June 16, 2020
By Clint McCoy
My love affair with game cameras started way back in 1999, when I was a starving college student with a growing passion for deer hunting.
Encouraged by a full-page advertisement in this very magazine, I surreptitiously used some of my student loan money and ordered the original Cam Trakker trail camera for the low, low price of $429.
Add batteries, film and film development, and my first trail camera cost me about $500 for the first 36 exposures! But the ability to get photos of big bucks like those in the ad seemed like something I needed in a bad way.
This unit was off-the-charts cool for that time. A housing encased a white flash 35mm film camera wired into a PIR sensor and operating off separate power supplies. One was for the camera and one for the sensor, and they required different battery sizes.
To operate this system, I had to hike in and check it weekly, packing in batteries and film to replenish as needed. It was primitive tech by today’s standards, but those first few glossy developed photos were such a treat.
The camera helped me kill my first legitimate monster buck with a bow a couple years later. After that, the way I hunt changed forever.
I arrowed the buck in an inside corner of a standing corn field on a cool Oct. 15 with a funky east wind, right where my photos had been captured. I based my entire strategy for the hunt on those images. I was hooked for life.
The advent of digital trail cameras soon followed, and it wasn’t long before my film unit was nearly obsolete.
Cameras became more user-friendly. Film was replaced by SD cards one could view on a computer instead of developing. White flash was replaced by infrared, lending to less animal aversion to the cameras at night.
Power consumption also became drastically more efficient as D and C cells gave way to AAs. Video and time-lapse capability were soon added, allowing more versatility in the field. Detection circuits improved, yielding far fewer blank images.
Could trail camera technology get any better? Believe it or not, it did. Now the hottest technological improvement is wireless connectivity and remote image transfer via mobile apps. A few years ago cellular trail cameras were introduced, and they’re becoming increasingly popular, as well as more affordable and longer-lasting in the field.
Thanks to this surge in trail camera tech, it’s now almost unheard of for a big-buck hunter not to have at least one camera in his or her bag of tricks. But now, after thousands of how-to articles have been written about camera strategies and techniques, have we reached an intel plateau? I say, “No.” Is there anything novel about game cams that hasn’t been thought of or attempted? I say, “Yes.”
In the June 2018 issue, I wrote about one of my favorite trail camera techniques when homing in on mature bucks. Often referred to as “soaking,” the practice is relatively simple. The idea is to allow cameras to sit literally undisturbed for as long as possible before revisiting the site. Keeping human pressure this low tends to enhance camera results.
It makes no logical sense to place a trail camera out in early July and revisit it every two weeks for card pulls when you might not even be using the data until the rut. Human traffic and odor of course can negatively impact mature bucks in the area, as I’ve seen firsthand. I’m not too proud to admit that I know of two trophy bucks I feel I’ve educated the last few years because of making this mistake. Their current whereabouts are unknown, at least by me.
The upsides to allowing your cameras to soak undisturbed for long periods of time are many. As mentioned, less human traffic in a big buck’s home range is always good practice. Likewise, I find that 7-8 month soaks tell a lot about overall deer traffic in an area through their annual cycle. These summer-through-late-winter camera vigils can tell you if bucks in the area stick around after velvet peel or if they vacate.
An untouched camera can also reveal if any new bucks suddenly start showing themselves as the rut approaches. They also can show if deer seem to just up and leave the area altogether as winter resources get lean.
Soaking cameras over community scrapes can demonstrate how deer in the area interact with each other, provide consistent inventory and in some cases even give clues into a target buck’s personality traits.
In the same thread, long soaks in and around doe bedding areas or classic travel pinches can give the hunter a clue when these areas become receptive on an annual basis.
Finally, when targeting a specific buck, soak-cycle data can give clues where he might show up next season, and on which dates. I know of one particular buck I photographed in a scrubby, narrow creek basin leading to doe bedding areas. For two seasons in a row, I captured multiple images of him there Nov. 3-10.
The trade-offs for using the soaking technique are few but worth noting. Batteries can go dead. A tree limb can fall or weeds can grow too tall, obscuring the camera’s view.
Of course, trail cameras are electronic, and electronics can malfunction. Theft seems to be a chronic problem, too. Any of these scenarios could spell disaster for data acquisition over an extended period.
Image retrieval has long been another confounding factor for a soaker cam. You might need the intel in the fall with tag in hand, real time, instead of waiting until after season closes to pull the card.
The solution to these assorted problems? Cellular. Solar. Soakers.
One manufacturer making a big play to incorporate solar technology into its cellular cameras is SpyPoint. The company’s product lineup has been expanded to include multiple models with solar as their main power source, backed up by batteries. These models include the Link-S and budget-friendly Link-Micro-S-LTE.
The Link-S has a fully integrated solar panel feeding power to an onboard rechargeable lithium battery pack. You simply charge the pack prior to deploying the unit and add an additional eight lithium AA batteries for failsafe power backup. Then this cellular camera can literally run without human intervention.
The Link-S essentially is an “infinity” camera that can be left unattended, and it has a 2-year manufacturer’s warranty. This gives the user images with zilch for human intrusion and potentially saves a pile of money on AA batteries over the life of a standard cellular camera.
This 12MP camera can shoot still photos, time-lapse and HD video. The Link-S also boasts 100-foot detection and flash range with an ultra-impressive trigger speed of .07 seconds, ensuring minimal blank images.
It makes me feel old to realize how just much technology and versatility the Link-S has, compared to that first film-type trail camera I bought with my student loan money 20 years ago. For identical investment dollars spent nowadays, I can get monster buck photos beamed right to my mobile phone in real time and not have to stand in line at the photo lab waiting for a wimpy 36 prints to be processed. Come to think of it, I didn’t even have a cell phone back then!