How to Create a Fair Chase Cell Camera

How to Create a Fair Chase Cell Camera

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was a video from the Archery Trade Association show this past winter announcing a new livestream-enabled cell camera.

The excited brand representative laid out a scenario in which a hunter gets a text message on their phone with a photo of a big buck stepping in front of their camera. From here, he exclaimed, the hunter could pull up the camera app and hit the “Live” button. Now this hunter could watch the buck in real-time for as long as he wanted, seeing everything the buck does, seeing everywhere he goes.

To further imagine this scenario, the hunter could hypothetically watch this buck feed in a food plot while he slipped on his hunting boots, grabbed a gun, and snuck out the back door. He could confirm the buck’s presence and see its slow meander as he tiptoed down the fenceline. He could watch the buck’s body language on the phone screen as he got closer and then, when he saw the buck on screen put his head down to feed, he could step out into the open, finally see the deer with his own eyes, find him in the scope, and pull the trigger.

Is this hunting? Is this where we’re headed? Is this fair chase?

Cell Cams and Fair Chase Concerns

This hypothetical example I lay out is an extreme one, but it is possible with today’s camera technology. And it raises all sorts of questions.

I’ve thought a lot about these hypotheticals recently, and it’s forced me to confront the concerns I’ve quietly harbored for years about the rising use of increasingly powerful cell-enabled trail cameras, my own use included.

The overwhelming adoption of cell-enabled trail cameras has led to a near 24/7 surveillance state for America’s whitetail population and a wildly different experience for deer hunters than even a decade ago. I say all of this, admittedly, as one of those hunters who owns and uses cell cameras.

They’re a hell of a tool, let’s be clear about that. They allow me to gain scouting data without putting pressure on local deer via repeated intrusions to check cameras. They allow me to monitor deer activity in hunting areas that are far from my home. Heck, they’re just a lot of fun. Most of us deer hunters now know the thrill of getting the latest upload from our cameras and hurriedly refreshing the app to see what’s been passing through. But I’ve also experienced something less savory. An ick-factor that’s hard to explain. A temptation to use this tool in ways that, to me, don’t quite feel right.

Even standard cell cams, without livestream capabilities, allow for hunters to receive immediate photos from the field pin-pointing deer location at that moment, which can then lead to real-time adjustments in hunting strategy. I know of hunters who have gotten cell cam pics while on stand that led to them immediately climbing out of the tree and moving to the location where the deer just triggered a camera. I know of hunters who’ve placed cell cameras on or near deer bedding areas, captured photos of a target buck entering the bedding area, and immediately headed out to hunt that exact location where the deer was ostensibly bedded.

Are there fair-chase implications here? I have my personal concerns, as mentioned, but I also recognize that there are many shades of gray. Outside of legal parameters, we each must define “fair chase” for ourselves.

The Boone & Crockett Club, widely recognized as the first organization to adopt and promote the idea of fair chase hunting principles, defines fair chase as, “the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper or unfair advantage over the game animals.”

While a useful concept, it offers a whole lot of room for interpretation. What I deem as an “improper or unfair advantage over game animals” might look different than you, and your interpretation will likely be different from the next person. For that reason, I don’t aim to tell anyone what they should do when it comes to using or not using cell cams. All I can offer is my own experience wrestling with this technology and how I’ve decided to use and modify these cameras to maintain what I believe to be an appropriate level of fair chase.

First though, it should be pointed out that these concerns are not unique nor is the idea of some kind of self-regulation of hunting technology without precedent. The collection of real-time animal location data via an extraneous form of technology to aid in a hunt has been regulated in other forms too, most notably through the common regulation in Alaska prohibiting a hunter from flying and hunting on the same day. To keep someone from spotting game from a plane, touching down, and immediately heading to it, hunters are usually required to wait to hunt until one day after their flight.

More recently, a number of hunters, hunting conservation organizations, and then state game agencies came out against the use of drones in-season for scouting or aiding in hunting game. When it comes more specifically to trail camera use, the rise in concerns about this technology and the eye-popping proliferation of them across the landscape has led to a number of states outright banning them on public land, most recently in Kansas.

If we as users don’t get ahead of the fair chase concerns surrounding cell cameras and self-regulate our use in some way, this regulatory trend might very well continue, leading to an even greater reduction in available tools to use in the future. Might it be in our best interest to get ahead of things?

My Fair Chase Cell Cam Solution

Given these fair chase dilemmas, I’ve decided to establish my own set of ground rules for cell cam use. These are based on my own personal lines in the sand and allow for the use of cell cams in such a way that I believe preserves a sense of fair chase based on the hunting culture and norms I was raised with. I share these with you not as a proclamation of what the standard must be or what you should do, but rather as an example of how I’m trying to manage this technology in a way that stays true to my own principles.

First and foremost, live streaming is a non-starter. I won’t be buying any trail cam that has this technology and if it someday becomes ubiquitous and all cameras have it, I will choose to keep it deactivated. The use of livestream cameras to aid in a hunt, in my view, are not fair chase.

That said, with standard cell cameras, the greatest change I make is to disable instant notification and transmission of photos. Most cameras I’ve used have several different options for photo delay, most allowing for photos to be uploaded either once a day, twice, or instantly. To keep real-time data from influencing hunts in the moment or soon enough to give me an inappropriate advantage, my choice is to only have photos sent once every 24 hours (I’d prefer an even longer delay, if made available in future cameras). You can also set a time for that upload to occur and the best time, in my opinion, is the evening just after shooting light, which allows for the maximum time between getting photos and being able to hunt. This way I’m essentially a full day behind on all deer activity.

This set of self-imposed regulations eliminates one from taking advantage of the most uniquely effective applications of cell cams. In other words, these modifications protect me from myself and the temptation to take advantage of trail camera info in a way that crosses my personal fair chase line. I couldn’t, for example, get a photo just prior to daylight showing a buck heading into an area that I could slip in and hunt right then and there. I can’t “put a buck to bed,” as it’s known by some, capturing a photo of a buck heading into a bedding area in the morning and then hunting on the edge of it that evening to catch the deer coming out again. I couldn’t get a photo mid-day, maybe even while I’m already out hunting, and that tempt me to move right then and there to intercept the deer in real time.

Draw Your Own Line

The renowned author, hunter, and godfather of wild game management Aldo Leopold, once said that “ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” I wonder what he would think of the hunting world we live in now?

There is no single right or wrong view on this issue, I want to make that clear. You might see nothing at all to be concerned with about cell cams or live streaming capabilities, and I recognize there are innumerable points of view on the uses of technology across the hunting landscape. My hope here is not to claim that my way is the only way or that I have all the answers; rather it is to simply raise this issue as something worthy of our attention, care, and thought.

I would suggest, though, that rather than letting the future of hunting be determined by the companies profiting from the introduction of more and more new technology, we might be better off as a community exerting some influence of our own in determining what that future ought to look like.

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article