April 06, 2011
By Mike Rex
There seems to be one trait common to all the consistently successful hunters I personally know. Simply put, that trait is they work hard at it, all the time. For these hunters, the end of hunting season doesn't necessarily signal the end of the hunt. For these hunters, there is no "off season."
Today, in the age of technology and information sharing, there are tools available to the deer hunter that enable us to have a better understanding of the land and its topography, as well as how the deer use it and move through it. We now have the ability to create a "reconnaissance network" for our hunting grounds that helps us to stay involved and on top of the process year round.
Historical deer movement and buck sign data points collected with the aid of a GPS unit and trail camera, when applied to a 3D map, can paint a "birds-eye" view of deer activity for the area we hunt, allowing us to better predict what's most likely to happen in the future at any given time of the year. Any stockbroker will tell you that the best way to predict the future is to learn from the past.
A simple strategy used by hunters is to plot deer sign using GPS coordinates. An example of this would be walking a wooded ridge or hollow marking every rub and scrape and plotting the data on a 3D map. This info can be especially helpful in heavily forested or "big woods" setting where a definitive deer pattern can sometimes be hard to visualize. This can also be a good way to cut time off of the learning curve of a new property.
Employing a GPS unit as a part of your reconnaissance network is probably most effective in the late winter or early spring when the woods are open and sign from the previous year is still easily visible.
As I mentioned in a previous story last fall ("Wireless Revolution," October 2010), trail cameras have revolutionized the way many of us scout and hunt. There are two primary advantages of using a trail camera as part of your reconnaissance network. They give you the ability to observe the deer undisturbed and they afford the potential to scrutinize photos from various angles for as long as necessary. This opportunity rarely presents itself when viewing game in the field. As the fall hunting season approaches, the use of wireless trail cameras should be considered as they allow you to observe an area without intruding or altering deer activity.
I am able to observe the local deer herd that resides behind my home year-round. Several years ago, just over the hill from my back porch, I found a matched set of sheds from a buck I had never laid eyes on. I found a single shed from the same buck in the same area the following year, again without ever seeing the deer. The next year, I found the buck lying dead in a pond within 100 yards of where I had found the three sheds. Again, I had never seen the buck alive on the hoof. I'm convinced this buck's home range -- or at least winter range -- stopped just over the hill from my house. My friend, Sean White, from here in southeast Ohio, has run a network of wireless trail cameras on his property year-round for many years. From this reconnaissance, he has also observed apparent dividing lines that are not easily explained without an actual physical barrier.
"For whatever reason, some deer just stay on certain sides of the property," said White. Rarely, if ever, do they cross the imaginary line. Plotting this kind of data on a 3D map is very helpful when targeting or determining the home range of a specific deer.
Plotting the GPS coordinates of trail camera placement on a 3D map can help you to see "the big picture." Commonly, a version of "Google Earth" is employed. There are free mapping programs that work well, in addition to those you must pay for, and some can include GPS coordinates. GPS coordinates can be downloaded to the full version of Google Earth by dumping all the data points onto a 3D map. This saves the time of entering each manually.
It is often overlooked that not only pictures, but also the metadata gathered by a trail camera, can be a valuable tool for trending and predicting deer movement. By the term "metadata," I mean other data or information. Some cameras stamp information at each triggered event including time, temperature, moon phase and other information. Each photo I take with my BuckEye Cam includes the time the photo was taken, the temperature, distance at which the target can activate the motion sensor, the camera model, exposure, delay, moon phase and a number of other elements.
From this information, a report or chart can be generated that shows which of the cameras has the highest activity during a certain time period, moon phase, temperature or even certain light conditions. For example, I can decipher which camera is the most active between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. or which camera is most active during a specific moon phase period. Obviously, any combination can be compared.
So, how many cameras do you need? Some experts believe that one camera for every 150 acres is sufficient to keep tabs on a local deer herd, but I think it varies by topography, available cover and deer density. In the unglaciated hills where I live and hunt, the number of cameras required to get an accurate view is probably higher than that. In a more agricultural setting with smaller woodlots and large fields, the number may be less. Each year, new bucks seem to appear and disappear in any given area throughout various times of the rut. I believe some of this is the result of mature bucks "spreading out" so to speak, after the bachelor groups break up in the fall. With does outnumbering bucks in most areas of the whitetail's range, it is natural that some bucks would seek out new areas with less competition. Following an individual buck's whereabouts throughout the season can be extremely difficult, especially for those of us who don't have access to contiguous square miles of territory. In my opinion, the more "eyes in the woods" you have, the better your chance of gathering adequate useful information.
Where are the best places to set up trail cameras to gather the most pertinent reconnaissance? The obvious locations to set up shop include historical travel corridors, rub lines, field edges, pinch points or bottlenecks, (such as inside corners in agricultural areas and saddles in the hill country), water and preferred food sources. One of my favorite camera locations is over a perennial scrape. Perennial scrapes are scrapes that appear in the same place, usually on flat ground and under the same licking branch year after year. Perennial scrapes in this part of the country are usually located under sapling beech trees, just as perennial rubs are usually made on soft wood trees such as white pine or cedar.
I believe a lot of hunting is luck or simply being in the right place at the right time. I also believe that the harder you work at something, the luckier you will become. If you're looking to increase your involvement in "the chase" year-round and want to methodically improve your odds of getting lucky on a consistent basis, consider taking advantage of the technology and tools now available to all of us.