My trail camera strategy during the rut is more inventory-based than trying to time movement with an exact setup location. Leading up to the rut I’ve already scouted heavily (both boots on the ground and studying maps) to identify critical areas where a buck will move or use terrain or cover to find does.
Trail cameras can be a great tool, acting as your eyes in numerous areas since you can’t be in more than one place at once. Whether you’re monitoring general movement to determine the rut phase or trying to keep up with a specific buck, trail cameras can pay off if positioned in key places when the rut breaks loose. But hey don’t replace real-time, in-person scouting to find a buck right now. Remember, as valuable and helpful as trail cameras can be, things change fast in the rut, and any picture you get is old news from the moment you see it. Don’t stay a step behind.
When looking for a good location for a camera, I love finding spots where multiple features come together. Creek crossings are great for concentrating movement for many reasons. They provide water, a resource deer need for survival making them a natural attraction.
Bucks can go for days during the rut without stopping for a meal, but lack of water is a real problem. They won’t stray too far and take every advantage they can to hydrate. Creek systems are also natural terrain funnels for steering and bottlenecking travel.
Placing a trail camera at the point of a crossing can show consistent use, doe travel, and cruising patterns of bucks searching for does. I like to hang the camera with a broad view to catch the direction of travel and any background activity of the crossing to gather information and understand how the deer use the area. These images combined with the sign can be ideal for determining the time of use and likely direction of travel.
Similar to the creek crossing strategy, the plan here is to gather a lot of information in a concentrated area. As colder weather nears and the need to prepare for winter sets in, primary food sources are magnets for does.
When breeding approaches and does start coming into estrous, bucks instinctively put themselves around does for a better chance of finding one in heat. They learn to be efficient by understanding where does spend the majority of their time (and you should too). They quickly check these areas by cruising around downwind of these food locations.
I look for inside corners of cover, low spots, and terrain features that make good entry points to feeding areas or even fence jumps and gaps that can help focus movement in and around food sources during the rut. Look for trails or fresh scrapes and rubs that parallel a food source edge. Think about the primary wind direction that could influence a buck to use the travel route while having a wind advantage from the food source to the cover where he would most likely travel.
Scrapes get most of their focus from hunters during the pre-rut timeframe when bucks are laying sign down, building strength, and preparing for breeding. This is for good reason—scrapes are getting established and fresh sign is popping up everywhere during the pre-rut. Scrapes, especially primary scrapes in thick security cover usually adjacent to bedding, don’t get enough focus during the rut and breeding phases.
I’m not saying you should just set up shop over a scrape and not look for rut activity. However, with the help of cameras over the years, it’s been eye-opening to see how many bucks will still cruise downwind of primary scrapes consistently throughout the rut. They may not stop to work the ground and lick branches, but they still frequently scent-check them to see if a hot doe is in the area. It’s ideal to gather intel on a buck’s rut circuit on how and where he checks for does in an area.
I like setting up cameras on primary scrapes with a broader view to try and catch this scent-checking movement from bucks. The scrape may fill with leaves and appear unused, but could still be getting some great activity from a scent perspective. If you have service and the ability to use cell cameras, they can help you be efficient, especially during the lockdown phase of peak breeding when you’re out searching for flurries of rut activity. They can help you understand when a buck might be between does and daylight actively searching for his next girlfriend while you’re hunting in other areas.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.