Technology has had a profound impact on the deer-hunting landscape in recent years, and nowhere is that more evident than in the realm of trail cameras. These modern marvels of high-tech engineering have dramatically improved our ability to locate and pattern mature bucks — all without even being in the woods!
Yet in spite of ever-advancing trail-cam capabilities, from "invisible" LED flash and time-lapse modes to ultra high-resolution image quality and remote photo retrieval via cellular data networks, I think it's fair to say most hunters are only scratching the surface when it comes to tapping their cameras' potential. Sure, most serious whitetail hunters are running a few cameras, but how many are conducting scientific deer surveys of their hunting areas?
As both an avid hunter and professional deer manager, I can tell you with certainty that conducting a trail-camera survey to estimate the deer population, age structure and density where you hunt is one of the most important tools at your disposal. A survey will not only provide a snapshot (pun intended) of where your deer herd is today but also help you make important decisions about which deer — and how many — to target going forward.
Camera surveys have been used for more than 30 years as a means for population estimation and have come a long way in that time. With the onset of infrared-triggered cameras, longer battery life, longer flash range, increased memory, etc., the accuracy of contemporary camera surveys can exceed 90 percent. That means you can capture nine out of every 10 bucks on a given property simply be conducting a survey. Sound good? Well, read on — and then get to work!
Timing your camera survey is important, as it is directly relates to the success of your efforts. The survey needs to be conducted either in early fall (late August-early October) or late winter (January-February), as these are the periods when baited camera sites will attract both hard-antlered bucks and also does and fawns.
I personally prefer early fall, because then the survey provides my clients and I with pictures of deer we will be hunting that season. Early fall is also a better time to more easily identify fawns, resulting in a more accurate fawn-to-doe ratio.
Regardless of where you live, a good rule of thumb is to begin your survey within one week of the majority of your bucks shedding their velvet. This ensures your survey will not be dominated by aggressive bucks and helps aid in the assumption that does are as likely as bucks to visit your camera sites.
If you are too late getting started, you will experience buck-dominated bait sites. This will skew your buck-to-doe ratio in favor of bucks and will also result in a lower than actual deer-density estimate.
The math behind the science is fairly straightforward and relies very heavily on a single factor — the number of unique bucks identified in your trail-camera images. The rest is easy.
Once you have determined the number of unique bucks in the survey area, you need to count how many total occurrences of bucks, does and fawns you had in the survey images. For example, if you have a single picture that has three does, that counts as three occurrences.
The accompanying sidebar shows the mathematical formulas and results for estimating the total deer population, density, buck-to-doe ratio and fawn-to-doe ratio on a 600-acre property.
Two other useful pieces of information are produced by the camera survey, and both require the ability to accurately estimate a deer's age; buck age structure and quality of yearling bucks. Buck age structure is very important when considering harvest criteria on a property.
The age structure can be determined by simply applying an age class to each of the unique bucks in the survey and then compiling them in a list that can be graphed or charted based on how many bucks fall into each age category.
Quality of yearling bucks is very straightforward to calculate. I simply separate the yearlings into two categories; spikes and branch-antlered bucks. This ratio of spikes as a part of the yearling category can prove a good measure of management techniques and/or harvest criteria.
A shoot/don't shoot book can also be made that supplements the master camera survey book. The shoot/don't shoot book can act as a guide for the owners, lease members or guests for the bucks they should/shouldn't harvest based on the management goals of the property.
So, now that you understand what to do with your camera survey data, let's discuss the details for conducting the survey.
Camera surveys are like any other population estimate — the larger the sample (property size), the more accurate they will be. This means the more acreage you can include in the survey area, the higher your probability of having a true picture of your deer herd. I use 350 acres as a minimum for having high confidence in the population statistics generated from the survey.
If you don't hunt and/or manage 350 acres, you can still run the survey, knowing that with deer movement and home-range sizes you may have results skewed in either direction. There are ways to eliminate this problem, one of which is to simply invite neighboring landowners to join your survey.
I have had success with this in the past, and it's a great way to make your neighbors feel included and earn their support when it comes to making management decisions and sharing harvest data.
Once you have defined the boundaries of your survey area, you need to get a good aerial map of the property with the survey boundary lines clearly marked. It is important that the map has a scale so you can set up a grid overlay. A typical camera density is one camera per 100 acres. Next, you need to overlay your 100-acre grid on the property map.
This can be accomplished by either drawing directly on the map or by drawing the grid (making sure to use the map scale) onto a clear plastic sheet and physically laying it over the map. A 100-acre square will have sides 2,087 feet long. Once the grid is drawn, depending on how it lays on the map you can choose to either make your camera sites as close to the 100-acre centers as possible (middle of the squares) or as close to the grid intersections as possible. Both will yield the same result, which is evenly spaced cameras at 100-acre intervals.
It is very important to set your camera locations in areas that are easily accessible by truck or ATV so you can efficiently bait the sites and check cameras with as little disturbance as possible. It is also vital that each camera station be pre-baited for at least a week prior to "going live" with the survey. I like to set up and test cameras during this week so I can work out any kinks and be assured of proper camera function before I actually start gathering survey data.
It is critical each "camera station" in your survey be set up properly, as this is where the "action" happens.
Here is a checklist of criteria each camera location should meet:
* The camera must face north (or as close to it as possible).
* Bait should be placed 12-18 feet away from the camera and centered in the frame of the picture.
* The camera should be hung so that, regardless of angle, when you are standing in the middle of the bait site the lens is pointing at your belt buckle.
* Each camera site should be uniquely identified either alphabetically or numerically.
* A sign or placard should be placed two or three feet behind the bait site displaying the identification number of that site.
* The bait site should never include a feeder of any kind, as even spin/gravity feeder legs can obstruct too much of a buck to properly identify him.
* All vegetation should be mowed/cleared/cut in front of and behind the bait site. A good rule is to keep everything cleared from the camera out to 30 feet deep and about 20 feet wide.
Survey Field Work
Each camera should be programmed to display time/date and have a 10-minute delay between pictures. Trigger speed is not particularly important when the deer are at a bait site, as they will generally hang around for a while.
If you wait until after the pre-baiting period is over to test your cameras, make sure to test each one before leaving the camera site. I like to run my cameras for a couple days before the survey actually begins and then check the cards to make sure everything is functioning properly. This also gives me a chance to confirm deer utilization of the bait site before I begin the survey.
You should be able to gauge bait utilization during the pre-bait period so that you're familiar with the frequency at which you need to reapply the bait throughout the survey. In most regions of the country, 50 pounds of corn per site will last from two to four days.
The survey itself should run a minimum of 10 consecutive days. I prefer to run my surveys for 14-20 days, depending on the property and weather conditions.
Since you're doing the survey on your own and may not be able to check bait sites as frequently, here's a trick to keep deer using the site — add an attractant/mineral to your bait site, such as Wildgame Innovations Buck Grub, Apple Crush, Dirt Bag or Acorn Rage.
These products will not only draw deer to the bait sites more quickly but will remain residually in the soil and keep deer attracted to the site even when the corn is gone.
Obviously, your cameras are the most important equipment for your survey. It is paramount you have good-functioning, reliable cameras that take quality pictures. There are many models available today that fit the bill, though my personal favorites are cameras from Wildgame Innovations.
You will likely need a significant number of cameras (depending on the size of the land to be surveyed), and I think it is important to have the same/similar style, brand and quality camera at each site. This is important when it comes to making decisions relative to identifying unique bucks.
Flash range should also be similar so as not to skew the survey in favor of a bait site with a better camera. Wildgame's Cloak 6 and Vision 8 models are affordable options that are easy to set up and available at most major retailers.
Additionally, you'll need the materials to make the camera station placards. I use landscape posts, sign holders or T posts with a wooden or plastic sign that has the number drawn on it. Make sure to make it large enough to read in the pictures. A 3-4-inch tall number or letter works well.
You'll also need the tools necessary to clear the area around/behind the bait site. A small chainsaw,
machete and weed whacker should be all that is required. Other than that, you'll only need the corn and/or attractants and you're ready to roll.
A trail-camera survey, in my opinion, is the most important management tool a hunter can use to properly manage for trophy-class bucks and quality overall deer hunting. The survey can also serve to increase real estate values for landowners. So, if you only have permission to hunt the land or are part of a lease, don't be afraid to ask the property owner to share costs.
The Ultimate Survey Cam
Thanks to new advances in trail-camera technology, you can still conduct a reliable deer survey of your hunting property even if you face budget constraints, limited time in the field or game regulations that won't allow you to bait a camera site with corn and/or keep it freshened every few days.
If you know of any food sources deer are visiting regularly, such as food plots, crop fields or mast-producing trees, the 360° Cam from Wildgame Innovations ($199.99) may be your saving grace. This unique camera has the ability to take pictures anywhere around it, literally 360 degrees, making it ideal for capturing images in fields and on natural food sources where deer are not "locked" onto one spot.
Other highlights of the 360° Cam include 12MP still images, 720p high-definition video, rapid trigger speed and a custom, T-post mounting system that makes this camera ideal for food plots, woodland clearings and other areas where trees are in short supply.