As an underclassman at Palestine High School in Illinois, I had the distinction of serving as the sentinel officer for our chapter of Future Farmers of America. At the beginning of our meetings, the vice president would call roll of officers. When he got to me, I’d recite, “Stationed by the door. It is my duty to see that the door is open to our friends at all times and that they are welcome.”
Yes, it was my duty to stand watch, so to speak. As best I could, anyway; I was all of 5 feet 7 inches and 140 pounds soaking wet, so I really wasn’t physically qualified for the post. Nevertheless, it was in FFA that I learned the meaning of the term “sentry duty.”
In today’s world of copious whitetail technology, we trophy hunters have many tools and gadgets to assist us in our endeavors. Satellite imagery and topographical maps can guide our paths. Carbon-lined clothing and ozone-generating devices squelch human odors. Laser rangefinders help us more accurately deliver broadheads and bullets of every conceivable design. And virtually no hunter goes afield these days without an app-heavy smartphone. But of all our prevalent techno gear, nothing has changed the landscape of mature buck hunting more than the digital trail camera.
As we all know, a camera is an invaluable scouting tool. The image data gathered can be extremely helpful when targeting a specific animal or certain age-class buck. However, if used carelessly, this tool can just as easily become your Achilles’ heel. There’s more to running scouting cameras than just hanging them on trees and turning them on.
HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED
Back in the “Dark Ages,” I used cinder-block-sized 35mm film cameras that ran off D-cell batteries to simply acquire frame-worthy live photos of mature bucks. All of us running cameras back then did this, one film roll at a time.
Those cameras worked. But with the advent of digital models, SD cards and longer-lasting batteries, over the last several years I’ve shifted my focus. Instead of trying to capture scenic big-buck photos, my goal now has become to collect relevant hunting data. I want to document the date, time, moon phase, direction of travel and behavioral tendencies and personality traits of specific animals, along with seasonal ranges. But above all else, I simply want proof of life.
LETTING CAMERAS ‘SOAK’
One of my favorite ways to use scouting cameras is to leave them out for extended periods between checks. This “soaking” strategy can be especially useful for gathering intel on bucks that are highly sensitive to human disturbance. So when I’m fortunate enough to fill both my buck tags in my home state of Illinois before year end, I don’t just call it a season. Rather, I gear up for more camera data collection to assist me the following year.
First, I’ll gather my trail cameras from the timber (usually in mid-December) and do a general health check on each one. I’ll fill them all with fresh lithium batteries and clean, formatted SD cards. I’ll also treat all rubber gasket door seals with gasket grease to prevent winter weather wear and dry rot.
The next free day I have, with a pack full of fresh cameras, a sharp hand saw and a good pair of boots and brush pants, I’ll take a walk. I might go deep into the suspected home range of a mature buck or two that eluded me that season. Or I might investigate a new area that’s remote and isolated. Either way, my goal will be to gather as much intel as I can for an extended period of time: a “long soak,” if you will.
This time of winter, mature buck sign is easily spotted. Deer trails look like worn-down, winding, muddy livestock paths.In good areas, large rubs on cedars or pines (or even fence posts) are found shredded to ribbons. Interior scrapes the size of car hoods are evident. Licking branches can be noted overhead, twisted up like woody pretzels. If nearby cover is found to be thick now, it will likely be dense year-round; concave depressions can be observed in the leaf litter, giving away bedding locations.
Once I enter the bedding area, I’ll intentionally try to bump into the buck I might have in mind, knowing full well he’ll likely return. Then I simply blanket the area of greatest sign density with several well placed, fresh cameras. My intent is to leave them “soaking” until late-winter antler drop and on into spring green-up.
About three months after hanging, I’ll return to shed hunt the area and collect my cameras. The images I pull will give me a solid amount of unfettered, unmolested data I can hopefully use to target a certain buck the following deer season. One early-winter trip into a mature buck’s suspected core area with a few soaker cameras can yield copious levels of information.
Of course, you then have to come up with a plan for harvesting that animal when the next season opens, but you’re starting out with some data to work from. Photos, sign and hopefully sheds are a lot of information garnered for the “low-pressure price” of two trips into the deep timber. And the waiting is such sweet agony!
LATE-WINTER SOAKING TIPS
Over the years, I’ve come up with a handful of basic points regarding the strategy of soaking cameras. For instance:
- Soak ’em as you’d hunt ’em. Before hanging a soak camera, ask yourself, “Could I or would I place a stand here? Can I enter and exit this location with the necessary stealth?” If the answers are “yes,” place your camera there. If not, move on.
- Skip most field edges. It’s relatively easy to acquire photos of target bucks on edges of fields or food plots. After all, the deer have to eat. But are you truly learning much in those places? Maybe. But anything specific to help your odds come next deer season? Probably not.
- No thorns, no “horns.” The thicker and nastier the cover, the more likely a mature buck calls it his home base. Finding these areas in late winter or early spring allows time for trimming access trails or placing early tree stands before the woods becomes a jungle in summer.
- A high-capacity Class 10 SD card is preferred to allow for faster importing at the time of photo review. Always format the fresh card in the camera using the “delete all” function to ensure proper data writing. Then set the correct time and date and trigger the camera to take a photo when setting it up for a soak, just to ensure it’s working correctly. Nothing irks me more than discovering I have three months of zero photos, due to user error on my part!
- Use lithium batteries, not alkalines, for extended camera soaks in cold temperatures. Likewise, avoid using rechargeable batteries for long soaks.
- An excellent hand saw and pruner are invaluable in clearing the area of anything that might obstruct the camera’s sensor. Failing to do so may give thousands of false triggers and provide a ton of unusable images over a soak. If placing cameras for long soaks in summer, I will sometimes bring a half-gallon sprayer of Roundup to “burn” down unwanted grasses that otherwise might become camera obstructions as they grow.
- Aftermarket camera hangers can eliminate the need to find a straight tree. These hangers, which allow you to position the camera several inches from the trunk, also seem to help extend the functional life of cameras by reducing rainwater intrusion via tree contact.
- Orient soaking cameras away from the sun, if possible. Otherwise, you could find you have months’ worth of photos compromised by lens flare, poor exposures, etc.
- Use camera settings to maximize battery life and efficiency. If possible, choose a lower megapixel option, lower burst photo speed and/or longer time delay between triggers. Avoid video mode to reduce power consumption and save memory card space.
- Think outside the box in terms of camera placement. Some of the most impressive buck photos I’ve recently captured were snapped by a camera monitoring a corner post on a fenceline in open timber. The large hedge post had been rubbed at some point in the past, but I wasn’t sure which buck had made the sign.Placing a camera there really helped tell the tale of a massive 8-pointer I call “Workin’ Man.” I’ve yet to see him on the hoof in daylight, but I certainly hope to. You normally wouldn’t expect a mature buck to rub aggressively in late winter — but what if?
DATA REVIEW & MAKING PLANS
When the turkeys begin gobbling, it’s time to fetch those cameras.
Some of the retrieved SD cards will be loaded to the teeth with information, while others won’t be. I prefer to sit down with all the collected cards in one sitting. With pen, paper, laptop and a full pot of coffee, I dive into the information.
With any luck, photos of a target buck for next season can be found. I’ll make notes on time, date, moon phase and his direction of travel, if possible. I also cross-reference the date and time with historical weather data for the day a given photo of interest was taken. (Such data can be found online; I use weatherunderground.com.) If the temperature wasn’t stamped on the photo ( an increasingly common camera feature), I’ll record it, along with barometric pressure and even wind direction and speed. These data can help unravel a specific target animal’s tendencies.
Soaker camera work also can help you pinpoint areas with long-term higher volume of overall deer traffic. I always note this type of information.
As velvet bucks begin sporting antlers out past their ears in mid to late June, my productive soak locations will get revisited. Once a spot has yielded me positive proof of life concerning a certain target buck, I no longer consider cameras in that area to be soakers. They’re now “sentinel” cameras, and they’ll be on extended watch with little or no interruption through velvet peel in early September.
Yes, ever vigilant. Much as I recited back in my FFA meeting proceedings, these sentinel cameras have been “stationed by the door.”