Opening day is long gone. The wild ride of the rut is in our rearview mirror. Gun season might even be old news. But one thing for sure is not past. Trail cam season.
Yes. This most beloved deer hunting tool is just as useful now in the late season as it was during all of those previous high points of the deer hunting year. But how, where, when, and why you use these devices should all be different now than at other times of the year. Here’s how to best utilize your cameras to salvage success in these final days of the hunting season.
Late-season trail cameras primarily serve two purposes for me and most deer hunters. The first is to relocate and/or confirm the survival of certain bucks post-rut or post-gun season. The second is to determine the specific patterns or behaviors of deer in the late season.
I view the rut and the corresponding gun seasons in November as a great reshuffling of the deer herd deck. A deer population in a given area can look vastly different when December rolls around compared to September or October. Plenty of bucks simply don’t exist now, and those that are still alive might be occupying different places than they did just a month or two ago. That said, the first part of my late-season trail cam strategy is to confirm what bucks are alive, to relocate deer that might have shifted ranges, and ID new bucks that moved into the area. This late-season inventory is key when putting together any kind of plan for hunting whitetail bucks in the final weeks of the season.
Once you know who's around, trail cameras can help you dial in a plan by giving you eyes in the woods. Deer are particularly alert to pressure in the late season, as they’ve already been hunted for months at this point and are in no way interested in further harassment. Trail cams offer a low-impact way to observe what's happening in the woods and more specifically, a great way to determine exactly what food sources, bedding areas, and travel corridors are being used at this new time of year.
When the late season arrives nothing is more important to deer than refilling their stomachs after an exhausting rut and in preparation for a tough winter. Food is the name of the game and almost all late-season hunting strategies should revolve around it. That said, late-season cameras are almost always best placed alongside or near a food source. What type of food will vary by location but typical late-season offerings like corn, soybeans, late-lasting acorns, clear cuts, or food plots like turnips or clover can all be strong options.
The best places near these food sources to run cameras, in my experience, are on inside corners of ag fields or other known entry points such as low spots, fence crossings, or otherwise beaten-down trails. Running cameras on field edge scrapes, even in the late season, is another surefire approach. Scrapes get visited all year long and even if the ground isn't freshly worked, bucks will still swing by to hit the licking branch. If legal in your area, placing some kind of attractant like corn or apples can also help you ensure nearby deer step in front of your camera.
Finally, it’s important to make sure your late-season cameras are in locations that can easily be reached by way of a vehicle or bike unless they’re cellular, which would then allow you to place them in harder-to-reach areas. Pushing into the cover to place or check a camera at this time of year is a surefire way to turn an already sketchy buck nocturnal for the rest of the season. I’d recommend only checking cameras in the late season with very infrequent visits via vehicle during midday or when already passing by such a location when heading in to hunt. If you can instead run cell cameras in these locations, you’re even better positioned to keep local deer unaware, as you can receive daily updates on camera activity without needing to enter the area.
Once cameras are adjusted for late season and bucks are ID’ed, I’m looking for two main things. First, I’m looking for trail cam data that can help me determine what food sources are most attractive at the moment. This is something that can change from week to week during this later period of the year, and it can make or break a hunt. You need to know what’s hot now if you want to kill a late-season deer. Even if your cameras aren’t showing daylight photos of a big buck, simply knowing which food source currently has the deer is a huge clue you can use to focus your efforts in the right region.
On top of this, of course, photos of specific bucks doing specific things can be awfully helpful as well. If you get a daylight photo of a buck on one of these cameras, it’s often worth hunting near that location as soon as possible, ideally with a similar wind direction and decent weather conditions. It’s worth studying the wind, temperature, barometric pressure, and any other weather factors that were present during those daylight appearances to try and determine what factors might have led to that buck moving in daylight and then looking in the forecast to see when similar conditions might return. This kind of trail cam analysis can help you better pick your shots, which is critical this time of year. Every time you hunt a given area during the late season you risk spooking deer and reducing future opportunities, so you want to make sure each of your hunts is timed to occur on the days you have the best possible chance for success.
With a similar goal in mind, you should also be studying photos from past years too, looking for any kind of pattern present then that might apply to bucks that are still around now. Bucks will often frequent similar areas at similar times year after year. Look for these annual patterns and then be in the field this year when similar dates and conditions arise. You’ll be shocked at how often history repeats itself.
Late-season deer hunting is all about making smart tactical strikes. You simply can’t hunt haphazardly and expect to kill deer consistently at this time of year. You need to know the right places to hunt and the right times to do it, and no tool can help you do this more efficiently than trail cameras. Use cameras the right way and your deer hunting dreams can still come true in December and January.