By Alex Comstock
Trail Cameras are a tool most deer hunters across the nation are using to help put mature bucks on the ground. They give you a unique opportunity to get to know deer without ever actually seeing them. I'm young enough, where I don't know what it's like to hunt whitetails without the use of trail cameras.
I personally run over twenty trail cameras (with a recent purchase, it's now up to about 30), and it can get to the point where running that many can feel like a full time job. What I love about trail cameras though, is that everybody can use them in different ways, and still be successful. Recently, I set out to talk to a few guys about how they use trail cameras, and how they find success with them, and I learned a lot in the process.
I reached out to Don Higgins who is the owner/operator of Higgins Outdoors Inc., Pat Howard who works for Snyper Trail Cameras, and Trent Siegle who is a part of the Heartland Bowhunter team. I asked them all the same set of questions, and their answers differed to a varying degree, which is exactly what I hoped for. With that said, let's get right into how these guys put trail cameras to use.
Q: At a high level, how do you use trail cameras throughout the year?
Don Higgins: I put my cameras out each year in early July when bucks have enough antler growth to identify individual bucks and get a good idea of their size. I leave the cameras out until about March 1st, when bucks are shedding their antlers. My initial goal is to find a buck that I want to target during the upcoming hunting season. I am basically looking over bucks that I have gotten photos of in previous years and trying to find one that has made a significant jump in antler score. Once I fund a buck to go after, I start going back through photos from previous years to try to find patterns that I can exploit. As summer ends and bucks start shedding velvet, I shift my camera locations from summer feeding areas to fall rutting areas. At this time I will move several cameras within the range of any bucks I am targeting. I also use cameras to inventory bucks on new properties.
Pat Howard: I'm a 50/50 mix of inventory for bucks I'm hunting, and for "pretty pictures" or unique pictures.
Trent Siegle: Trail cameras are my most crucial scouting tool that I use throughout the year. It is so nice to be able to stay out of an area and pressure it less, but still be able to scout it thoroughly. The past couple years I have started using a couple cellular trail cameras in areas that I don't want to intrude, and they are extremely helpful to get that real time data.
Q: How often do you check your cameras in the summer, compared to during the season?
DH: In the summer, I typically check a camera once every 3-6 weeks. I have several cameras out so I check a few each week, but I am careful not to put too much pressure on an area. I really like to check cameras right before a rain to help wash my scent away. I also try to approach each camera in such a way that I am not laying ground scent where I expect deer to be traveling. During hunting season, I might check a camera weekly or might go more than a month. It all depends on the cameras location and if there is a buck in the area I am targeting.
PH: Once a week, or every two weeks max in the summer. During the season, once a week. I hate to miss out on an opportunity on a killable buck because I waited too long to check cams.
TS: Throughout the summer I only check cameras every 2-3 weeks, but during the season I check them weekly to get that most recent information to better know where I need to be hunting.
Q: What type of area do you find most effective for using trail cameras? (funnels, field edges, scrapes, etc.)
DH: In the summer I am focusing on soybean fields where I know bachelor groups of bucks are regularly feeding. Through experience I learn where the bucks typically like to enter the field and set my cameras close to there. Sometimes the camera is actually out in the field and sometimes it is back in the cover. In the fall I place my cameras in funnel areas or over scrapes. By making mock scrapes using a rope and Smokey's deer scents, I can get photos of every buck in an area.
PH: Mineral sites and bait (where legal). I also like water sources and creek crossing along with field edges and terrain breaks (e.g. where a stand of pines meets an oak flat, deer love to travel the edges).
TS: During the summer I primarily use my trail cameras on mineral sites and field edges/food plots. I love using the time-lapse feature on field edges/food plots to know when and where the deer are coming out. Then I transition almost all of my cameras to scrapes from October to the beginning of December.
Q: Are you paying attention to factors such as the wind and your scent when going in to check a camera?
DH: Like I mentioned, I like to check my cameras right before a rain and I am mindful of my path to the camera. I try to avoid areas of heavy deer usage.
PH: No. The deer where I hunt, I'm sure know me by name. I feel it's an advantage for me to have deer familiar with my scent.
TS: Absolutely. I wouldn't hunt a stand with a wind direction blowing into a bedding area and same goes for when I check cameras. I also only check my cameras during the middle of the day.
Q: What's the biggest overall mistake most people make when it come to trail cameras in your opinion?
DH: The biggest mistake is that they buy cheap, junk cameras. I learned a long time ago that you get what you pay for. My favorite brand is Reconyx and without question, they are the most dependable brand on the market. I would rather have one Reconyx than five cheapos. I can put fresh batteries in my Reconyx and leave it out for a year, and it will still be working. They also have the best customer support in the business to go with it. I will admit that Reconyx are very expensive and I am testing other brands, but so far Reconyx is far above everything else that I have tried.
PH: Using them strictly for deer. In my opinion, it can be a great hobby and can be year round fun.
TS: I would say the biggest mistake people make with trail cameras is checking them with the wrong wind directions, or checking them too often and educating deer.
Q: What's your #1 piece of advice to the guy/gal who wants to use trail cameras as effectively as possible?
DH: Start with good cameras. Learn where to place them on your property to be most effective, and once you have them in place, don't run in and check them every week or two. Trail cameras have made killing older bucks almost easy. I have definitely tagged big mature bucks that I would have otherwise not been able to without trail cameras. Also, what I think is most valuable with trail cameras is when you get a bucks photo at a particular location, if that buck is alive the following year, he will be in the same area at the same time. For example, if you get a mature bucks photo in early October, next year in early October, he will be in the same area. Many times I have gotten a mature buck's photo at the exact same spot on the exact same date or within a couple of days for multiple years. That in a nutshell is how I use trail cameras to kill the big boys. I have the past history to guide me in regards to "where" and "when" I need to be hunting. I then get my stands ready and am there waiting with confidence on a buck to show, not chasing trail camera photos that are a week old.
PH: The first thing is to figure out why you want to use trail cameras. If it is to help pattern and kill a buck, or it it's to get pictures of all critters that roam the woods in the prettiest settings possible.
TS: Be smart and use them as if you were hunting. They are by far the best scouting tool you can use. Try to study your pictures, and all the information they give you (moon phase, temperature, etc.) to help you be successful. And don't be afraid to get creative with them.
Special thanks to these guys for taking the time to answer these questions, and hopefully help everyone in some type of way.
- To see some amazing trail cameras pictures from Pat Howard, check him out on Instagram @tcgooroo