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Stay on Target

The Trail Camera…Friend or Foe?

Thu, September 18, 2014

I would guess at least 95% of bowhunters that consider themselves “serious” own and use trail cameras nowadays.  They started out as chunky boxes that took 35mm photos and cost several hundred bucks.  Now, they have morphed into sleek little camouflage units that take high-quality digital images.  They now range in price from $50 to $500 roughly.  Some units even text pictures in real-time right to your cell phone.  There is no arguing that they can be fun, but are they really helping your hunting?

In some cases, trail cameras are still a valuable scouting tool.  A well-placed camera can certainly identify bucks on your property and give you the extra motivation to hit the woods a bit harder than you did the previous season.  However, along those same lines, can a camera also be a de-motivator?  What if your camera did not produce a snapshot of that big buck you hoped was roaming your favorite woods?  Might you go duck hunting instead on that frosty, early December morning?  I think as hunters, we have a tendency to falsely believe that we are canvasing the area by having a few cameras on our 80 acre tract. 

I have found that scrapes are effective locations to put out trail cameras to get a real sense of what rutting bucks are using the woods I am hunting.  I can also positively say that I have “burned up” scrapes by doing this.  Whether it is because I am checking my cameras too often, or just the existence of the camera itself, I have had hot scrapes turn cold overnight as a result of mis-using my cameras.  Over the years, I have figured out better ways to hang cameras over scrapes and not deter use too much.  This includes putting them a bit further away from the scrape, or pointing them just off the scrape where the deer will still cross the path.  Another thing expert trail cammers do is elevating them higher in trees and pointing them down on the area they want to photograph.

One of the dilemmas with trail cameras is how often to check it.  This is certainly location specific.  Obviously the impact of checking a camera deep into timber would be greater than a camera on a field edge.  As far as checking a camera, the whole point is to know what the deer are doing in an area at that time of year.  If you leave it out for a month at a time, that is probably too long.  In some areas, checking each week is too often and will lead to spooking the deer that you are trying to pattern.  My personal experience is that low impact, field edge locations can be checked weekly while more remote areas can be checked every couple weeks.  Cameras that text or email pictures to you can eliminate some of these concerns, but they are pricey and usually include a monthly fee on top of the purchase price.

One thing I have noticed many folks do with their cameras is to develop a “hit list” of bucks they believe are “shooters” on their farms.  They give all the deer names in the process.  If this is your thing, go for it.  I am not a “deer namer”, and I do not make lists of deer I want to hunt.  I like to make each decision on a case by case basis while I am in the treestand.  One reason I do this is because deer in a two-dimensional photograph often do not look the same when you see them in person.  I have photos of deer where the picture can make them look 20 inches smaller than they really are.  Occasionally, some photos make them look larger than they are, but this is not often the case with trail camera pictures.  I compare it to taking field photos.  Most angles do not show the antlers the best, and many hunters spend significant time taking good field photos that show off the deer optimally.  If one does not pay careful attention to the field photos, entire tines are often hidden by the rack.  This is the same with trail camera photos.  Most current model trail cameras offer a video mode.  Using this helps a hunter get a better idea of what a deer actually looks like when he walks in front of the trail camera.

One final point I believe needs made about trail cameras is how they take away the mystery of deer hunting.  In some ways it was more fun heading to a good spot without having a clue what deer were out there.  In the pre-trail camera days, a hunter just went to the woods and hunted.  On occasion, a magical hunt occurred where a true giant buck appeared out of nowhere.  This does not happen much anymore.  It seems most are aware of the majority of the big bucks on their property this day in age.  This is not a bad thing, but I do believe something has been lost in all of this.

Trail cameras can be very fun, exciting and sometimes helpful pieces of hunting gear.  I personally own many of them.  However, there are some negative impacts from them too.  I would love to hear some reader thoughts on their use and how it has changed over the years.  Please include positive and negative effects of them.


I have been using cameras since the beginning.  I remember throwing the old green 35mm cameras in lakes due to being mad.  What are the negatives of commercial cameras?  The main one i have found is the percent that do not work right out of the box and the difficulty of dealing with the company.  Ive paid 150 bucks for cameras twice to never get a picture with the camera and not being able to work with the company. 

All cameras are not created equal as far as their stealth ability while in the woods.  I have a covert that you cant tell is working when you walk up to it, while i have moultries that make a click.  I wouldnt have one of these or a white flash camera within 100 yards of a prospective stand from sept to jan. 

I think they do a much better job of taking inventory of bucks in the area than you let on in this blog.  If you have a camera on beans in july and august, move it to those acorn trees that are dropping by mid sept and early oct, then to scrapes by late oct, you will have a good inventory of the bucks in the area.  Sure a good buck can transition in from time to time that you dont know about due to rut, natural migration of deer due to searching for does and such.  But generally if a new buck moves in, i have him on camera within a few days.  The last buck i shot, a 160 inch 6 by 5 i had no idea was there.  SHot him one morning, checked my camera at the other end of the woods and he was the only shooter on it taken 16 hours before i shot him. 

You are right about some deer looking smaller in pics than they actually are.  This occurrence is strange.  A few years ago i had a picture of a deer i thought was a really nice 150 to 160 inch net ten.  I found his shed later that year, he was closer to 170 net 180 gross.  From the side it was difficult to see his frame size and his mass.

I dont really see many negatives with trail cameras if you understand what you are doing.  I have checked cameras many many times at 1 am that are located in the heart of a woods, in effort to keep from scaring deer.  When you decide you are going to hunt an area because you have decided there is the quality of deer there that you want to pursue remove the cameras or keep them away from your stand at least.

Posted by clintharvey on September 18

When I first got them I was checking them all the time (till I got some experienced advice). This summer maybe once every five weeks as it gives me an idea of whats in the area.  It also showed what happened last year around me, lots of pictures up till August and then nothing and not even in the woods by the acorns - then the reports of all the EHD deer.  I’ll be curious to see this Oct. what happens as my neighbor decimated his deep timber by logging all the Oaks off his property - big mature oaks 3,4 and 5 foot in diameter. It was definetly an October sanctuary for them as he does not bow hunt it.

Posted by BIGPOND on September 19

It’s never anything less than “magic” anytime I can get a mature buck to step in front of me.  No matter how many pics I have of him!!!!

The best thing to come out of using cameras for me is the fact that I’ve been able to follow certain deer from year to year.  This is the most accurate way to age a buck, and has saved me the “shoot/don’t shoot” decision if a deer comes in fast. 

If you set a goal of shooting deer by age rather than antler size, then cameras can help you know ahead of time if that 125” 8pt in front of you is a nice 3yr old…..or a funky 5 you might be happy to shoot anyway.  The last two bucks I killed were both low scoring 4yr olds.  And I had 2yrs of history with each buck.  I knew exactly what I was shooting when they walked out and I was able to ID them.

Posted by bw on September 19

Even though you are 100% correct in writing, ” they take away the mystery of deer hunting”,  seeing them in person for the first time is still such a rush.  Maybe even more so because you feel like you know this deer.  The last two bucks I’ve shot were bucks that I was after due to trail camera pictures.  I shot both of them the first time I layer eyes on them.  It was such a neat feeling to actually see the deer that I’ve been watching (on pictures) on the hoof.  It gave me that, “It’s him!  It’s him!’ feeling. 

I used to put my cameras deeper into the woods.  I stopped doing that a few years ago because there is no way to check them undetected at my place.  Now I stick to field edges or barely into the timber.  My picture/video quantity has sky-rocketed. 

Inventory is why I use them.  It helps me determine the biggest and most mature bucks on the property.  I think they’re an awesome tool in managing what you should shoot and what you can let walk.  It’s also like Christmas morning every time I check an SD card.

Posted by Treehugger on September 20

cameras can also be a real negative. last year I put a plowatcher out watching a major funnel that I hunt every year. after 9 days, during peak rut, not one single buck bigger than 120 went through it. how excited would you be to hunt there? I set the camera at a good angle to make sure I can get anything on the card regardless of how fast they go through and nothing during hunting hours. i have however had many great experiences with the cameras and will continue to use them.

Posted by 1BOONR on October 15

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