Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Trail cameras have been around longer than a lot of us realize. I searched "first use of a trail camera" and found reports of a gentleman named George Shiras III using a baited trip wire to a large camera and magnesium flash bulb, producing his images onto glass plates that he would later develop in a dark room. This is proof that even in the 1880's we were using remote activated cameras to capture wildlife photos. However, I'm pretty sure that whatever animal was witness to this, hit the road with a lesson learned. Today's far more discreet cameras may be equipped with infrared flash, silent shutters and cellular technology but they, and their users, can have an impact on the patterns of the wildlife that they mug. Based on my own trials and tribulations, I'll break down how to avoid those issues and the best practices to get the most out of your pictures, or lack thereof.
An example of George Shiras' revolutionary wildlife photography
My first camera, a 35mm stealth cam was set on the edge of a mowed path through my family's 40 acres. I had been hunting for a couple years and knew that if I wasn't seeing the big bucks it must be because they were all nocturnal. After a day or two I went and checked the camera, the 36 exposures were full. With child like excitement, I drove to town to get the photos developed. Surely, all of those behemoth, brush dwelling, nocturnal monster bucks would show up in the batch. As it turned out, the deer in those photos as well as every subsequent set of photos was the same does, fawns and young bucks that I had been seeing from the stand. Where were all those monster bucks!?
Tip #1 - Drive Up Card Pulls
Back in my early days of bowhunting I read every article and watched every vhs I could get my hands on. One of the main points I saw brought up over and over was scent reduction. While I was good at wearing clean clothes, rubber boots and dousing myself and my cameras with scent eliminators, I was overlooking approach and exit strategy as well as pressure. Simply put, me walking to my cameras was tipping off deer, especially mature animals. In the 15 years since I have found that if cameras are set in a way that you can drive to them with a four wheeler, truck or tractor the perceived danger by a whitetail goes way down. Don't bury your cameras in the deepest part of the timber. Set the edges and drive to them and your mature buck pictures will reflect the change. This ties in directly with #2.
Most of my cameras are set where I can ride to them, without touching the ground.
Tip #2 - Use Most Cameras For Inventory Only
Trail cameras are marketed as aids in animal pattern prediction, giving you the opportunity to figure out what an animal is doing and then move in and fill the tag. I agree to an extent but the most powerful thing a trail camera can do has nothing to do with pattern recognition, in my opinion. Stay with me for a second. Remember where I stated, "where were all those monster bucks!?"? In that particular moment in time they simply didn't exist on that particular property, in the numbers necessary to warrant hunting for them. High pressure on antlered deer in the area for many years had led to a very small amount of bucks living to maturity. This is a very hard thing to swallow, especially if you only have one place to hunt. Setting cameras in agricultural waterways and major night time travel routes are a great way to see most of the deer that use the area. These are not prime locations for hunting but I run most of my cameras in these types of locations, most of the year. If your goal is to hunt mature bucks and there are none using the area at all then you now have all the information you need. There is no reason to spend more time dissecting the property and running more intel. It is now time to focus on permission to another property or look at some public land until you find a place that holds the type of animals you want to pursue. You wouldn't spend all summer fishing an un-stocked farm pond would you?
This waterway shows me what bucks live in the area, despite nearly no pictures being taken here once the crops are out.
Tip #3 - Place Cameras On Your Entry Route To Stands
Once a property has proven to have mature bucks present, I'll move a few cameras closer to my stand locations. Generally, these stands are in heavier cover where bucks are funneled and comfortable moving during the daylight, such as downwind edges of bedding areas and strips of brush connecting large pieces of cover. This one may be obvious, but only checking the camera when you have to walk past it to get to a stand saves you from random voyages through the timber creating pressure. The number one way to ruin your chance at a mature buck is to expose him to human activity. With cell cameras this can be tweaked a bit, just make sure they are in a location with full signal and that they supply great battery life or you'll find yourself defeating the purpose by making trips back into those sensitive areas.
This camera is 40 yards in front of a stand. I have to walk right past it, making card checks easy and low impact.
Tip #4 - Use Last Year's Info, This Year
With traditional cameras you are getting info every few weeks, the tendencies of a particular animal can completely change in that amount of time. With cell cameras, you can get nearly live information. This can be useful on a new property where you don't have the luxury of multiple years of pictures. However, if you do have previous information use it. I have found that proactively hunting a deer greatly improves your odds. If a particular animal showed up in a certain area, on a certain date range, with certain weather conditions, the chances are good that the following year he will do it again . Be there waiting for him this time rather than trying to catch up and your luck should increase.
Tip #5 - Organize Your Photos/ Format Your Cards
Relating to tip #4 is the yearly organization of photos. I personally set a folder on a hard drive for all trail cam photos. I then create subfolders labeled by year and then further broken down by property. As I check my cards I write the file number down of the ones I want to keep. From there I copy and paste them into the designated folder and name them the date of the card check. This prevents the same name files from overwriting. All photos entered with that date will simply receive a number behind it to differentiate the new file name. Then you can adjust the "view by" to "date taken" and your photos will be in order for each property. My buddy, Trevor, takes this a step further by breaking his folders down to particular animals.
The reason for the copy/paste versus deleting the photos you don't want is to eliminate formatting issues. I have found that by leaving all photos on the SD card and then "deleting all images" the next time I insert the card in a camera I have no card lock errors and do not have to worry about an SD card issue rendering the camera useless at some point while it's in a prime location.
Toy Vs Tool
At the end of the day you can use trail cameras many different ways. If you prefer to simply take wildlife photos then great! If you want to use them as a tool to increase your odds of tagging out on mature bucks, then I think some of the above mentioned tips can help you do that!
Recent Video Of Post Season Cam Check - Overview Of The Process Mentioned Above
I currently only run Browning Trail Cameras due to price and proven reliability.