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Why Trail Cameras Can't Be Your Only Scouting Tool

Trail cameras are great tools, but it takes much more to be a successful hunter.

Why Trail Cameras Can't Be Your Only Scouting Tool

Use cameras as one essential hunting tool. Then combine scouting, knowledge of terrain, hunting skills and your intuition. Together, they’ll make you a dangerous hunter. (Photo By: Alex Comstock)

As a 26-year-old fanatic deer hunter, trail cameras have always been a part of my deer hunting tool kit. Given my age, I have never experienced what it was like hunting without them. To be honest, it’s hard to imagine deer hunting without trail cameras.

I use them in a variety of ways to help me be successful while deer hunting. However, I think it’s extremely important to understand that trail cameras aren’t the end-all and be-all. Even though I’ve never not had trail cameras as a tool, I don’t rely solely on them. Unfortunately, some hunters do, and it can negatively impact their success.

I learned this lesson early in my deer hunting journey, and I learned how hard it can be to persuade others on it.

Trail Cam Cautions

I was sitting in one of my favorite stands in North Dakota in November 2015. I had a trail camera about 20 yards from my stand on a scrape that I had checked when I got to the stand. There was nearly no action on the scrape the previous week. I thought about ditching and going to a new spot, but it was already late in the afternoon, so I decided to sit in the stand anyway.

That evening I saw about 10 to 12 deer, with two shooter bucks mixed in. I wasn’t able to get a shot at either buck, since they were both on the heels of a doe, but they both made their way into bow range.

Out of all the deer I saw that evening, not one went by my camera.

As I walked back to the truck after the hunt, I realized that if I would have gone purely on trail camera data, I would have thought that evening didn’t elicit any movement. From that moment on, I knew I had to keep that in the back of my mind as I evaluated trail camera data.

Don’t get me wrong, trail cameras and the information they provide can most definitely help you make decisions in the fall. However, it’s important to remember that they’re just a small window into viewing what’s going on in the woods.

Imagine living in a great big house in a residential neighborhood. You’ve got neighbors all around you, but in the entire house, you only have one small window to look out of facing the street. The only thing you’re going to see is people coming and going from their house, maybe taking their dog for a walk, or something along those lines.

Neighbors on each side of you could be out in their yard, playing games, grilling, who knows what. However, you’ll never know because you only have that one window to look out of. That’s how I view trail cameras. They are a small window into what’s happening in a bigger area.

Trail Cam Testimony

To further support the fact that trail cameras don’t tell the whole story, I talked to a few great hunters that have shot big bucks recently where trail cameras didn’t play a role in their harvest. They’re good examples to highlight, because if you’re not getting pictures of a big buck, or a certain buck you’re looking for, it doesn’t mean he’s not around.

The first example I want to touch on is with Brennen Nading. Brennen is a co-owner of the hunting show The Breaking Point, and he spends as much time hunting and running trail cameras as anyone I know. Last fall, Brennen shot a stud buck on November 10, on a 60-acre piece in Iowa.

“On that particular farm, I will generally run somewhere in the ballpark of 10 to 12 cameras on the back 60 acres where I hunt,” Brennen says.  “A mix of these cameras are in the timber on scrapes, and the rest are on edges.”

Brennen has his hunting area pretty well covered with cameras, and he typically has many images of every buck in the area. However, the buck he killed was more elusive than the others. “This particular buck showed up on the trail cameras for the first time about eight days before I harvested him,” Brennen says. “This past fall would have been my eighth straight year hunting this farm, all of which I have ran cameras, and I had zero photos of this deer prior to the eight days leading up to shooting him.”

So, Brennen never had a photo of this deer, until the week he shot him. However, it turns out the buck had been around the property. “The craziest part of this entire story is what happened after the shot,” Brennen continues. “While trailing this deer, my buddy Mike picked up a matched set of his sheds! And just 10 yards from where Mike picked up the sheds, there he laid dead! It was the craziest thing I have ever seen. For this deer to be in the area enough to drop his sheds while eluding my cameras is absolutely amazing to me.”

why trail cams can't be your only scouting tool
Brennen Nading with his Iowa buck. Brennen never saw this deer before the week he killed it, but after finding its sheds, he realized the deer had been on the property. (Photo courtesy of Brennen Nading)

The fact that the sheds were found is crazy in itself, but it goes to show this deer didn’t randomly show up in November from miles away chasing a “hot” doe. He clearly was spending time on the property throughout the entire year.

When I asked Brennen if it would have made a difference if he wasn’t running cameras, he said: “No, I wasn’t hunting this particular deer when I climbed the tree that day. But, when he showed up at 12 yards, it didn’t take much convincing for me to grab my bow. This story just goes to show trail cameras don’t tell the whole story, and anything can happen at any given time.”  

Trail Cam Troubles

The next example I want to touch on is from Tennessee deer hunter Adam Crews. Adam shot a beautiful velvet buck during a late August three-day season. I love Adam’s story, because opposed to getting cameras up early to help with his scouting, he chose to not even put them to use. He knows that they don’t tell the whole story, so cameras could’ve negatively influenced how he hunted.

“I have a theory that hunting areas based on camera intel can potentially hurt your chances of killing deer. I think running cameras is excellent for giving you a potential inventory of what deer are in the area, but I try not to let that information determine when and where I will hunt,” Adam told me.

Adam had no prior knowledge of the buck he shot during the early Tennessee velvet season, and he didn’t think running trail cameras would have made any difference on how the hunt went down. “Chasing deer from trail camera photos is like trying to chase the stock market; it has rarely worked for me,” Adam laughs.

why trail cams can't be your only scouting tool
Adam Crews appears here with his late-August Tennessee whitetail. Adam elected to not use trail cameras prior to the hunt, deciding instead to focus his scouting efforts on identifying deer sign and patterns himself. (Photo courtesy of Adam Crews)

The last point Adam makes is a great one. I often refer to it as trying to chase your tail. Oftentimes, hunters are hunting based only on the data they receive from their trail cameras, and it can lead them to always being “behind” the curve. I’ve already said it, but it’s worth reiterating: trail camera information is a great added tool, and it is another piece of the puzzle. However, it isn’t the whole puzzle.

As we put a bow on this notion that trail cameras don’t give you a full window into what happens in a given area, I want to illustrate one more example; and this one is a personal anecdote of mine.

It was 2013 in northern Minnesota. I had permission on a 20-acre piece of property, and I ran two or three trail cameras on it all summer and fall. There weren’t any mature bucks on the property (at least I didn’t get pictures of any), but there was mega buck sign, and I thought there was great potential.


On November 1, I got a single trail camera image of the biggest buck I had ever gotten on camera (at the time). I put it in my mind that I wanted to shoot that buck more than anything. I hunted the property again and again the rest of the year. I sat countless times, never seeing the buck, and I never got another photo of him.

If I had gotten trail camera images of good bucks on other properties, I definitely wouldn’t have continued to hunt there, but I didn’t. So, I continued to hunt the property, even though that one photo on November 1 could have been an example of a buck just moving through during the rut.

Fast forward to the last week of December. I was trudging into that same property, figuring nothing was going to happen, but still having that buck in the back of my mind. However, with just a few minutes to spare, the buck that I had a single photo of on November 1, walked by me at 20 yards, and I killed him.

That moment perfectly illustrates my point. If I had only hunted based on my trail camera data, there’s no chance I would have continued hunting this property into December.

So, as you pursue your goals in the whitetail woods, whatever they may be, don’t forget that trail cameras are simply a piece of the puzzle. They’re a window into a whitetail’s world, but they will never be able to give you all of the information you need to make decisions on where and when to hunt.

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