Trail Cameras: Truth or Consequence

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Trail camera use and technology has exploded over the past five years. Do they uncover a property's true potential for producing trophy whitetails... or spook the very deer we're trying to hunt?

Finding a cure for the common cold will probably happen before hunters fully understand how trophy-class whitetails so easily evade us during hunting season. Undoubtedly, it's the variables which make this sport tough. Mature bucks are individualist and react differently depending on hunting pressure, weather, buck/doe ratio, food source, and terrain. If tagging a trophy buck were easy, most of us would take up another sport.

No matter an ethical sportsman's approach to collecting a mature buck, even the most consistent hunters suffer a hundred-fold more defeats than successes. It's about the challenge. Without that challenge, it's doubtful that a record-book whitetail would be the most sought-after trophy in North America. But is that challenge lessening with trail camera technology?

This Bushnell Trail Scout on duty in a cornfield offers digital night vision
recording with laser aiming and infrared motion sensing. Its state-of-the-art
features greatly lessen the chance of spooking deer.

Even the whitetail world has not forgone the new electronic blitz of spy-ware. Trail cameras have now been marketed aggressively for almost a decade. The jury, however, is still out. Some whitetail enthusiasts say they're the best thing since flush toilets, and yet others swear they spook deer and cause unnecessary human intrusion in the woods. Who's right and what is the future for these relatively new devices?

My initial experience with a trail camera was in 1998. A friend had purchased one and announced that it was about to break his wallet. He first placed the camera along a heavily traveled trail where a bachelor group of bucks appeared to be exiting a cornfield. This seemed a great opportunity to identify the property's potential. All 24 photos were spent before retrieving the 35mm film the following week. The corn had recently been harvested, so this may have been the last chance to get these bucks on film before rut. This anxious friend drove straight to WalMart's one-hour photo lab. He likened the wait for film development to walking the hospital hall on the eve of his firstborn.

The cost of the film and developing came to over $12. If there was only one good 10-pointer on film, though, it would be worth the expense. The photo clerk handed him the photo packet and commented, "That thing is really big!" My friend couldn't open the packet quickly enough. He was dumbfounded to see 12 shots of a big, green John Deere corn picker traveling east and 12 of it traveling west. The clerk must have thought he was the overly proud owner.

Having had no luck capturing images other than does, fawns, small bucks, and Deeres, this friend loaned me the camera. He knew we'd been hunting a Boone and Crockett-class buck on our farm and maybe the deer could be captured forever on film.

I placed the camera on a waterhole were the buck's tracks regularly appeared. The first set of photos produced only one shot of that huge11-pointer. He never again visited that area while the camera was on duty. I'll always wonder if the camera noise or flash ran him off.

It wasn't until digital units were marketed that I acquired my first trail camera. You might say that initial unit was an off-brand. My nephew, Jake, built it. He's an electronic nut and very capable of disassembling and analyzing a brand product and building a better and cheaper copy for himself. Jake's first prototype offered a higher-quality digital camera and more options for range, on/off hours, and motion detection sensitivity. These new digitals were advertised not to "spook" deer because they had no film advancing noise, and "supposedly" the flash didn't bother deer. Time would tell.

Though Jake's creation took great shots of unfamiliar bucks, it was restricted to the flash range of its small digital camera. The unit's lowest sensitivity setting for motion detection still had more range than the flash. Many nighttime photos showed faint images of deer or none at all. Several manufactures recognized the problem with these first digitals and introduced new models with a larger, built-in flash. These updated units also offered self-contained digital cameras with brand-specific designs.

The left photo was taken with a pioneer trail unit offering the limited flash distance of an off-the-shelf digital camera that needed to be perfectly aligned in the unit's case. The right photo was captured at 10 yards by a trail camera featuring a large built-in flash and a self-contained, brand-specific camera.

Do trail cameras spook deer?
There's probably nobody better to answer this question than wildlife biologist Ron Willmore of Lincoln, Illinois. You may remember that Willmore was the guy who first filmed the world-record Albia, Iowa, non-typical eventually taken by Tony Lovstuen. Willmore initially captured the huge whitetail on film under an oak tree. He set the 35mm trail camera to flash day or night.

Ron was in a tree stand near the camera when the deer showed up before sunset. The old buck jumped, about-faced, and headed for the brush when the camera flashed and advanced its film. He stood in the brush looking back at the oak tree wondering what had just happened. The big abnormal stayed there until four other bucks walked under the oak and began feeding. He then returned to the oak and allowed the unit to finish its roll of film. Willmore's camera scored additional rolls of the buck during the coming weeks.

This particular Iowa buck grew comfortable with the camera, but this is not always the case. Willmore knows of more than one instance where trail camera owners saw deer bolt at the flash and never again return for a photo session. There's nothing etched in stone with whitetails other than generalities. Response to a trail camera falls in four categories: indifference, curiosity, caution, or alarm.

One of the key elements in placing a camera, says Willmore, is not leaving human scent on the camera or in the immediate area. Deer often investigate a camera's flash or its film winding noise. This is especially true at night. Whitetails are very curious animals by nature. It's only when human scent is thrown in the mix that a whitetail forms an association which computes to danger. Many of my photos show the same mature deer with their noses within inches of the camera casing when the flash went off. Always use scent-free rubber gloves and spray the unit down with a scent-depressing product during placement.

This young buck was first to come into a mock scrape attended by a trail camera. No human scent on the camera or in the area convinced him to investigate.

If a particular buck proves to be camera shy, it's wise not to place a unit too near its bedding area or close to your tree stand locations. Instead, place it in a transitional or feeding area where the buck visits long after sunset. Other options are using 800 film and no flash with 35mm units, setting digital units for daytime only, or purchasing one of the newest designs with night vision recording. The night vision option has less range than a flash unit, but it's considerably less telling.

Strategically Using a Trail Camera
New camera owners need to thoroughly understand their unit before heading too deeply into the woods. Reading even well-written instructions is only half the battle. Correct aiming, adequate subject distance, proper time and date settings, and battery life all need to be learned by repetitive use before achieving consistent results.

No matter the brand or model, its owner must learn a camera's effective photo view cone in relation to the timing of its triggering device. This becomes even more important for night use due to flash range.

Once camera intricacies are understood, it's then time for serious field placement. Prior observation of a buck in a given area is an upfront advantage. Otherwise, you'll need to find large tracks on trails, near waterholes, or around food sources for best positioning. It's not wise to place a trail camera on public ground unless it's tucked in a remote area prior to the hunting season. Things left unattended on public ground have a way of walking off.

Affixing a trail camera to a tree is a common placement. The best results, however, are obtained by mounting the unit on a movable pole. This allows easy relocation after discovering that the camera's effective view cone is too wide or narrow at the point of triggering. A pole can also be tilted forward or back to allow for exact aiming.

Trail cameras offer two types of triggering devices, simple motion detection and passive infrared (PIR) heat detection. First-generation cameras offered only motion detection. These early models commonly snapped whole film rolls of blowing branches. The most advanced designs use motion and heat sensing and both must activate to trigger a photo or event. They're still not foolproof on sunny days, but this newest design definitely records more wildlife than scenery-only photos.

Timeliness of camera triggering is a major consideration when placing a unit. Many of the less expensive trail cameras trigger slow (3-6 seconds) and produce more butts than heads. The Cuddeback brand was one of the first to perfect quick triggering.

Fast triggering units can be placed perpendicular to trails at about 5-10 feet from deer movement. Slower-responding models are best placed at the same distance, but at 45-degree angle to the trail allowing more time for a deer to be in the trigger zone. Setting the camera's aim high enough to pick up just the top half of deer will avoid needless shots of coyotes, turkeys, and squirrels.

Placing a unit near a trail, but at an angle, allows more time for a deer
to be within the triggering zone of the camera's effective view cone.

Checking camera results too often is a detriment to hunting a specific buck or area. Deer quickly wise up to human attendance in any given spot. Digital units can record well over 200 shots before new batteries weaken, therefore it's important not to invade deer domain any more than necessary.

Without question, the most productive placement of a trail camera for buck photos is near an active scrape. The key word is "near." It's better to aim the camera at an incoming or outgoing angle to the scrape as opposed to directly at it. This is especially true if the camera is set for one-minute intervals or less. Consecutive flashes of a trail unit could run off some mature bucks, especially if they're in transit from another area. Also, with a 35mm unit, aiming the camera directly at a scrape often depletes a film roll on smallish, more active bucks.

Other productive spots for camera placement is were a soybean field meets a corn field, on waterholes, along rub lines, on salt licks (where they're allowed), next to white oaks with dropping acorns, and adjacent to any green patch before frost. Wherever you place a trail camera, remember that retrieving the film or memory card without disturbing deer is crucial to your hunting success.

Trail Camera Cost and Options
Affordability is the bottom line. The least expensive are 35mm units for under $100. They serve the purpose if used wisely and sparingly. Low-end digitals with a "2" megapixal rating or less cost about $200 and are a better buy for those planning regular use. Avoiding the price of film developing easily recovers the cost difference. Zooming a memory card image on a home computer is also very revealing for distant or faint subjects. Top-of-the-line models run from $300-$600 depending on available options: built-in flash, PIR sensing, movie capability, night vision, auxiliary battery pack, rechargeable batteries, megapixel upgrade, memory card capacity, mono-pod holder, and onboard viewing of images.

If you're not computer literate, models with toggle switch settings are simple to use. Programming features on the advance models, however, offer more options for time-slot settings. For example, the camera can be programmed to record only during periods you've established that bucks are active, therefore saving battery life and memory card space.

One of the newest trail camera units is marketed by the Drury Brothers under their M.A.D. trademark. It's called the Wildlife Eye and adapts to most Sony or Canon video camcorders with a LANC connection. It comes with a 12-volt rechargeable battery, heat and motion sensing, infrared light that illuminates an area up to 40 feet from the camera, waterproof case, and lockable mounting system. It cost about $300. Add another $600 to include a camcorder. A friend, Toby Stay of Eagle Outfitters, owns one of these units and has taken many hours of incredible big-buck footage.

What's the Future for Trail Cameras?
Hunters have a never-ending quest for knowledge about the lives and whereabouts of mature whitetail bucks. The trail camera of today is only a tip of the iceberg for what the future holds. Trail cameras will soon offer temperature and barometer readings at the time of each photo. Units already exist with remote cameras that can be activated and viewed by home or laptop computer via satellite. Once this technology is more affordable, hunters and all nature lovers will have the ability to observe deer movement day or night while sitting at home. The question remains, is technology lessening the challenge of harvesting a mature buck?

Husband and wife Tim and Bea Walmsley harvested this pair of dandy bucks on their farm near Fowler, Illinois, during the 2005 season. This bow hunting couple use trail cameras, but attest that the only true advantage is prior identification of bucks they wish to harvest and ones that need additional years to grow.

Two studies conducted by Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville found that 5 1/2 year-old bucks have an average home range of only 450 acres most of the year. Their core area of most use within that home range equated to about 55 acres. Using this study as a basis, it's easy to understand how constant invasion of trail camera users/hunters can alter deer movement. Especially in regard to mature bucks, it takes very little to push them to an unhuntable area or into nocturnal behavior. If the truth were known, for every hunter who credits a trail camera for success, there are probably twenty or more who have educated bucks to elude them. As long as whitetails retain their innate ability of smell, hearing, and sight, it's not likely that trail cameras will notably increase North America's buck harvest.

For most of us trail cameras are entertainment that feeds a desire to stay in touch with whitetails and nature. However, there's one attribute of a trail camera that can not be denied. Once it's snapped a photo of a giant buck, staying aboard a tree stand on a blustery, uneventful day becomes a bit easier.

Trail camera technology will soon offer the option of temperature and barometer reading at the time of a photo or recorded event. Where will our desire to know more about whitetails end?


numbnutz's picture

I have two trail cameras and

I have two trail cameras and I love them. Since this article was writing the trail cam craze has gotten even bigger. New technologies have came out like the I/R flash system and also video. The two cams that I have are the regular flash and I haven't had an issue with them spooking game. Some will argue that they will I just haven't seen it myself. I have pictures of deer looking right at the camera as the flash is going off and a day or two later the same deer is there again. The use of I/R cameras have no visible flash so it really doesn't scare deer. I love using them all year. I can really pattern there movements and pin point when I need to be in the field. In stead of being out before the sun comes up I will know that the deer won't hit that area untill say 9 am so I'm not wasting my time sitting and waiting. Trail cam placement is key though. You have to use them on well used game trails. And here is where a lot of users will go wrong they will aim them accross the trail but what you want to do is aim it down the trail so you can capture as many pictures as possible instead of 1 or 2 as they pass the camera.

swisheroutdoors's picture

If I purchased one

If I purchased one I would probably give it as a gift to my father in law.  They always have deer and moose in the back of their property because of the salt lick and apple trees.  I always thought it would be fun to capture some photos and perhaps him and his wife would enjoy it from a recreational perspective.  I'm not sold on the cameras not spooking deer.  I'm always seeing pictures of bucks looking straight at the camera.  It might as well be looking straight at me while I'm in the stand.  I can appreciate the precautions of reducing human scent as well.  So I hear the arguments but I'm not convinced enough to purchase one.  I don't see it having a positive impact on me tagging a trophy. 

Trail Cam Addict

I do admit I have become a trial cam addict.  I don't think I could hunt my back forty without it anymore.  My wife bought me one for Christmas and I love every second of it.  Truth be told though I have yet to see my "TV" buck on my cam, no matter I have placed it in the woods.  I have seen many a doe and seen the buck with my own 2 eyes but yet to see him or them on cam.  I believe he has his own cam and is watching me watch him.  I speak for myself when I say this. I do agree with the statement that my movment in the woods with concerns to my trail cam has affected the deer movement.  I have changed and limited my movement in and out of my hunting area.  But to play both sides of the argument I haven't gotten any cam images of the bucks so I know they arent patrolling along the game trails where I monitor.  But they have not moved to a new area or went nocturnal cause I have seen and shot them.  So go figure.  I do love my cam and intend on getting another one to two even.  I would like to purchase a fancier model with more options.  I am hooked. 

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