Daylight was just breaking on a late-December morning. I had been in the "Basket Stand" overlooking a clearcut for more than 30 minutes, waiting on the first rays of sunshine. It was a clear, cold morning, and expectations were high.
As time passed, the deer woods revealed a quiet, uneventful morning. Finally, at 12:19 p.m., I spotted something in the clearcut that hadn't been there earlier. It was half a deer rack about 150 yards away. A quick look with my binoculars immediately told me the deer was a 9-pointer that would score in the mid-140s.
You probably wonder how I could be so sure of what I was looking at. The answer is simple. I had already seen this buck several times in trail camera photos. Technology has come a long way in deer hunting!
Today's wildlife trail cameras are fun and entertaining -- you never know what wonderful and sometimes crazy photographs may show up. But trail cameras are more than just fun; they've become a useful tool for managing deer herds. And we've also learned how to employ trail cameras to find, pattern and sometimes kill the most "unkillable" of bucks -- those ghost-like mature whitetail bucks that go unseen on many big-buck tracts across North America.
HOW'D WE EVER DO WITHOUT THEM?
I've been using trail cameras in my home state of Georgia for more than 14 years. They've become my passion. Certainly it makes hunting much more enjoyable if you know there's a chance of shooting a quality deer in your area. On the hunt just mentioned, before I started using trail cameras I would have been out of that stand by 9 a.m., headed to the Waffle House for breakfast. Now I know better.
Do you always harvest the buck you discover in your pictures? No, successfully shooting a mature buck is always a challenging task. But I do know one thing. We have not harvested one trophy buck on our farm in Georgia during the last 10 years that wasn't first caught on camera. I typically run about three trail cameras year 'round, and when I really get after it, I'll have eight to 10 running at the same time. My average number of pictures taken in a single year is between 2,000 and 3,000.
As the director of operations for Banks Farm in Morgan County, Georgia, I work on land that is very well managed. It holds plenty of mature bucks. Make no mistake, though, these deer are hunted, and they are as wary as any mature bucks anywhere in the country. But the cumulative effect of years of experience gained in using trail cameras has made it much easier for me to locate and then attempt to pattern mature bucks on our farm.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT CAMERA
Cost is always an issue, and the old saying "You get what you pay for" has never been truer than when it comes to buying a trail camera. I've used $100 cameras and I've used $500 cameras, and I've had various successes and failures. I would not recommend any of the inexpensive cameras costing under $125.
FLASH VS. NO-FLASH
The no-flash, or infrared, cameras are becoming more popular with hunters these days. However, although some hunters may argue the point, over the years I've found that the flash doesn't seem to bother mature bucks all that much. If the batteries get weak and the camera drags, or makes a noise, that definitely will spook a deer 10 times faster than a flash. Also, the no-flash cameras are higher in cost compared to the flash cameras, and in total darkness they take only black-and-white photos. I prefer to get color pictures if possible.
You can still find excellent film cameras on the market, and the high-end ones still take the best photos. But with the time and money you have to spend on film and developing, a digital camera is probably your best bet. Extra features on the digital cameras include being able to erase unwanted pictures, downloading the photos onto your computer, and putting the photos in different files for viewing and management purposes.
TURNING TRAIL-CAMERA FUN INTO BIG-BUCK SUCCESS
After years of using trail cameras and getting photos of mature bucks, and then seeing where those bucks were harvested, I have learned that if you stick to an area where a certain buck was photographed, your chances of harvesting him will go up.
If I know about a certain buck from earlier photos, I'll try to locate him in the fall by placing cameras in certain areas. I begin the process in early October and continue through December by setting up cameras on scrapes. With a camera on a scrape setup, the number of pictures you get will often be low, but the majority of those photos will be bucks.
I've gotten pictures of as many as 11 bucks on one scrape in one night. A key behavior pattern I've learned through the u
se of trail cameras is that older bucks don't always visit the same scrapes every night. Instead, most mature bucks I've photographed seem to be on a three- to six-day rotation. That means if a buck was in an area, he will be back. This knowledge keeps me in the woods longer and ultimately increases my hunting success.
A number of big bucks have been harvested on our farm less than 200 yards from the scrape/camera setup and in fewer than 10 days from the time the deer's last picture was taken.
After the season is over, it's time to find a mature buck for next season. Using trail cameras for this endeavor is much more than a hobby for me. I enjoy it as much as I do actually hunting, if not more. The first thing you want to do is make sure you know how your camera operates before placing it in the woods. Most cameras will trigger themselves when facing direct sunlight, and you don't want moving limbs, sticks or weeds in front of your camera lens.
Where is the best place to put a post-season camera? Food sources or feeders (if you use feeders) are always excellent locations in which to get multiple pictures of different animals. If you do set up over a feeder, be sure to set your camera's timer to take pictures at 15- to 20-minute intervals because the animals are usually there for a while and you don't want to end up with 10 pictures of the same deer.
Older-age bucks usually won't come to new feeders. However, if you'll put some feed on the edge of a food plot or trail, they'll often come to this feed without hesitation. Doing this may get you a picture of an old buck that no one has ever seen before.
As mentioned, I like to use my cameras year 'round. This enables me to monitor such important things as when bucks are shedding their antlers, when fawns are being dropped, when new antler growth starts (allowing me to watch the progress of that growth), when the bucks start getting back into their bachelor groups, and when they start shedding their velvet. Perhaps more importantly, my cameras help me pinpoint areas where the bigger bucks are hanging out before anyone else knows this information.
Trails are good bets for locations likely to provide a variety of deer photos, but unless you have a quick-reaction camera, you will miss a lot of pictures. For a trail setup, place the camera facing up or down the trail so the deer will be in the trigger area longer. With the aid of my trail cameras photos, I try to keep an annual log of how many different bucks I know about in certain areas and what their ages are. The cameras also allow me to determine which bucks made it through the season, so that in January or February I can start planning for the following season.
OTHER CAMERA TIPS
Even though I run cameras all year long, there are peak times when I put out as many cameras as possible. I've found that the best time to get a picture of a big buck is in February. In our area of the Georgia Piedmont, most mature bucks will still have their antlers at this time. There is little to no food in the woods in February, and most mature bucks are frequenting good food sources as they try to recover from the rigors of the rut and deal with the cold weather.
August is another good month in which to get some great pictures of big bucks. The antlers should be almost fully developed by then, and the weather in August is hot and dry, which makes bucks come out in search of quality food. Velvet shedding occurs in late August until the first week in September, and this always makes for some exciting photos.
The pre-rut period in October is also an excellent time for getting photos. Bucks are beginning to make their scrapes, and as mentioned earlier, scrapes are great locations for getting photos of that trophy buck you may have your eye on.
Dealing with trail cameras and the problem of trying to find the perfect spot in which to place a camera led me to develop a new product I've named the "Perfect Tree." The idea came when I found several scrapes under some privet but I couldn't find anywhere to hang a camera. The Perfect Tree is an adjustable camera stand that can be used with most trail cameras.
The stand allows me to put a camera in the perfect place at the perfect angle and at the perfect height, instead of compromising with a tree that doesn't allow for the best setup. The Perfect Tree also allows me to utilize my cameras in fields, pastures, food plots, creeks, swamps and other places void of trees.