An effective trail camera strategy throughout the season is critical to knowing when to — and when not to — hunt certain areas for specific deer.
Doug Doty is an admitted trail camera junky. He has to be. As owner of Illinois Whitetail Services LLC in southeast Illinois, knowing what deer are using his properties, how they're using it and when is not just information he seeks for fun. It's his livelihood.
And his faith in his trail cameras is unwavering.
"No question, trail cameras can give you critical information about what's happening on a particular farm that you just couldn't get any other way," he said. "I can't physically be out there 24-7. The information I get from my cameras is huge in determining where and when we hunt — and where we don't hunt — on any given day during the season. Without trail cameras, you can make a lot of mistakes."
The risk of spooking a mature buck into the next county when using and checking trail cameras during the summer is low. Such bucks are different animals before their testosterone levels rise. They're grouped in bachelor herds that follow lazy, summer patterns, which frequently bring them out into crop fields well before dark just about every night. They're relaxed animals, doing things they won't when the hunt is on.
"Even if you did spook one real bad, there's plenty of time before hunting season for that buck to come back," Doty said.
When hunting season is in, however, trail camera deployment and use takes a great deal of care and thought. Doty needs to have his cameras in the right places to track the changing habits of bucks as they shift from their summer patterns to pre-rut, rut and then winter patterns.
"Having a trail camera on the edge of a soybean field in August is a great idea," Doty said. "But that camera is probably useless in that spot come November."
During September, Doty likes to have cameras focused on food sources. Quite simply, this is where he's going to find deer. What he's looking for is an inventory of mature bucks. He wants to know what caliber of bucks are around and how many.
Inventory and Intel
But this is just a general inventory list. Through the use of trail cameras, Doty has learned something critical about the bucks on his properties as September turns to October.
"A lot of times, the bucks that I'm watching all summer on one farm will disappear at some point in October," he said. "They just leave, and, if they don't get shot, we don't see them again until late January. At the same time, a whole crop of different bucks will move onto my farms. Those are the bucks that we'll be hunting."
So many times, Doty has heard tales of hunters watching a particular big buck on a specific farm all through the summer, only to complain that it "went nocturnal" come hunting season, and was never seen from a stand.
"They think it went nocturnal, but it could be that the buck moved a mile away," he said. "Trail cameras are the only way you know if he's still around."
Doty has photos of bucks that would be on his farms religiously every summer for five and six years, but which he knew moved some distance away for hunting season.
"We could have wasted a ton of time waiting for those bucks to show up," he said.
Not every buck leaves, though. So as October arrives, as soybeans turn from green to yellow to brown, and as farmers start running harvesters, Doty shifts his cameras to well-worn trails and deer funnels. Now he can get a true sense of the deer his clients will be hunting.
"I want my cameras to be in places where deer will pass by them, but just as important is that I can get to them and out quickly and quietly without bumping deer," he said.
When Doty has a camera near a road, trail or field edge in October and November, he'll check it only in the middle of the day, when he's expecting deer to be in their beds nowhere near his cameras. He also only checks a camera when the wind is favorable.
Doty's cameras that are placed deep in the timber, and aren't easily accessible for mid-day checks, are planted along routes to his hunting stands. So he'll pull cards — or have a client do it — on the way into or out of a sit on stand.
"If somebody is going in, it will be to hunt and not just to check a camera," he said.
Through October, Doty expects to only get photos of mature bucks after sunset and before sunrise.
"Almost 99 percent of our pictures are at night in October," he said. "So what I'm checking my cameras for is those first couple days in late October or early November when a good buck shows up during daylight. I might not hunt a certain property too hard if I know there's a good buck on it and he's nocturnal. When he shows up in daylight, now we're going to hunt him."
As the rut takes hold and scrapes open up, Doty will be sure to plant cameras on them.
"Every buck in the area at some point after a scrape opens up is probably going to at least check it out," Doty said. "You really get a good sense of what bucks are around and when they're moving during daylight."
Doty stressed he's not necessarily looking to zero in on a specific buck's exact location at a certain time of day. That's not his general trail camera strategy. He's trying to figure out when it seems like the mature bucks in the area are up on their feet during daylight.
"A specific buck can be on my camera one day and then be a mile away the next during the rut," he said. "But if he and several others are showing up more and more during daylight, that's when we want to be out there. Something has them moving in that area."
I hunted with Doty in November 2015, during the first Illinois gun season. The property I hunted is a wide strip of timber, about a mile long. In years with great acorn abundance, this property is usually full of deer from one end to the other. Last year was a weak year for mast.
I spent two days unsuccessfully hunting an area that I like near the center of the property, even though Doty told me his cameras indicated the best deer activity was at the east end. On the third day, I finally wised up and hunted where the cameras said I should go. I shot a tall eight pointer at 10:30 a.m.
In December, after the Illinois gun seasons are over and winter arrives in the Midwest, Doty moves his cameras back to food sources.
"This is all the deer care about now, so that's where you're going to get pictures," he said. "I need to know what bucks are still alive."
Doty only puts his cameras in very easy places to access — think field edges — during the late season, because he knows mature bucks that are still living are extremely skittish. He sneaks in when he can see there are no deer around, and then sneaks back out.
"This is when you can really ruin a place by being careless," he said. "The cover is limited, and deer aren't going to put up with much."
If you are careful, however, the late season is a great time to locate a mature buck and take advantage of his desire to fatten up after the rut. "They can be pretty predictable now, as long as you don't give them a reason to leave," Doty said. "When I see there's a good buck that just keeps hanging around in the late season, I feel pretty good about our chances."
Trail cameras provide invaluable intelligence to Doty during the hunting season, and have helped his clients put numerous, mature Illinois whitetails on the ground.
"Using trail cameras during the season doesn't guarantee that you're going to kill anything," he said. "What they will do is give you very useful information that can help you figure out how to be in the right place at the right time."