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Eyes in the Field

Trail cams can fine-tune hunt, expose unknown events

Trail cameras expose early rutting activity like sparring between yearling bucks. (Don Mulligan photo) Trail cameras expose early rutting activity like sparring between yearling bucks. (Don Mulligan photo)

By: Don Mulligan, OutdoorChannel.com

Though completely nocturnal, the big buck barely made a move without my knowing it. I tracked his progress starting on Indiana’s opening day of deer season as he crossed a county road, until he eventually found his way into my rutting field.

His journey took about a week to complete, and thanks to several trail cameras spread out over a mile, I recorded nearly every leg of his pilgrimage.

Despite hunting the area hard for a month, without trail cameras I would never have known he existed. Like most mature bucks that live in heavily hunted areas, this bruiser was completely nocturnal.

Exposing nocturnal deer is just one of the unmatched benefits of modern trail cameras.


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Eyes in the Field


When used and interpreted correctly, they can provide subtle clues about the world hunters never see and be the most important tool in bagging anything from a big buck to a thief.

But despite the clear advantage they give deer hunters, if used improperly or misread, they can also ruin a hunt or even an entire season.

The most common problem with trail cameras is that they are unreliable. And that applies to the cheapest cameras, the most expensive cameras and everything in between.

Sometimes the battery dies. Sometimes the memory card is too big or the wrong brand. Sometimes moisture penetrates the electronics or the lens. Sometimes the trigger speed is too slow or the pixel count is too small.

Sometimes the sensor is too narrow or fills the card with waving weeds and sometimes they fail for no apparent reason at all.

Most frustrating are the cameras that are too complicated to even turn on. Lots of frustrated hunters have returned to check cameras after two weeks to find out they were not even running.

If the instruction booklet that accompanies any camera is more than a couple pages long, it is too complicated.

Even when a camera works as advertised and captures pictures as intended, there are other potential problems.

Though countless deer have been captured on both standard flash, infrared or blackened infrared illuminated cameras at night, sometimes they all spook deer.

Does, fawns and small bucks don’t seem to mind flash, but mature bucks do.

Infrared was supposed to fix the problem. It did not. Blackened units are better.

Infrared cameras use a burst of red lights instead of white ones. Deer can see red lights as well as white, and mature bucks don’t like either.

Pay close attention to trail camera pictures and it becomes apparent that even infrared flashes may be ruining your hunting spot.

Test infrared trail cameras by pointing them at a scrape and setting it for three bursts. Watch how many bucks appear in the first photo but not in the second or third. Then, note if that same buck returns any time soon.

What will become clear is that a lot of bucks either back out of the frame or run away after the first photo. And once a buck is spooked from a spot for any reason, he will avoid that spot for quite some time.

The best solution to a camera that spooks deer is to turn off its flash and only take daytime shots. It is also a good idea to never place a trail camera next to a stand site.

Use them before and after season or place them on the opposite end of a food plot if night shots are important.

An indispensible tool

None of this is meant to imply motion sensor cameras are all bad. Besides providing critical wildlife behavioral information, they also solve puzzles that would have otherwise been eternal mysteries.

The only thing better that catching a trail camera glimpse of a monster buck on your property is catching a glimpse of a trespasser. Thieves have been arrested in almost every state based on trail camera photos.

Other trespassers exposed by trail cameras include dogs, cats and hogs. All can ruin a hunting area without ever showing themselves to the landowner or hunter.

Criminals and lazy dog owners can’t argue ignorance when confronted with a big color photo of them or their dog on your food plot.

Trail cameras can also be used to track deer eating habits and the progression of the rut. The mature buck I tracked as he crossed the road and traveled a mile to my rutting field illustrates how cameras can track movement based upon eating habits.

When soybeans were still green, he lingered and fed on the new growth at night. As they browned, he eventually appeared skirting the edge of a standing cornfield for several nights.

When a Kieffer pear tree starting dropping fruit across a creek, however, he proved a theory held by most seasoned deer hunters: As a deer attractant, corn trumps clover, oats and brassicas, but fruit trumps everything.

From the time the first pear hit the ground, the buck and several others stopped appearing on cameras set over corn and food plots. Trail cameras revealed they were all camped out near the pear tree.

In many places, wild persimmons and paw paws replace commercially planted fruit trees as the single biggest draw in the whitetail deer’s world.

The progression of the rut is easily followed by trail cameras shots as well.

Note the date when bucks start appearing alone and sparring with other bucks. That is a good time to start using a buck decoy.

Placing a camera over an annually used scrape (with the flash turned off) will also reveal the precise time this activity begins and ends. When bucks stop or greatly decrease tending scrapes it means the chasing phase has begun and it’s time to start watching open rutting areas more closely.

Perhaps the most intriguing use of trail cameras is to use them to track the life of a single deer.

The big buck that crossed into my field was not new to me. In fact, he was a three-year-old, and I had trail camera pictures of him at both from the previous two years.

Amazingly, despite cameras running all year, at three-years old, he appeared for the first time after he had hard antlers. He did, however, show up on the same camera he stepped in front of when he was one- and two-years-old.

The big buck disappearing act is typical behavior for deer that haunt the real world of unmanaged whitetail habitat.

One day soon, trail cameras will expose this mystery too, making every phase of a deer’s life an open and finally understood book.

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