply a trail carved down the face of a bluff. Regardless, the idea is to get an idea of which deer are moving through the cover near the most obvious food.
It’s important to remember here that the July woods can look a lot different from the September woods, and another thing entirely when you consider November. The first, most likely staging area off the food will last until the leaves drop or hunting pressure on the field edges pushes the deer deeper, or maybe persuades them to stay even farther back.
NO DICE…NOW WHAT?
The reason many of us don’t want to engage in this strategy is we won’t run in danger of having our SD cards maxed out with images. In fact, you might not capture anything that gets you excited. That’s a bummer, but it’s important. Eliminating dead ends isn’t as exciting as checking your camera and realizing that a herd of Booners has been traipsing through every day, but it’s also not nothing. Knowing where not to hunt matters, because it allows you to focus your efforts elsewhere.
This is why I try to run at least a couple trail cameras in question-mark locations. The idea is to figure out travel patterns in the cover, but you also must weigh the value of that information against how often you’ll slip in to check cameras and thus disturb the area. (That assumes you aren’t using a cellular camera, which eliminates the need to visit the spot regularly.)
If possible, I try to time my camera checks around rainstorms, but that’s far from a reliable strategy for minimizing disturbance. Instead, I force myself to give a camera at least a month in any given spot during the summer scouting period. Leaving a trail cam to “soak” in a spot for a minimum of four weeks means the deer will have plenty of time to get used to it, and all kinds of weather and the accompanying fronts will pass in that time. This allows me to compare deer movement to conditions and decide if there’s anything worth really paying attention to there.
If I do capture a good buck doing his thing a few times, it also gives me enough time to try to hang some more cameras and attempt to further pin down his daily habits. This is where different trains of thought merge onto the same track. Most of us think nailing down an exact buck’s routes is the goal, and it’s easy to slip into the mindset that deer do pretty much the same thing every day. But while they’re habitual critters, they don’t walk the same trails and utilize the same beds day after day unless they’re very comfortable in one given spot.
For most of us, those spots are behind plenty of “No Trespassing” signs and come with a serious price tag. The reality is, whitetails travel through their world in relation to the conditions and how they’ll be able to use their senses to stay safe. This means the buck that walks down a specific trail once a week is going somewhere else the other six days. Where are they? Ask yourself questions and try to answer them with long-range observation and more camera work.
For example, even though the travel pattern of a good buck on a specific ditch crossing might seem random, it probably isn’t. Think about where he’s coming from and where he’s going. Maybe there’s a pond tucked into the timber 200 yards away. Is he visiting it to get a drink? A well-placed camera can tell you.
Maybe the buck surprises you one evening as you’re swatting mosquitoes and looking through the spotting scope at a green bean field on your farm. Instead of emerging from the woods the way most of the other deer do, he pops up in a grassy swale on your neighbor’s property and hops a fence to reach the groceries where you can hunt.
All such in-person observations and clues gathered by your cameras will allow you to start homing in on an area that your target buck prefers. And that matters — a lot.
THE RIGHT NEIGHBORHOOD
While scouting for bow season we always strive to identify the exact tree from which we’ll arrow a good buck, during mid-summer we’re really just trying to pinpoint his preferred territory. Due to the fact so much can change from July or August to opening morning of the archery season, the idea is to get in the right neighborhood without letting the buck know you’re onto him.
This will allow you to set up a strategy for hunting the early season, but also be careful enough to preserve a buck’s safe zones until you need to slip in. Naturally, this is easier if you’re hunting private ground with limited pressure but is also a possibility on public land. You just need to understand there are no guarantees with the latter category, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to push it in a specific area.
What I’ve found through extensive camera work and summer scouting missions is that the areas I identify as hotspots for specific bucks in July are usually pretty close to where those bucks will be in September. There seems to be a big change in deer movement at that time, but a lot of it is simply that the big buck is becoming more cautious and not running into a field in broad daylight to munch away with his buddies.
That’s OK, though. If you run a practical camera strategy this summer, you’ll know where to set up off the easy food sources yourself. You’ll be able to tease out useful threads from the tapestry that is a buck’s daily habits, so you’ll know where to go even if the easy daylight activity dies on you.
Your Plan B will be way more well-thought-out than your hunting competition’s. So as you slip into a staging area or along a trail you know a specific buck uses under those conditions, you’ll have a better chance of filling an early-season tag.
Use cameras wisely. Your summer scouting mission isn’t finished just because you put out a bunch of cameras in June. Check them once a month and tweak their locations as needed in order to figure out why the local bucks are doing what they’re doing.
Tie that camera work into some long-range glassing and eventually you’ll start to see patterns emerge with specific bucks and how they conduct themselves on a daily basis. At that point, you’ll be in a good spot to get in and make the most of your early-season sits.