By Jeff Murray
When Holless Allen’s compound bow first appeared in 1967, I was bowhunting with a Bear recurve and loving it. When Bill Scott’s caliper release hit the market about 25 years ago, I was shooting my compound bow with fingers and having a huge time. When the first carbon arrows hit the scene about 20 years ago, I was filling the freezer with venison downed by aluminum arrows. And when the first single-cam bow appeared in the early 1990s, I was doing my thing with a dual-cam sporting “hatchet cams.” Fast-forward to this fall. I will be shooting carbon arrows from a single-cam bow with a caliper-type release — and I won’t be looking back.
There’s one thing I’ve missed out on until fairly recently, however: trail cameras. It’s obviously not because I’m anti-innovation; my revulsion to this gizmo was based on sound logic. First and foremost, I’m a hopeless romantic — a bowhunter who constantly dreams of big bucks. Those dreams would surely end if I knew exactly what the buck looks like that made the chest-high, thigh-thick rubs 50 yards from my favorite stand. Besides, nothing beats good old-fashioned scouting. Finally, all scout cameras fail to spy incognito on wily bucks since you have to invade their lairs to check the fool cameras.
Three things changed my mind, however. First, like hand-held GPS units, current models are easier to program and maintain. Second was a monster buck that my son’s friend arrowed with a trail-camera strategy I hadn’t considered. That harvest opened my mind to the third factor: If used wisely, trail cameras can eliminate the snafu of multiple visitations to a deer’s back yard.
Blank photos and half-deer shots plague many trail camera users. If you own a camera with a slow trigger time, you can stop deer with browse that’s been sprayed with an attractant.
My trial-and-error period with cameras taught me that, like regular scouting, there is an art to the use of trail cameras. It takes forethought and dedication to select a good unit and place it where it can unlock the mysteries of a buck. Indeed, half the battle is overcoming operator error.
From Film to Digital
The latest digital trail cameras are serious scouting tools. To begin with, newer units won’t spook many bucks since digital photography is silent. Conversely, film cameras click and whir when their shutters open, close, wind and re-wind. And to really simplify matters, digital models require fewer visitations to check their progress. Storage capacity — up to 15,000 high-quality images on a 2-gigabyte memory card — far exceeds the 24 to 36 exposures on a roll of film. Additional improvements include greater power from C- and D-cell batteries and real-world “trigger times” that catch all the action.
The Camera Takes Pictures, “Butt”...
My dad used to tell me that being half-wrong was worse than being all wrong. He reasoned that mixing truth with error was dangerous because you don’t know which half to keep and which half to toss. That’s the way it is with some trail cameras, particularly those with marginal trigger times. You might get some images, but what about those the unit misses? Suppose a small buck meanders by. If the buck stops, say, to check the wind, the infra-red sensor from even basic units will trigger and you should get a good look at the buck. But what if a buck twice the size of the first buck strolls past the camera without hesitating? Depending on the unit and your setup, you’re apt to get nothing or just back half of the deer. You’ll be tempted to conclude that there aren’t any bucks at that spot worth pursuing. You’ll be half-wrong, literally!
Ohio bowhunter Adam Hays caught this dandy buck at sunrise with his trail camera. Fortunately, the rising sun didn’t wash out the buck’s magnificent rack. Always consider factors like sun direction and moving branches when setting up a trail camera.
One way to avoid this is angling the camera. Instead of pointing the lens directly at a deer trail (or scrape or rub line), aim the lens up or down the trail. Now you’ll catch deer coming or going and give the camera extra time to wake up from its battery-saving mode. Another way to ruin an otherwise good photo is to forget about the sun. Take advantage of its illumination by facing the camera to the north (never south).
Camera manufacturers typically recommend waist-high camera placement, but you’ll get better results by climbing a tree to about 10 feet and tilting the camera down the trail. The above-angle view comes in handy at field edges, where the best you’ll get from eye-level placement is a silhouette or a washout.
Back to “trigger time,” a term used to denote how long it takes the unit to wake up and fire. Simply put, the faster the better. Why? Like all animals, deer walk from place to place if there’s nothing to interest them. While it’s possible to slow deer down and even get them to pose for the camera with bait, I’m not a fan of using it. Bait does little to pattern bucks since they usually visit bait piles after dark. And once you start baiting in front of a camera, you can’t stop. I’d rather try to pattern the deer in their normal movements by using careful setups and precise camera angles. Bottom line, though, is that a fast trigger time is the way to go.
How fast is fast enough? It should be in the tenths of a second. Consider that the average deer walks at an average pace of about 5 miles per hour; that’s about 7.33 feet in one second. So a camera taking more than a half second to fire allows a deer to move out of the center of the frame. The result is butt shots or blanks. This is exacerbated when a flash is involved and also by the way some units are programmed. They literally restrict firing until an object is centered within their infra-red view angle. Because you can’t predict a whitetail’s rate of speed, it’s best to purchase a unit with a multiple-shot feature, coupled with a fast trigger time. That way you’ll get deer coming into view, centered, and leaving. And with today’s high-capacity memory cards, it’s a simple task to delete the bad photos and keep the best.
Scouting With a Capital “S”
The scout camera seems to have spawned a new generation of photo bugs who, like kids collecting baseball cards, can’t resist the game of bragging rights. While a trail camera can certainly be a great recreational toy, I view it as a hardcore scouting tool. I’ll never enter any of my shots in a contest. My goals are to determine the number and caliber of bucks in my neck of the woods and to learn where they travel during the day.
Used properly, only a trail camera can determine the trails that tend to be used in the morning and the ones that tend to be used in the evening. You can learn when to hunt rub lines and scrape lines and when not to, and you’ll know when bucks relocate bedding areas just prior to the rut. Put it all together, and you can be one step ahead of the mating game.
On the other hand, a camera can ruin your season. A hidden danger is how they can mess with your mind, and all it takes is one image of a monster buck. Just because you caught him on camera doesn’t mean you’ll catch him again with a bow or gun in your hand. Common are the deer tragedies involving hunters holding out for a big buck that never materializes again. The best use of a camera is to pattern deer. That means hunting a buck that you get “on film” with some kind of regularity.
Spying Without Prying
The goal of scouting is to gain insight on how a buck lives its life. But spying with infra-red light is a little different from scouting on foot. I strongly recommend that you check your cameras well after dark — 9 p.m. or later is about right. If you need a flashlight, add a green or red filter. And don’t waste any time. If necessary, use tacks with reflective tape so you can make a beeline from one spot to the next. When you arrive, quickly swap out memory cards and move on.
Three Big Mistakes
In many ways, a trail camera is like a treestand; it’s only as productive as the setup. Most hunters, if they own more than one camera, tend to scatter them and hopscotch them around. They might get some nice postcard images, but they’ll never learn the intimate details of a specific animal at a specific spot.
Another monumental mistake is failing to capitalize on the most significant development in the fall — when bucks suddenly switch from nocturnal movement to daytime activity. Even with the help of moon charts and additional photoperiod clues, predicting the exact afternoon to occupy a treestand seems impossible. Not so with a trail camera in the hands of a knowledgeable hunter.
Consider Ohio bowhunter Adam Hays, who recently arrowed his second 200-inch buck on the same day he captured it on his camera! ”The rut is basically a chain of events,” he said. “You really have to be on top of it, and you can never assume anything. I hunt religiously by the moon, but things can happen fast. When they do, you have to jump on it or you’ll miss out.”
For bowhunters like Hays, this is a process of dialing in a specific buck’s daytime movements when he first begins to wake up and smell the pheromones. “The best time of the year to kill a true monarch,” Hays said, “is somewhere around the last week of October. Only then will a buck increase daytime movement in an area you can predict. That’s the key. After that, he could turn up just about anywhere. I prefer controlling my destiny by [using these cameras] to narrow my options down to one or two spots. I don’t know a better way to pick the right trail for the right time of day.”
The third mistake is failing to monitor the progression of the rut. As a rut fanatic, I need to know when to be aggressive with rattling and decoys and when to let the mating game come to me. With a trail camera on an active scrape, I can usually tell.
Much of this information I knew instinctively from years of bowhunting whitetails by trial and error. But there were so many details to learn about setting up and maintaining an effective monitoring system that it took a long time before it all fell into place. Here’s a quick list of things I learned about trail cameras that might save you some frustration:
• Re-aim your camera after reloading. The simple task of exchanging batteries can shift the camera lens.
• Store spare batteries and extra memory cards in well-marked plastic bags. If you’re like me, you’ll get them mixed up if you don’t.
• Clear out the camera’s viewing angle to about 20 feet. Brush and tree branches can easily trigger the camera as the morning sun warms them up.
• Control creepy critters. The dark hollows within the electronic panels of these high-tech gizmos invite ants and spiders. Apply pyrethrum and use spray foam or duct tape to seal off the housing.
• When dealing with ultra-spooky bucks, consider the effects of camera flash and the infra-red beam. Flash-free units are said to spook fewer deer, but some experts believe that the infra-red beam is what causes deer to seem to “pose” for pictures. Placing units well above ground, as opposed to eye level, should help.
• Know the effective distance of your camera. For most, 20 feet produces the best results during warm-weather conditions. During cool weather, some units can actually reach out to 100 feet. This can cause the camera to trigger beyond the effective range of its flash.
• Leaves cause more false-triggering than you can imagine. Trees with foliage, including hearty oaks, sway in a moderate breeze. Set up along the lee side of a knoll or hill. Besides, that’s where you want to hunt anyway.
I’ve always believed it’s possible to teach an old dog new tricks. But I also know that the older the dog, the trickier it gets. After making every mistake possible, I have to admit that I no longer hate trail cameras. Wish I could say the same thing about rainy days and taxes.
This article was published in the August, 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.