To Trail Cam or Not to Trail Cam?
Are the pro’s bigger than the con’s?
Almost everyone is using trail cams these days to surveil and scout whitetail deer. Some hunters have one or two, while others literally dozens upon dozens resulting in thousands of pictures to pour through and analyze. Many hunters just accept that these tools are helping them reach their goal - locating and shooting a whitetail deer. But, are they really helping as much as hunters think? Here are some things to consider when planning your upcoming season, what to spend your hunting budget on (a new gun, a trail camera, a…?), and how to decide IF trail cameras will really help or hinder your chances at taking a good whitetail this year.
TRAIL CAMERA PRO’S:
1. Extra Eyeballs. It’s obvious that you cannot be everywhere at once to scout, see what deer are doing, and observe when they are doing it. Trail cameras can give valuable information about when deer are traveling in certain areas, how much they are showing there, and what deer are exactly showing there. This data can give you important information about when, where, and if you should setup to hunt a certain location. This is especially true if you cannot easily scout or see the location to tell this (like an isolated area with cover you cannot glass from a road in the summer). They also are critical in my arsenal for seeing the bucks that are using a particular property (and evaluating them before the shot opportunity when I don’t have buck fever) for out of state hunting. Without them, the only intel I would get would be from the limited time I have in the woods during my summer visit or when I actually hunt, which isn't ideal. So they can be a big pro when they act as extra eyeballs, and data collectors in numerous areas all at once.
2. Multiply Time. With hunting seasons only being so short, a wise hunter tries to make the most of each hunt. Reality is we don’t have hunts to waste. How do you know if/when you should hunt “here” not “there?” With limited intel, sometimes we’re just guessing with little evidence as to where we should hunt, and many times guess wrong. Trail camera data can help up the odds of being in the right place at the right time. My big goal is finding daylight activity of a buck I want to shoot without tipping him off he’s being observed. Trail cameras, placed in the right areas, can definitely help in this task, and have helped me take good bucks on multiple occasions that I might not have without this data. They can give confidence as to the big WHY you are hunting a certain area, a certain way, at a certain time. This is huge, and gathering data of all sorts helps you make the best hunting decisions. The more the better, and a good reason to strategically place these remote data gatherers, AKA trail cameras. (For more on how to better know exactly when and where to hunt, read THE HOTSPOT CONTINUUM, which gives a super helpful decision model to help put the data pieces together and make the best hunting decisions - HERE).
3. Establish Patterns. Of course with data like date, time, moon phase, and with a little research into wind direction on given dates, one can start putting pieces together about certain deer and when they use certain areas. More than just IF a good buck has traveled through a certain area, or IF he is hanging out there regularly, you can also start getting the bigger picture of when and why they use an area over multiple seasons. Are certain areas hot during the early season or just rut? When do they cool down? Are they consistent all year? This helps establish general patterns, and also patterns of particular bucks. Many times, certain bucks show up in certain areas on certain days year after year. If you could figure that out, wouldn’t that be a huge leap closer to launching an arrow at him? You bet! This is data you probably would not have without a trail camera intel, and allows better decisions that lead to more success. (This huge Michigan buck was patterned well by a persistent hunter, which lead to multiple encounters. Read about the fate of this monster buck HERE)
TRAIL CAMERA CON’S:
1. Unneeded Intrusion. The bad thing about trail cameras is that they make it very tempting to check them way more often than we should (every few days instead of weeks or months), or to place them in areas we have no business going into (bedding areas). This actually creates pressure with scent we leave, noise we make, and potential deer seeing us. Some argue that deer “get used to human intrusion.” While the farmer bailing hay, or doing normal farm tasks may not alert deer, other types of intrusions into their realm definitely do. Successful mature buck hunters agree - deer to not tolerate these novice hunter mistakes. One has to be very careful with the use of cameras (keeping them on field edges for surveillance, not getting near bedding areas, etc.) and make sure no deer are bumped when these are checked. Usually waiting for long periods of time and keeping checking to mid-day and as quickly as possible is also key. Otherwise you’re just educating deer and are better off leaving them alone so your first intrusion is when you go in to hunt. I’ve also seen videos of bucks avoiding trail cameras they can see. You don’t know this from pictures, but video doesn’t lie and in this case can actually push deer travel away from the area - not what you intended, and a definitely trail cameras not used carefully can be a con by adding pressure from intrusion.
2. Extra Babysitting. The more cameras you have, the more of them and data you have to keep track of. How much time do you have to move them around, check them, and analyze the data? When you have dozens of cameras spread around this can be a full time job and actually take away from your goal if not careful. This added pressure of checking them, as well as figuring out when or where to hunt based on this sometimes misleading information can sometimes take away from your goal of hunting and killing a good deer. One has to analyze and look beyond the “coolness” of “running trail cams” and decide if running them is actually being a significant advantage. If not, then drop them and gain more time to put your efforts into things that will - like foot scouting, glassing, or observation hunts.
3. Faulty or Non-Vital Information. Many times we put too much stock into what a trail camera is telling us. Though what we DO get a picture or video of can be vital, we many times assume that what it DOES NOT capture is telling an accurate tale of the area, as well. This isn’t necessarily true. Then, we make decisions on this assumption and our inaccurate trail camera paradigm (or view that they tell all about an area). A trail camera is just a sliver of what is going on in an area, and they can miss a lot. The reality is they only point in one direction, only “see” out a certain distance, and sometimes even miss what
is happening right in front of them (I’ve had some epic camera fails in my day, including 3 separate cameras failing in one spot over a period of 3 months - missing vital information in an out of state area). Did a young buck walk by and trigger it, then Mr. Big 10 seconds later but you had it on a 30 second delay? You won’t see that. Maybe it’s pointed on the wrong trail, when deer are using the trail just behind it extensively. If this is the case, your trail camera will say the area is dead, while it actually is hot. I’ve heard many stories of hunters moving a camera to point just on the other side of a tree, or even a few yards away and seeing a whole different world of deer movement. These variables and the thought that trail cameras tell all can lead to faulty data, and bad conclusions. They just don’t give us the full picture.
Also, where you place your cameras can give you information, get lots of pictures, but this information might not actually be helpful. For example, would you put a trail camera on a field edge when you can easily glass this from the road in late summer? If so, what information did you actually gain by this intrusive maneuver? Most hunters will check this camera several times at least, adding slight scent and intrusion, when they could have seen the same thing from their truck ¼ mile away. Is a scrape actively being hit by a big buck you would shoot (you can tell by the fresh big tracks as well as big rubs showing nearby)? If you place a trail camera on this scrape maybe you confirm that indeed a big buck was hitting it, but couldn’t you know this already (and at the same time risk leaving added scent to the area, when you should have used your time to get a tree ready and hunt)?
(The buck pictured here was seen several times in the area while hunting, and though the trail cam pictures were nice, did not actually aid in taking the buck - which I did in 2018).
THE TAKEAWAY: Trail cameras can be great tools, but also enemies that can actually work against us if not properly managed. Bottom line, only use trail cameras when the odds are in your favor, meaning they give valuable data you cannot gain in other less intrusive ways, and this data will greatly increase your chance of harvest. If not, they’re just a tempting toy that can actually hurt your chances at harvesting a good whitetail this year.
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