Scouting deer used to involve glassing, looking for sign, and getting in where the deer live to suss out their patterns. Now, for a lot of us, it just involves hanging a trail camera. This might be a necessity and the best way to figure out a buck, or it can be a crutch and steer us into poor choices.
The crowd that benefits most from trail cams are the small-parcel hunters. If you’re east of the Mississippi and hunting tiny woodlots, it’s doesn’t do you much good to walk through your only spot over and over again. A few 24/7 digital scouters might be the best bet for dialing individual deer movements and making a plan.
On the other hand, if you’ve got room to roam and places to watch, trail cameras should be a complementary asset, not the sole source of deer intel. This balance is harder to achieve than it sounds.
The first problem with relying too heavily on trail cameras is the assumption that they document every deer in the woods. Having conducted plenty of experiments, I believe this just doesn’t happen with the regularity we’d like. In fact, I once sat on stand and watched two young bucks fight in front of a trail camera for a long time. When I checked the card, I saw that it hadn’t captured a single picture of the event that unfolded right in front of it.
Another problem with trail cameras is that we tend to use their findings to confirm our biases. Think about nocturnal bucks for example. If you’re getting mostly nighttime images, it’s easy to believe that the deer are vampires and there’s no reason to hunt until daytime movement starts.
Don’t let one glimpse into one part of the woods heavily influence your decision to hunt. That’s dangerous ground on which to build a hunting strategy. Actually, sitting on stand and trying to observe deer doing their thing usually provides more actionable intel than a trail camera ever could. The exception to this are cameras hung over bait or water sources. Deer in these areas will hang around and get their pictures taken, giving you quality info that cams hung on trails won’t.
Most hunters want their trail cams to do one specific thing: figure out when certain bucks are using specific spots. But what happens when there is no pattern to the activity? What if it truly appears random and doesn’t provide a framework on which to build a hunting plan?
You might notice other things, like deer using a specific trail when the wind is blowing from a certain direction, or that sign-making is picking up when new bucks start hitting a community scrape.
Or, you might get nothing, which means the area where you hung the camera is a dud. That’s still good information to have, because it might tell you where you shouldn’t be hunting. This is not unlike pre-fishing for a bass tournament and eliminating dead water until you find a concentration of largemouth in a certain area.
In other words, using cameras to capture nighttime images of bucks feeding in the soybeans is fun, but it doesn’t tell you anything that you didn’t already know. Use them to answer real questions about local deer behavior any time you can. Consider camera images to be pieces of a puzzle that isn’t complete without actual sightings, rubs, scrapes, droppings, beds, etc.
This goes against one of the main arguments for trail cams (especially cell cams) about staying out of the woods to preserve deer movement. This is valuable if you’re the title holder to some land, but often doesn’t work for the public lands hunter or the permission-based private land hunter.
If you fall into the non-landowner category, you’re probably not preserving a whole lot of natural deer movement by not scouting and only running cameras. This just gives hunters an excuse to stay out of the woods. Now, I wouldn’t advise anyone to wander aimlessly through their land during the season, but calculated, boots-on-the-ground scouting and hunting will tell you a lot about the day-to-day conditions and how deer are reacting to them. This might be as simple as an acorn or apple drop, or something more significant like the first doe coming into estrus.
There are many things trail camera usage alone can’t help you with. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use them, because you should. Just consider them to be part of a bigger process that involves multiple methods for staying on top of the ungulate comings and goings. Too many hunters think they’re the cure-all for killing a buck, but in reality trail cams can make you a worse hunter.
Feature image via Captured Creative.