June 01, 2021
By Gordon Whittington
It was one of those situations that simply beg for a trail camera. After I'd hung one overlooking this small clearing, it shouldn't take me long to confirm that the buck I'd glimpsed in the moonlight was as big as my straining eyes had suggested.
For the moment, all my binoculars could confirm was that the beast had a big body and "something" on his head. Beyond that, everything about him was a mystery. I just knew I wanted to see him again, hopefully in shooting light and bow range the next time. Until then, even a single photo would be a huge help in confirming his size, age and activity pattern.
Alas, it wasn't meant to be. I never hung a camera for this Central Texas buck . . . because I couldn't. Our brief encounter occurred when I was in high school in the early 1970s, and the scouting camera was well over a decade from even being invented.
As alien as a whitetail world without such handy tools might seem to today's younger hunters, we old-timers can easily envision it. That's because for a long time we lived in it. We had no electronics of any sort to aid in the scouting process.
In the years before trail cameras, serious scouting took far more time in the field than it does today. Only by observing game, reading sign and reflecting on past hunts in an area could we make educated guesses as to where to set up next time. Even then, those efforts still left us with more questions than answers. Finding sign was one thing, but being able to predict the timing of future deer movement was another. It did little good to see where a big buck had been if we couldn't find any rhyme or reason as to when he might return.
In Search of a Solution
The fact this age-old puzzle isn't as tough to solve as it once was is largely due to the ingenuity and effort of a young man with a mind for technology and a passion for whitetails.
Dean Reidt (pronounced "right") grew up hunting with his dad in Buffalo County, Wisconsin, and he loved it. With deer numbers and trophy prospects on the rise, in the early 1980s, the young hunter was on the front edge of the whitetail's golden era and was eager to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, like other hunters, he often had trouble putting it all together. Although he was good at finding buck sign, he needed help in figuring out when to capitalize on it.
"I'd be hunting over scrapes, but even when I got to my stand an hour or even an hour and a half before daylight, often the buck had already been there," Dean remembers.
His problem of trying to pattern bucks was one we fellow whitetail addicts of the time also knew all too well. The difference was, Dean had a mind for problem-solving, and he was eager to solve this one.
It helped that as he was getting his education in whitetails, he also was building a solid academic record. He completed his engineering degree and began work in product development with Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing, commonly known as "3M." And in 1984, he hit on what now seems an obvious way to pattern deer movement: by getting the animals to reveal the timing of their movement.
Pulsar had introduced the digital clock for sale in 1970, following the appearance of a prototype in the classic movie 2001: A Spacy Odyssey, two years earlier. And it had immediately become a sensation. By the early 1980s, digital timepieces were everywhere. Even so, it seems no one had yet tried to use one to pinpoint wildlife movement. That was about to change.
"In the summer of 1984, I went down to the hardware store and bought a digital clock, then took it apart," Dean recalls. "I saw how the circuit board worked and realized that by reworking it I could show when a deer walked by."
The resulting device was, by today's standards, crude: a string linking the digital clock's simple circuit to a tree on the far side of a deer trail. The string was stretched over the trail at a height of 12-18 inches. When something tall enough to contact it moved down the trail, it pulled the string loose from the clock, disrupting the electrical circuit and causing it to freeze on that time. The battery-powered clock indicated not only day of the week but also a.m. vs. p.m., so Dean could later check the setup and see down the minute when something had moved through. He'd then reset the string to capture the next such "event."
The inventor's favorite application was to place the makeshift timer near active scrapes, as well as on trails leading to/from buck bedding area. While finding the timer tripped didn't prove which deer or other animal was responsible, it did show the time and (by the angle of the loose string) the direction of movement. The result was far more detail than had ever been attainable remotely, especially when there was no snow on the ground.
"It told me what time deer went through the areas I was hunting," Dean says. "For instance, with the timer, I learned that hunting over scrapes was sometimes a good idea, sometimes not."
Armed with this knowledge, the inventor found himself making much better use of his own time afield. And it didn't take him long to start wondering if fellow hunters might agree that it was a cool idea. At the time, no such product existed in the marketplace. If there proved to be a demand for the "Trail Timer," as he decided to call it, it might prove to be an interesting sideline to his engineering career.
Unlocking the Potential
Of course, building a single device for your personal use is one thing; turning that into a viable consumer product is quite another. But the right timing can provide a huge boost. As Dean was coming up with his invention, public interest in trophy whitetails was taking off. Bowhunting was in the early stages of what would prove to be a multi-decade boom. (We certainly saw that here at North American Whitetail, which had debuted two years before Dean came up with his prototype.) The world was getting into big deer, and every year there were more potential customers for a product that would help them set up in the right spot at the right time.
Dean decided to take the next step: traveling to Atlanta with his Trail Timer, so he could show it off at the 1985 Shooting, Hunting & Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show. He gladly accepted Johnny Boatner's offer of free display space at the end of the Great Lakes Bowhunter booth.
The reception for the Trail Timer was extremely favorable. Not only did a lot of show attendees think Dean had come up with something useful, so did young distributor Bruce Hudalla. The two men ultimately reached an agreement for marketing the Trail Timer, with Dean focused heavily on gearing up for manufacturing.
While the Internet might have been a futuristic notion at the time, merchants such as Cabela's and L.L.Bean were successfully tapping into the outdoors market through mail order. But in terms of getting Trail Timers into the field, it was a relative newcomer on the scene -- Bass Pro Shops -- that struck the first memorable blow.
"I remember it being on a Sunday afternoon," Dean says. "I got a phone call, and it was the first order from Bass Pro Shops for 8,000 Trail Timers." Semi-panic set in as he scurried to get that many built and out the door. But that order helped to jump-start the company and its revolutionary way of patterning deer and other wildlife.
After the Trail Timer's introduction, the young inventor spent all his spare time cranking out product and thinking of ways to push the idea even farther down the road. It wasn't long before he came up with a multi-event timer that relied on an infrared sensor to trigger its internal clock. It could record up to five "events" before requiring a reset.
With infrared sensors becoming more available and affordable, Dean then took the next step: building a system that incorporated a hunter's own film-fed camera. Then, Dean came up with the Photo Hunter, which included a Samsung film camera.
Other companies also began to jump into this new market, each with its own take on how to best document wildlife activity. The quest for better intel of course continues to this day, with cellular transmission of digital images, 4K video clips with full audio and other cool features no one could have imaged at the time Dean hatched his original idea. Now unmanned cameras play key roles not just in hunting but also in property security, herd management and more.
Leaving a Legacy
History is dotted with cool inventions that never made it. But the Trail Timer did, and it led to an amazing 23 years of success for Dean before he sold the company in 2008. And in the years since, the impact of his curiosity about the inner workings of a digital clock has continued to be felt. For many hunters, remote sensing with trail cameras is now the favorite way to find and pattern game.
For his part, Dean didn't go into any of this determined to shift the whitetail world on its axis. He had something far more mundane in mind. "My ultimate goal was to make some extra money with it to put my kids through college, so they didn't have to take out loans to go to school," he says. "Fortunately, it did that and then some."
It also led to some experiences whose value can't be measured in dollars. Through Dean's involvement in the hunting industry, he met Fred Bear. He hunted in Minnesota with another renowned bowmaker, Tom Jennings. He even got to know Bud Grant, an avid hunter better known as a legendary coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Those experiences, along with many more, are still inside the mental treasure vault Dean continues to enjoy browsing through in his retirement years.
While the inventor was still active in the industry on a day-to-day basis, he also became an official measurer for Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young. That naturally helped him stay even more connected to the hunting scene as the years passed. He shot a lot of big whitetails himself, but lately, his fall pursuits have been focused more on taking a doe or two for meat.
Despite having dialed back his own trophy hunting, Dean is rightly proud of his contributions to an industry now heavily focused on the pursuit of mature bucks. Many hunters who would love to be involved in the whitetail industry lament that they never caught the "lucky" break to make it happen. Luck rarely is the deciding factor in career success, though. By coming up with a bright idea and then following through with years of hard work, this enterprising engineer turned dream into reality.
"I of course had to avoid any conflict of interest with my job at 3M, which meant spending a huge amount of time working on Trail Timer products after hours and on weekends," he points out. "I now look back on all those years and ask myself where I got the energy to do it."
But do it he did. And so, as you head out to hang that digital trail camera, give a tip of your camo cap to the man who started it all. We know that whitetail hunting, like fishing, is full of "should have been here yesterday" frustrations . . . but way back in 1984, Dean Reidt's timing proved to be absolutely perfect.