It’s hard to find a deer hunter today who isn’t using trail cameras. They litter whitetail properties across the country, consume our waking minds, and use a heap of LTE bandwidth and cloud storage too. In short, they’re everywhere. But what is rare is the hunter using his or her photos to their full potential.
The average camera user, simply admiring trail cam pictures and showing them off to buddies, barely scratches the surface of what this tool can provide. Here’s how to avoid that mistake and leverage your trail camera photos to their fullest potential.
Yes, as a starting point, trail cams are great for simply getting an idea of what deer are in the area. To do this right, you should make sure your cameras are in the field and located appropriately for several distinct phases of the year. The first of these phases is mid-summer when bucks have established the majority of their antler growth and are newly identifiable. This is your first chance to get a sense of what bucks are in the area and how any returning deer from last year have progressed in body size and antler growth. With photos in hand, you can start estimating ages, antler size, and begin a possible target deer list. If you have an August or September opener, these photos can also play into an early-season hunting strategy. But take note, many bucks will shift their ranges once September rolls around, so don’t put too much emphasis on these photos if your opener is later in the fall.
The second inventory period is after this early September shift which typically occurs after velvet peel. This is when you can first identify what bucks will likely be around for the hunting season. The next period of significant change is the rut when some bucks will again move into new areas or range further outside their core in search of does. And finally, late season, when it's helpful to re-identify what bucks have survived gun season and what deer have moved into your area as food sources change and hunting pressure moves deer around.
This inventory process can help you put together a list of what deer you’re interested in targeting, help you estimate the ages of deer, and simply clue you into what properties are worth spending time on or not. But this should just be the beginning.
With all of this inventory now on your memory cards, the next step is to ensure you save these photos for future analysis. If you ever want to use your pictures for more than just showboating, you need to store and organize them in such a way that you can access and study them in the future.
The best way I’ve found to do this is with a folder system on my computer, starting with top-level folders for each different property I hunt and folders within those for each year. Then, within each of these, I’ll drop every photo I get of a recognizable buck 2.5 years or older, ordered by date. This allows me at any time to look back at the bucks on a given farm, during any given year, and see what was happening throughout that season.
Taking things a step further, I also log my daylight photos of the top few target bucks on any given year, to call out specific data points tied to those photos that might be useful in future hunts. I do this by creating a spreadsheet with a row for each daylight photo and columns including information like the name of the buck, date, time, location, temperature, wind direction and speed, barometric pressure, and moon phase. I also log any actual observations of these deer in that same spreadsheet, but that’s a conversation for another day.
With an inventory of buck photos now saved, organized, and logged you can take the next step in utilizing this data. This begins with a thorough study of recent photos, and correlating variables, in an attempt to predict a deer’s future behavior and travel.
First, when looking at an individual photo, I’m paying attention to the direction a buck is coming from and the direction he’s going. This, paired with the time of day, can be a useful clue when trying to decipher where a buck might be generally bedding or feeding. I’m also looking at buck behavior and how he interacts with other deer. This might help determine whether a particular buck is dominant or more subordinate, which is useful insight to have during future encounters.
Most importantly, I’m studying the location and conditions tied to each daylight photograph to try and narrow down the locations a buck is most likely to appear during daylight and the factors that might help me predict when he’ll appear there next. This is why I like to log my target buck photos along with corresponding weather conditions, allowing me to identify trends and patterns that I can use down the line.
For example, if you save, log, and study enough photos of a particular buck, you might eventually notice that all of a deer’s daylight sightings are around one particular location, or mostly happening on southerly winds, or only happening after cold fronts. The specifics, of course, will be unique. But the point here is that bucks don’t usually do things randomly. There’s a reason why they show up in certain places at certain times, and a careful study of photos can help you start to uncover that reason.
It’s important to note that trail cam photos and correlating data don’t lose their usefulness after the year they were taken. In fact, patterns deciphered in one given year can oftentimes be applied to future years as well, both when it comes to individual buck behaviors and larger property-wide trends. I’ve frequently found specific bucks visit certain areas at around the same time year after year. And, at the property level, I’ve used previous year's photos to identify unique annual peaks in rut movement that seems to occur annually.
Just this December I leveraged photos in just this way to successfully pattern a buck and predict when and where I could intercept him. Over the three years, I knew of this deer I collected, organized, and charted his photos in the way described above. And this year, after studying the accumulating data, several useful insights bubbled to the surface.
The first of these was the realization that the vast majority of this buck’s daylight photos were taken in and around a small swamp in the back corner of the property I hunt. This became more and more true over the three years I followed him, with his core range seeming to tighten as he got older. By the time opening day of the 2022 season rolled around, I was confident that my hunt for this buck would likely be focused on just a small 10- to 20-acre section.
The second insight was tied to the timing of his occupation of this particular swamp and how it seemed to change similarly year after year. In 2021 this deer was relatively active around the swamp all through September and October, only to almost completely disappear in November. He didn’t return again that year until the first week of December when he miraculously reappeared and then daylighted four times in a ten-day period. When this same behavior seemed to be repeating in 2022, with the buck again disappearing in November, I immediately thought back to his December 2021 reappearance. Leaning in on this possible annual pattern, I decided to hold off on hunting in his now confirmed core range until the first week in December, when I hoped he’d again return to his swamp.
On December 3, one year to the date of his 2021 return, I had the necessary wind to hunt near his core range and the added bonus of a passing cold front and rising barometric pressure—both weather factors present on many of his previous daylight appearances on camera. With all signs pointing towards a reappearance, I snuck back to hunt the edge of the swamp for the first time in nearly three weeks, and my target buck was in the back of my truck before the end of shooting light.
The insights and patterns gleaned from trail cam photos don’t always lead to meat in the freezer in this wonderfully predictable kind of way. In fact most of the time they don’t. This is still hunting after all. But with some extra work and careful thought, they can give you a slightly better chance. And that’s about all you can ask for when chasing mature bucks.
Sure, it was fun to capture photos of this deer and to stare at them late at night in my office and blast them off to my buddies. But I didn’t let my trail cam use end there, and the final result was a whole lot more satisfying because of it.