When I was first bitten by the hunting bug in the mid '80s, pinpointing the exact movements of game was a time consuming process. Diehard hunters spent hours and days in multiple stands until they visually witnessed their prey walking down a specific trail and took mental note of the time, gender and size. Those with the desire to learn the art of tracking could also use the size, spacing and deterioration of a print to estimate what left its autograph and a general idea of when. Both of these methods took a great deal of time, either in observation or in learning the skill. I remember a rudimentary device that was on the market at the time. It was basically a timer with a string attached. You attached the timer to a tree, ran the string across a trail and checked it the next day. If something ran into the string, the timer would tell you what time of day it occurred. Determining what tripped the trigger was still left up to finding tracks or some other indication. Basically, it only indicated that if you sat on the trail at that time, you might see some form of animal happen by.
As with all things, technology improves over time and the advent of the digital trail camera has probably done more to change the way people scout than any other product. Nothing solves the mystery of what went down a trail better than an image of that exact animal and incorporating the trail camera technology into your scouting arsenal can greatly improve your success.
I have to admit, when trail cameras hit the market, I resisted using them. Like the magician's audience that is captivated by the unknown, the mystery of what might come down a trail appealed to me. It was part of the reason I was able to stay in the stand for hours on end. Unfortunately like many others, in this fast-paced world, demands on my time increased while the number of hours in a day stayed the same. I eventually gave in and now use the technology just to get a general idea of game movement. I know many hunters that use trail cameras to pinpoint a specific animal almost down to a science and often have the target animal harvested shortly after the season opens. However you choose to use trail cameras, following a few suggestions will increase your chances of getting the photos you want and improve their quality.
There is often a misconception that trail cameras eliminate the need to know anything about the habits of the game you pursue. If this was the case, you could slap one on the side of any tree and be rewarded with a photo of a record book beast every time. The truth is that you still have knowledge of where they feed, water, bed or travel in order to have productive cameras. Sure you could use the shotgun approach and invest in a truckload of cameras, saturate an area with them and quickly figure out which ones had photos and which ones didn't. You could also use one or two cameras and move them every couple of days until you started seeing photos. Both of these methods would be very time consuming and the abundant human presence in the area would either change the game patterns or run them out completely. People that use trail cameras successfully are able to read sign, understand the animal's needs (food, water, shelter, reproduction) and place the cameras on routes used by them to fulfill these needs.
Once you have found the trail and want to confirm your suspicions that a wall hanger is using it, you can slip in and setup the trail camera. Humans have a tendency to think of everything relative to them. Setting a trail camera at eye-level will result in lots of photos only containing the tops of animals. Determine the average size of the game you are pursuing and set the camera at their shoulder height. For example, whitetail deer only average about 36 inches tall at the shoulders. For full body shots of whitetail, place the camera on the side of a straight tree at about three feet off the ground.
Positioning the camera at the shoulder height of the intended photographic subject
will result in more full body shots.
You also do not want to have the camera facing directly across the trail. I like to place my cameras 5- to 10-yards off of a trail and point them slightly up or down the trail. This will increase the time that the animal is in the detection zone, reduce the chances of spooking them with nighttime flash-based models and reduce the amount of scent you leave on the trail. You could also opt for a flashless camera such as the Cuddeback Capture IR which uses spook-free infrared technology for nighttime photos.
Pointing the camera at an angle to the trail will keep the subject in range longer
and increase the chances of getting the photo.
Once you find a good location, make sure to clear any swinging vines, swaying grass or other moving objects from in front of the camera. The sensors in modern cameras are impressively sensitive to movement but wind-blown vegetation can also fill your card with photos of nothing. Also make sure the tree that you strap the camera on is stout enough not to move in the breeze. From the sensor's point of view, moving the camera is the same as moving an object in front of it and a photo will be taken.
Wind blown vegetation or a swinging vine in front of the sensor can fill your camera with non-desirable photos.
Most modern trail cameras have incredible battery life. Depending upon frequency of photos, flash usage and battery types, many people are leaving their cameras in the woods for 60 days or more without a battery change. This allows you to decrease the frequency of visits to the camera, the chances of the game detecting your presence and the cost of operating the unit.
It is extremely tempting to check a camera every day. When I first started using them, every morning was like Christmas. I couldn't wait to run to the woods and see what showed up the past 24 hours, but I soon noticed a trend. The more often I visited a camera, the fewer photos showed up on them. Despite the rubber boots and gloves, I was leaving human scent and my prey was adapting accordingly. I now check them about once every week or two and rarely disrupt their patterns.
Checking a camera without scent-reducing precautions such as gloves and rubber boots will result in fewer photos.
Most modern cameras use an SD card for photo storage and you have a few options to view the photos on the card. Probably the least efficient is to remove the camera, take it home and connect it to a pc. Not only is it time consuming, but the trail becomes unmonitored until you return the camera to the tree. You could also carry an extra SD card, swap it out with the one in the camera and bring the used one home to view the photos. This is a little more efficient, but I like to see what's on the camera while I am there. Then I can immediately move it if needed. If you have a point and shoot camera, chances are it also uses an SD card. Simply take this camera with you when you check the trail camera, place the SD card from the trail camera into the point and shoot camera and view the photos. Another option is to use a product such as the Cuddeback CuddeView 4-in-1 Field Viewer. Along with the ability to view the photos, you have the additional option of transferring the photos from the SD card to an archive card in the viewer. The empty SD card is then put back in the trail camera and you can transfer the photos from the viewer to your pc when you return home. Although they come with a hefty price tag, some of the newer trail cameras even take it a step further by incorporating the ability to email you when a photo is taken and giving you access to the photo through the internet.
Most modern trail cameras use a standard SD Card for photo storage.
The Cuddeback CuddeView Field Viewer makes checking and transferring photos simple.
So what do you do if your intuition was incorrect and nothing shows up on the trail camera all week? Take a step back and figure out what might have caused a pattern change. It might have been your scent, an obstruction in the trail, a change of food sources or a number of things. If it's a simple obstruction, move it. If it's something else, move the camera. Animals change patterns throughout the year based upon crop availability, weather, the rut and other factors. Anticipating changes in behavior throughout the season will reduce the number of days your cameras stay in unproductive areas. As mentioned earlier, knowing your prey is a skill that cannot be replaced by a device.
If you find yourself in the position of needing the game to travel a little different route, you can use an obstruction to your benefit. Most creatures will usually take the path of least resistance. By strategically placing brush piles, fallen trees or other impediments in their path, you can guide them toward a desired trail camera location. The key is subtlety and simply making it a little easier for them to follow your desired path rather than the one they were on.
Setting trail cameras in other high traffic areas will also increase their effectiveness. Mineral licks, scrapes, bait sites, food plots, wallows, watering holes and fence crossings all make good locations for capturing photos. Focus on these areas where game concentrate and you will have a good idea of the number and type of game in the area.
A scrape can provide a good trail camera location since any visiting deer usually pause for a few seconds.
Whether you choose to use trail cameras to determine basic patterns or to isolate a specific animal, they can give you a little extra edge in your scouting endeavors. There are no guarantees when it comes to the often unpredictable nature of wild animals, but trail cameras can give you confidence that you are in a productive area. To be effective, you still must have a basic knowledge of your prey and use your woodsmanship skills. Even if you end the season with only a few photos of an elusive trophy and no meat in the freezer or mount on the wall, the photos often provide a source of memories about the one that got away and the encouragement to try again next year.
Larry R. Beckett Jr. is a full time freelance writer, photographer and videographer. His greatest joy is spending time fishing, hunting and hiking with his wife and son. Larry discovered his enthusiasm for the outdoors at a young age and devotes much of his time trying to instill that same enthusiasm in future generations.