Rising interest in deer hunting has triggered a tidal wave of unique innovations.
Imaginative entrepreneurs have expanded and specialized the deer hunter’s toolbox, attempting to close the gap between the hunter and a trophy buck.
Even though deer-hunting basics remain constant, clever research and the refinement of existing technology is certainly helping. Take total-concealment camouflage, crystal-clear optics, total scent control and foolproof attractants — just a few of the many tools available for hunter use.
But the invention of the infrared-triggered trail camera may have them all beat. It adds an element to any hunting and management plan by providing 24-hour surveillance and therefore, crucial intelligence on the herd. Monitoring wildlife with cameras is spreading like wildfire, unveiling the unknown and validating time-tested theories. While startup costs can deter a new user, they quickly pay for themselves over and over with vital knowledge.
The possibilities for data collection are endless, but knowing how to collect and use the the data is essential for any hunter or wildlife manager with a camera. Primarily, trail cameras affect hunter choices, including stand placement, timing and harvest prescriptions. However, knowing how, where, and when to set up the trail cameras will depict the success of the overall plan.
When to watch?
With trail cameras, deer can be monitored at any time to help learn their movements and behaviors. With antler development in full swing, mid-summer is prime time to collect images of deer. Without the super-charged hormones flowing during the mating season, deer are more likely to maintain a daily routine, and intercepting them with a camera on is more likely. Bucks are in bachelor groups, and rich food sources bring even the biggest of bucks out of hiding.
An aggressive surveillance program can allow managers to catalog over 80 percent of the bucks on their property. During the summer, deer tend to be less bothered of unnatural smells and activity as well.
“Almost all of the nice bucks our clients harvested on our property were captured on film during the late summer, adjacent to our major food sources,” said Hugh McCrea of Big Woods Outfitters in Kingstree.
McCrea lives and works on his land year-round, and he keeps tabs on his deer. He uses six cameras to monitor deer on his 2,500-acre property in Williamsburg County from mid- to late summer when deer pounding the lush soybeans. He places his cameras on the edge of food plots and on major trails leading to and from soybean fields.
“I use cameras to see the deer I don’t see during scouting trips around the farm,” said McCrae, who moves cameras from location to location on a weekly basis.
“In a week’s time, you will see most deer that are using that area. A few cameras can cover a lot of area quickly and can effectively inventory the herd,” he said.
Even though he aggressively monitors deer before the season, McCrea removes his cameras from the woods by Oct. 1, a few weeks before the rut begins in the Lowcountry.
“I like to let everything settle down, and we make a point not to frequent the woods any more than needed. Big mature bucks are very sensitive to human scent and unnatural disturbances,” he said.
Jonathan Phillips, operations manager for Black River Plantation in Clarendon County, manages 4,700 acres; he is also a fan of trail cameras, using as many as 10 at any given time during the early season and pre-rut. He positions them primarily at pinch points or funnels where three types of terrain meet, allowing him to set up his clients on specific deer.
“Cameras are crucial for dialing in on a buck during the early season. Buck movement is 10 times easier to pattern during the early season, before the rut begins,” said Phillips, who also sets up cameras on food plots, feeders, and salt licks during the early season to catalog his resident bucks.
Monitoring the rut
As the rut begins and hormones start flowing, bucks seem to turn rabid, traveling many miles in search of hot does. Cameras capture bucks at various times of the day, plus new bucks, sparking the start of the rut.
While patterning bucks during the rut is almost an impossible task, utilizing cameras requires different strategy. Phillips moves his cameras to rub and scrape lines to catch deer checking in. At the same time, he keeps cameras at food plots and feeders where does are plentiful in hopes of capturing a buck checking them out. Also, feeder surveillance helps determine prime feeding periods.
During the rut, cameras must be checked more often to help discover any bucks that have moved in, briefly hanging around to court a doe in-season.
Pattern big bucks
Deer participate in few basic activities during the season, including feeding, mating, and resting. The hunter’s challenge is to intercept a buck going to and from one of these activities. A surveillance system unveils these travel patterns, enabling the deer hunter to set up on these deer effectively.
Jeff Hunt of Lowcountry Hunting Services and Cypress Creek Hunting Lodge in Garnett is an avid trail camera user, taking over 8,000 images per year. Hunt, who formerly managed Cubbage Hill Plantation, pays attention to time of day, direction of travel and specifics of each deer that shows up on film, later piecing the facts together like a puzzle.
“I know that if I see the same buck every night at midnight at one spot, then I move the camera and find the same buck (somewhere else), but he is using that area at daylight, chances are he is headed back to bed. Therefore, his bedding area is closer to that spot than the other. I can now hunt accordingly,” Hunt said.
Feeding stations or trails leading to food piles are always good places to set up cameras during the season. Most of the time, bucks show up just after dark and usually behind does. Bucks generally travel secondary trails downwind of primary trails leading to food sources.
As Hunt captures bucks on camera around food piles, he sets up a temporary stand on a scrape/rub line or collaboration of trails 100 to 200 yards away to intercept bucks checking the area during daylight hours that may or may not even go to the food source.
“The camera tells you what is there, but it is up to you to figure out how to hunt them,” Hunt said.
Lunar feeding cycle
Many theories exist about what causes deer movements to increase and decrease, including weather patterns and lunar cycles.
The lunar feeding cycle is preached as gospel by some and ignored by others. The theory is that the moon’s position predicts feeding periods for fish and wildlife. Nature’s time clock strikes at four different intervals during each 24-hour period: two major and two minor feeding periods.
The major feeding periods, lasting two hours each, are precisely when the moon is directly overhead and directly underfoot. The two minor feeding periods, lasting an hour each, are between each of the major feeding intervals.
The date and time stamp provided by modern trail cameras provides valuable data, showing deer movements and giving hunters the opportunity to see how they are affected by changes in weather patterns and lunar feeding cycles.
“Ever since we started using trail cameras, they confirm what we have thought all along about deer movements. They become more active during major and minor feeding periods and also when cool weather moves in. Deer seem to get energized and walk more frequently,” said McCrea, who recalls higher success for his clients during major feeding periods and just after cool fronts pass through the area.
Risk avoidance, scent control
While trail cameras provide a wealth of helpful information, they aren’t without risks. As soon as they are set up — and checked regularly — human scent becomes a concern. Extreme care should always be taken when setting up or checking trail cameras.
Phillips sets up each camera for 3- to 4-week periods and checks them in 2-week intervals to reduce exposure in the deer woods. Phillips believes that deer pattern hunters going to and from the woods, especially older, mature bucks. From his experience, the best time to enter the woods is at night.
“Deer don’t spook as easily or pattern you as easily at night,” said Phillips, who replenishes food piles, checks cameras, and moves temporary stands primarily at night.
“Deer will quickly pattern hunters moving to and from stands during the daytime, especially during the usual hunter-entry points: early morning, late morning, early afternoon, and just before dark.”
Phillips pays close attention to his scent when checking cameras. Deer quickly associate human scent with danger when disturbed. When checking cameras, take scent control into account.
Camera placement can also be devastating if placed too close to refuge areas.
“Bedding areas are crucial for deer to keep sacred and free of human scent. Trail cameras placed too close to these areas or within bedding areas will bump the big mature bucks you are after,” Phillips said.
Big, mature bucks are spooky anyway. Bucks survive by being weary and alert to dangerous signals. Phillips discourages anyone from placing cameras too close to bedding areas.
McCrea pulls all of his cameras by Oct. 1 to “allow everything to quiet down.” He limits human intervention into the wooded areas and only enters them to take hunters to the stands.
That limited travel has proven to be one of McCrea’s principles for success. His extensive knowledge of his land and the data from early- season trail cameras is enough to predict which stands are the best to hunt during different times of day.
McCrea generally places his cameras adjacent to fields on trails and on feed piles far away from bedding areas, avoiding the big-buck refuges. He knows that if the a mature buck is spooked, he will be gone forever as well.
While trail cameras provide a mountain of information about times and places to hunt, they also catalog most of the resident deer on the property, including doe abundance and an accounting of bucks.
Preseason camera surveys allow hunters and deer managers to decide how many deer to take off certain parts of a property, even identify specific deer to protect, to cull or to target as a trophy.
“If you are waiting on a 150-inch buck, but all you see are 100-inch bucks on camera, chances are you are out of luck,” Hunt said. “However, if you have been shooting those 100-inch bucks, but you start seeing 120s on camera, you know that if you just wait; you can do better.
“It can really help your hunters decide what to shoot. If you show them lots of great 120- to 130-inch bucks on camera, most good hunters will pass the medium bucks up. But if those same hunters think that all you have is 100-inch bucks, they are not going to hold out, but instead shoot.
Camera survey is imperative if you are truly looking to grow bigger bucks, because hunter management is just as important as deer management, Hunt says.
Fortunately, a good camera program and catalog of bucks provides hunter with an extra level of confidence. Hunters become better hunters by letting smaller bucks go. Their newfound confidence also gives them the patience needed to intercept big bucks on the prowl.
No hunter or manager should take further strides without incorporating a trail-camera plan. In fact, most people who using trail cameras immediately increase their level of interest and enjoyment, becoming just as excited about checking cameras as climbing into a tree stand.
Trail cameras, placed timely, strategically and managed properly, will improve any deer hunters overall success, management ability, and overall enjoyment.