By Tony J. Peterson
My social media feeds are blowing up right now with trail camera images. Throughout these digital shares - without question - the velvet-framed bucks that are front-and-center are most predominately located in one of two types of locations. The first is an agricultural field or a food plot. Vibrant soybean tops can be seen in some, or perfectly mowed and lush clover in others. If not an ag field or food plot, then the location of most of the rest of the images show multiple bucks standing over a mineral block or an obvious spot of earth that has has been clearly covered in granular minerals.
I don’t begrudge any hunter for either camera strategy but would ask the greater question - what are you learning with those types of camera setups?
For the field and food plot crowd, you could be gathering intel for a killer opening week ambush site. If you live (or hunt) in a state with an early-September opener, that might be the ticket to punching your tag before the season even shifts into second gear. If you hunt where the opener is in late-September or early-October, those field images could be relics of a time gone by.
For the food plot crowd, you certainly could be developing a long list of actionable intel on a buck or group of bucks and putting together a plan to hunt when the hunting should be best. When it comes to food plots and cameras, go for it but remember - you were probably going to hunt there anyway. A lot. So much so that running cameras may or may not have swayed your strategy at all.
And as for the mineral sites, well, they are a good place to get pictures. Even in states where they are legal to hunt over, they don’t do you a whole lot of good by fall because the ungulate visits to the sites drop off the cliff by about mid-August.
Maybe by this point in the article you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, well, so what?’ If so, you’ve got a good point. If your camera strategy is to take a little inventory and have some fun, then no-brainer food sources and mineral sites are a lock. Carry on. But what if you’re trying to develop a solid plan to hunt a property and aren’t relying solely on either the food or the minerals to get you there? You’ll probably fail, but don’t fret, because there is hope. You just need to move your cameras and re-think what your goal is with them.
What You Don’t Know
What we do know, or at least should know if we buy a hunting license, is that deer like food and they like minerals. What I’m more interested in is where the deer like to walk on the properties I can hunt. This goes for public and private land, and really gets my motor humming when we’re talking about where they like to walk in daylight. I’m not so much interested in where the bucks are traveling at midnight, but instead where they like to hoof it during first and last light.
This means it’s best to put your cameras in the cover. You know they are coming to the soybeans now and will be coming to the cornfield when it gets harvested sometime this fall. The question is, how do they get there? You can start figuring that out now by backtracking from the destination food sources and hanging some cameras.
It’s a fair bet that you don’t need to do that yet to capture daylight images, but when the velvet comes off and the hunting pressure is on, those bucks that were so cavalier with their travel will tighten up their programs. They might not go full-on nocturnal, but they’ll get closer. If you know the routes they take to the food, you’re way ahead of your hunting competition.
That’s a question that can start to be answered now with trail cameras.
Simple Patterns Versus Deer Knowledge
Let’s say that every couple of days you get images of a 140-inch stud browsing his way through the alfalfa. That’s good to know and fun to see. But what if three days before the season opens the farmer cuts the alfalfa or seven other hunters hang their stands on the field edge to hunt him? You can bet that your target buck will likely change his habits with either scenario, the latter being the least desirable, obviously.
If that happens and you’ve relied on field-edge cameras, you might have to start completely over. If you’ve hung a few cameras on trails leading to those fields, his disappearance in the groceries won’t wipe the slate completely clean. You can backtrack that buck by knowing what trails he prefers and start hunting him in staging areas or as he veers off his summer route to visit a less dangerous food source.
Running cameras where it’s not so easy to predict deer movement and usage is the key to gaining deer knowledge, versus building a simple pattern. Granted, a simple bed-to-food pattern can certainly work in myriad situations, but not all. And especially not where hunting pressure is high. In this scenario, you want to know as much about an individual deer’s habits as possible, and that extends far beyond the fact that he eats in the beans sometimes or waters at a cattle pond occasionally. Where he walks in the cover is where you can kill him, and you can answer that question now with some well-placed cameras.
Break the mold with your camera usage, even if you only have one or two. Instead of hanging them on a field edge that is littered with evidence of heavy browsing and pock-marked with tracks, follow a few of the approach routes into the thick stuff and do what other hunters won’t. You won’t get as many pictures this way, but the ones you do get will be truly valuable when it comes to developing a hunting strategy.