Trail Cam Pluses and Minuses

This fine buck was taken a mile away from the site where it was photographed by a trail cam.

One great thing about trail cams is, they are finally convincing hunters trophy-class bucks (bucks for the wall) actually live within their hunting areas — deer that have been living there all along. The trouble is, trail cams fail to convince hunters older bucks are not rooted at the spots where they were photographed. For this reason photos taken by trail cams are not acceptable alternatives to good scouting. Instead, they should be considered good reasons for more thorough preseason scouting and more cautious hunting.

Take the site along a trail where my son Dave’s trail cam photographed seven different mature bucks some years go, two of them especially large. Figuring he had discovered a buck hotspot (used by these deer to get to a beaver pond), Dave took the extra precaution of placing portable stands in trees near opposite ends of this trail to assure he’d be downwind or crosswind whatever wind direction on any day he chose to hunt there. Over a nine-day period, he saw no bucks on this trail. Four were taken by other hunters in our group up to a mile away, one of them a monster for the wall. As we have since come to realize, though sites where big bucks were photographed are usually very tempting, there are lots of reasons why a buck hunter should not put too much stock in what is discovered via a trail cam.

For 18 years in winter I regularly used my trail cam to help establish what kind of deer and how many lived in wintering areas in Palo Duro Canyon and Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge located in the panhandle of Texas. During the final ten winters my wife Jene and I spent time in the canyon, wild hogs were seriously damaging the landscape by digging up and eating roots of prickly pear cacti, and newly established hunting seasons were having little affect on hog numbers. When my trail cam was placed on a tree a mere thirty yards behind our favorite campsite in the canyon, passing “boars” were photographed almost nightly, but try as we frequently did, Jene and I were unable to photograph any during daylight hours. Similarly, though does in heat may encourage mature bucks to be more active during daylight hours in fall, necessarily with greater caution, many older, trophy-class white-tailed bucks I have known and hunted fed and bred only in darkness after hunting began.

There are other reasons older bucks are seldom seen in person, of course. As seasons change and leaves fall to the ground, many abandon previously favored trails. Older bucks also readily abandon trails laced with trail scents of hunters (including scents of rubber boot soles). Typically, after 1–2 days of hunting, big bucks travel off-trail much of the time and rarely use the same route twice in a row. Strong winds, heavy precipitation, unseasonably warm or cold temperatures and moonlight can also keep them from moving about during daylight hours of hunting seasons.

Actually, a trail camera can be a part of the problem. A camera that emits a white flash at night can frighten deer (and bears) enough to make them abandon the area for awhile. Though my camera emits an infra-red flash, which does not alarm deer, I have occasionally observed whitetails leap away from my camera with obvious fright upon hearing it “click” a short distance away.

More than anything, I think (based on my own experiences), the failure to take a big buck (or bear) previously photographed with a trail cam is attributable to what many hunters do after the photograph is taken. Excited hunters typically return to such a site often (on foot or riding a noisy ATV) to get their latest photos and later to prepare to hunt there. While doing either, they flood the site and its surroundings with human odors, make the site known to all mature whitetails living within the surrounding square mile via familiar sounds such as those made by a gasoline engine, hammer, hatchet and saw and creating obvious changes in the landscape readily recognized by mature whitetails that have survived several hunting seasons. Well-experienced bucks, which have excellent memories, know exactly what to do upon discovering such a site day or night before or during a hunting season.

My advice is, use trail cams early and sparingly, quitting at least 2–3 weeks before a hunting season begins. Then, upon photographing a big buck, take into account a big buck will be much more difficult to successfully hunt than other deer. Plan to hunt it in a manner that will keep it from becoming alarmed enough (raise its tail and bound) to abandon its range and/or become nocturnal for 1–2 or more weeks. Finish field preparations 2–3 weeks before hunting as well. Make it very difficult for that buck to identify you via sight, sound or scent by stand hunting and using well hidden approach trails. To avoid wasting days of hunting time, change stand sites once (or twice) daily because when not with a doe in heat, that buck will attempt to make sure of your current location daily. Always walk to and from your stand site without stopping to scan ahead for deer. Finally, always sit downwind or crosswind within easy shooting range of that buck’s fresh tracks and/or droppings. Chances while then be very good that you will finally see that buck in person.

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