Why You Should Reconsider Your Trail Cam Strategy

Why You Should Reconsider Your Trail Cam Strategy

The trail cam game used to be such an easy one to play. Placements were simple, obvious, and prolific photographic producers—simply establish a mineral site and await the glut of images that would follow. As autumn colors developed, you moved onto active scrapes—even those along field edges—to hang and inventory just about every buck in the neighborhood. You hung the camera waist-high, paying attention to avoid the western and eastern horizons to prevent washed-out images during prime light, and that’s about it. There wasn’t much to be too concerned with.

Today? It’s different. Much different.

The development of trail cameras has arguably had the most significant impact on deer hunting —maybe outside of the compound bow. I’m old enough to remember the days when trail cams used 35mm film and viewing the results of your efforts required a trip to the local Walmart photo center, where you’d endure an hour of anticipation before learning that 28 of the 36 exposures contained nothing more than a wind-blown branch. But, man, was it ever cool.

I wouldn’t enjoy deer season nearly as much without the use of cameras. That said, the prevalence of camera use has certainly impacted the areas (and the animals) that I hunt. Modern-day, cellular-equipped cameras have taken covert surveillance to levels that rightfully trigger serious conversations about fair-chase principles. But that’s another topic for another day.

Today, let’s focus on the in-field use of trail cams, the myriad of changes I’ve adapted to, and the new strategies I’ve adopted over the years.

Trail Cam Location

Where legal, summer mineral sites can still provide ideal camera locations. That said, I live in Michigan where baiting is illegal, and my out-of-state efforts are almost always done on public lands where baiting isn’t allowed either. I still use cameras in the summer months, but I no longer focus on locating deer. Instead, I use cameras to get a feel for how much human traffic is taking place in the areas I’d like to hunt.

This was a big adjustment for me. Previously, I used trail cameras to keep tabs on hunting pressure in public areas during the season, but now I’ve accepted the fact that there are very few “low-pressure” public areas left anywhere in the country. Now, I find that starting these efforts in the summer is important.

Field-edge scrapes are also a non-starter for me now. I’m not saying I won’t try a camera or two on a particularly juicy-looking scrape, but I know the results are likely to be underwhelming. My focus is on older bucks. In all but a few rare instances, those calibers of deer simply aren’t using field-edge scrapes as they did a few years ago—and they seem to have become quite adept at avoiding those scrapes with cameras.

Today, I opt to target scrapes that are located in or very near heavy security cover. This is where cellular cameras really shine for me. Those scrapes are located where they are because bucks feel safe there. It stands to reason that they feel less secure every time I enter to hang or check a camera. With cell cams, I’m able to limit my impact, and that’s critical.

Trail Cam Setup

As I mentioned previously, my camera setups used to be elementary. I’d hang the cameras about waist-high to capture the best possible angle of the deer with minimal regard to the visibility of the camera to deer—or other hunters. I had minimal concern that camera flashes had much, if any, impact on deer and I still don’t really think they do. That said, I have noticed a dramatic increase in the reaction deer have to the noise the camera makes when the infrared filter (used to make night images possible) engages. I’ve also seen trail cam locations become apparent hotspots for hunter activity on public land.

Because of this, I now do everything I can to hide my cameras from the eyes (and ears) of deer and man. This typically means hanging the camera much higher and angling it downward onto scrapes and making sure the cameras I use have minimal noise when working. By doing this, I have observed far less impact on the deer when images are captured—no more bucks staring at the camera for one frame and then gone the next. I’ve captured several minutes of a mature buck working a scrape as the camera recorded multiple images or video clips.

When using cameras on public land, I no longer leave cameras in an area for a long period of time. Instead, I focus only on areas that I’m currently hunting and focus on active scrapes I can check on my way in or out. This isn’t a huge deal as most of my hunting is done in short bursts, so long-term camera use isn’t a viable option anyway.

Trail Cam Intent

In the past, trail cameras were my primary tool for determining which areas I wanted to spend my time hunting, whether I was hunting public or private ground. The cameras would be in place well before the season opened and I’d use the information they’d provide to tell me what areas had bucks worth chasing. Again, times have changed.

Over the years, I came to understand that preseason information became less and less valuable as hunting pressure, particularly in public areas, became more and more intense.

Now, my cameras are used for a singular purpose: to confirm whether an area with buck sign is still holding the same bucks that made the sign. I’ve wasted too many hours over the years hunting areas with solid sign that was made by bucks that vacated the area when the pressure ramped up. This is why I place such high value on active scrapes throughout the season. From mid-October through mid-November, scrapes provide me with a location to place a camera and know in a short period of time what caliber bucks are working those scrapes and whether they’re willing to work them in daylight.

It's a rare instance when I’ll have a camera in the same location for more than a few days. That is a big-time change from the days when cameras were easy and bucks were dumb—or, at least less pressured. The game has changed, which means my strategies need to as well. I suggest you do the same.

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