|The ability to determine which trails a buck is using, and where his core area is located pays big dividends come hunting season. This in an actual trail camera photo of a buck that was later killed by a hunter. |
The excitement that comes with checking a trail camera after a long absence is nearly as acute as a child waiting for Santa Claus. You never know what you will find. You may find photos of a rare animal such as bobcat, see strange behavior among more common animals or even catch a trespasser. I know many deer hunters, for example, that have photographed deer that they didn’t even know lived in their hunting area – big deer. It is like spying on wildlife – seeing them in their environment under relaxed conditions.
Trail cameras also allow you to get to know the animals (especially deer) that live in your hunting area more intimately than you could by any other means. You will not only learn where the biggest deer live, but you can enjoy the opportunity to document the growth of particular deer from year to year. It is great fun to compare pictures of the same deer from one year to the next as they grow larger antlers.
Trail cameras are one of the best ways to scout for deer. Some deer hunters have turned the use of trail cameras into both a science and an art. As a result, they are patterning bucks faster and shooting more big deer than ever before.
There are many things you can learn from the photos you get from your trail cameras, but rather than me going into a long, boring dissertation on the subject, I’ll use two high profile success stories to reveal all the whys and hows of trail camera scouting.
The world record: One amazing aspect of the hunt for the world record hunter-shot non-typical Lovstuen Buck (shot in 2003 by Tony Lovstuen) is the overwhelming number of photos the three men who hunted the deer the hardest were able to get with their trail cameras. Doug Lovstuen (Tony’s father), Mark Murphy and Steve Angran used trail cameras to take literally hundreds of photos of the buck. Never has one big buck been documented or followed like this one – not even close.
|Believe it or not, this is an actual trail camera photo of the Lovstuen Buck hunter shot world record during the summer before Tony Lovstuen shot the deer. Can you imagine finding this on your trail camera?|
In Iowa, where Tony shot the buck, it is legal to bait deer as long as you don’t hunt over it. Pouring a pail of corn ten feet in front of an infrared triggered camera is the easiest way to get photos of nearly every deer in your hunting area. Many of the photos will come at night, but still you can find out what is there.
The three cousins have a huge library of images taken of the buck over corn piles, but that didn’t necessarily help them to hunt the buck. Just because they could pull him to a certain spot to feed didn’t mean they knew the buck’s patterns. What would happen when they stopped baiting him leading up to the season? To learn that, they would need to remove the bait and start trying to catch the buck’s natural movements.
“We were getting pretty close to patterning him in 2002,” Doug said. “We could find him by camera almost any time we wanted.”
|Tony Lovstuen with his world record deer that was shot from a ground blind on a trail that cousin Mark Murphy scouted out using trail cameras. It is questionable whether Tony ever would have gotten a shot at this buck without the effort that Mark Murphy put in pattering the buck with cameras.|
“We left him alone more that year,” Steve Angran added. “As we got to know his area and where he lived we pretty much left him untouched. He was spending most of his time in a side hill draw with CRP on both sides. There were just two draws and two little hills where he liked to live.”
“By the end of 2002, we pretty well knew these locations,” said Doug. “I could have taken you to either one of those two draws and we’s push him out of one or the other – almost any day. The buck wasn’t hunted hard that year. He didn’t seem to travel far, so we were really starting to nail his pattern down. We left him alone as much as we could.
“His range shrunk more and more each year that we hunted him,” agreed Steve. “The first year I hunted him he was ranging pretty wide, but then it got smaller and smaller.”
“I’m not sure if it was because he got older and changed or if it was the hunting pressure on the other farms,” offered Doug. “Because as everyone started coming in all around us trying to get a crack at the deer, we started backing out. We checked cameras at the same time every day. That was the only pressure he had except when we were hunting, and even then we were very careful how we went in and where we hunted. I don’t think he intended to stay close to one spot. I think people forced him to use a smaller range.
“We had to stop baiting because we weren’t patterning the deer. Instead, we were bringing him to us. That wasn’t teaching us anything about where he traveled. Instead, we started to put our cameras on trails. Sometimes we would just drive a fence post in the ground in an open field and slap a camera on it. We were starting to catch him on trails in the summer of 2002, but it was spotty then. We got a lot better at it in 2003. We used our cameras better and learned which trails he liked and when.”
Trail camera photos eventually led directly to the spot where Tony shot the buck. In fact, Mark Murphy had the buck pegged by late September of 2003, a drought year. The buck was working toward water most evenings after rising from his bed, and Mark knew which trails he used most often. Tony shot the buck along one of these routes on the fifth evening of hunting him.
The Drury way: Mark and Terry Drury are another great example of the many reasons that you should consider trail cameras to complement your scouting efforts.
During the 2004 and 2005 seasons Mark has taken back-to-back bucks with scores that gross over 190 inches while Terry took his biggest ever just last season, a buck that grossed nearly 180 inches. They both credit the use of trail cameras for teaching volumes about the normally reclusive lives of mature bucks and for helping them put together the patterns of these three huge bucks.
|Mark Drury shot this buck during the 2004 season after patterning him using trail cameras and video trail cameras.|
|Terry Drury shot this giant buck during the 2004 season after seeing him on a trail camera in the same area the day before. He moved a stand in and shot the buck over the same scrape the next day.|
The Drury way includes a lot of conventional hunting strategy, but the truly unique aspects of their method involve the creative and aggressive use of trail monitor cameras. By the time the season opens each year, Mark and Terry know at least 80% of the bucks using their hunting area – all because of trail camera photos. This kind of intimate knowledge with each buck not only helps them determine which ones they would like to shoot, but also where to hunt them and in some cases, even how to hunt them.
“The first thing we want to find out each year is what kinds of bucks we have to hunt,” said Mark Drury. “We do this by placing game monitor cameras on high activity crossings near feeding areas. We start on July 4 and keep the cameras running right on through the summer and fall. We’ve learned that the very best time for shots of mature bucks is the first two weeks of August. For some reason, every buck on the farm comes out to feed at that time - often during full daylight.
“This inventory helps us keep track of individual deer. I realize some people don’t have the opportunity to watch certain bucks for more than one year before someone shoots the deer, but we make every effort to let the bucks we hunt reach 4 1/2 years old before we try to shoot them. Being able to age the deer we hunt is important and the game monitoring systems make that possible.
“I always figure that we won’t kill many of the mature bucks we find on the farm so the only trophies we will have from them is the trail camera photos - or maybe a shed antler or two. We just like to get any piece of these special deer that we possibly can.
After Mark and Terry have picked out several mature bucks that are candidates for the fall hunting season, it is time to try to pattern those specific bucks more closely. This occurs from late August through October and is a work in progress. Mark calls it MRI or Most Recent Information. That’s what he wants going into the season and all season long – the most recent possible sightings and camera hits.
“Our camera monitoring efforts really get serious in late October,” Mark said. “Earlier in the month, we switch our cameras to scrapes. We are trying to relocate the bucks we photographed during the summer. The scrape activity really takes off on October 25 each year with bucks of all ages hitting them.
“The night shots we get from cameras located at the scrapes are the key to being in the right place at the right time when those same bucks start moving more during the day. When we find evidence of a shooter buck in a certain area we shift to that area and start hunting him immediately. There is no better time to hunt the buck than as soon as you know he is there. We don’t actually hunt over the scrapes, though. We try to determine where the buck might be moving farther back in the cover, and then we hunt stands in those places. Usually, we look for thick cover because we notice that bucks work those thickets looking for does like a beagle looking for a rabbit.
“We also learn a lot about buck personalities from the footage on the cameras. We’ve had some bucks on the farm that are very visible and have small home ranges. These are by far the easiest to kill, but there aren’t many bucks like this in the herd. It is the exception rather than the rule. For example, we had a buck once that had four different core areas in four years. He was hard to follow. Each year he moved to a new area. Other bucks have been very secretive and nocturnal as youngsters only to become much more active during the day as they gained dominance status later in life. It is a real pleasure to learn the individual personalities of the bucks we hunt. We feel like we have gotten to know them.”
Understanding Trail Cameras
|Basic film scouting cameras are very affordable. However, you will have to pay for film and processing so the total cost increases over time.|
I always said that when I could check my cameras using a small PDA device from an open window of my truck, I would have them all over the place. That day is very close to reality. There are all kinds of trail cameras on the market from the simplest film camera devices to the most sophisticated digital cameras with wireless transmitters to upload the images through computers and ultimately to a website so you can view them from anywhere on earth. The technology in this marketplace is changing and evolving so fast that it is very hard to keep up with it. If you can dream it, you can probably buy it – if you can afford it.
You can break trail cameras down into three categories: film (with flash), digital with non-game spooking infrared or invisible LED flash and standard digital with flash. Some heavy camera users don’t like to use a flash trail camera because they believe the flash will spook the deer from using a certain area. Mark Drury is in that camp. Also, the flash can reveal the location of the camera to other hunters (if you hunt in fairly open areas), giving away your best locations. I would be less worried about that than I would be about the flash spooking the deer.
I recently read a piece in the Quality Deer Management Association magazine (called Quality Whitetails) that documented several cases of flash fright. However, I have also seen photos of the same bucks on feed stations night after night without showing any sign of fright. I believe it depends on the personality of the individual deer.
Digital cameras work off a flash memory card that is stored in the camera. In most cases, you have to walk to the camera to retrieve the memory card for viewing. Most camera users will carry a blank card and swap them out, taking the card from the camera home so they can download the images onto their computer.
Obviously, film cameras require you to remove the roll of film, replace it with a fresh roll and then have the roll processed to see what kind of animals were in front of the camera. You give up convenience and you pay more (in the long run, when you factor in the cost of film and developing) but you get a quality hard copy of the image that is nice and portable to carry around and show your friends. However, if you hunt in an area with lots of does, you are going to spend a fortune in processing roll after roll of doe photos just to get a few buck photos. It is better, in most cases, to opt for digital right away. You can always print out the few “keeper” shots that you want to show your buddies.
Trail cameras are a great way to extend your hunting in a direction that not only is very fun, but also will make you a better informed, more effective hunter. Patterning game with trail cameras is the wave of the future. It is just getting started. Ever-evolving trail camera technology will someday completely revolutionize the way you think of deer scouting.