The key to good game camera surveillance is preventing deer from even realizing they’re being monitored.
I heard the deer long before I saw it. The cacophonic, lung-searing blow the doe emitted pierced the early morning air, alerting other deer that something was amiss. The deer repeated itself, forcefully expelling every microliter of air from its lungs like a banshee, at the intruder. A moment later, I spotted the adult doe — standing at attention with one front leg slightly bent and off the ground — staring at me. She stomped her hoof, and then abruptly turned and bolted.
It was a week before the bow season opener, and I was on my way to change memory cards in my game cameras when the doe busted me. I wondered if the incident would have any effect on my hunting success in the fall. Unfortunately, the answer was probably yes.
“Whenever you’re in the woods, whether it’s to hunt or deal with game cameras, there will be a reaction from deer,” said Neil Dougherty, wildlife consultant and co-owner of North Country Whitetails (www.NorthCountryWhitetails.com). “Deer are in the woods 24/7, and their survival depends on them quickly detecting potential danger.”
Dougherty helps hunters turn properties into deer hunting nirvana. Experience has taught him that the average hunter spends about 40 hours setting up and relocating cameras, changing memory cards and taking cameras down. And while most companies offer wireless camera options that allow remote access to photos, setting them up, moving them and periodically changing the batteries still requires handling the cameras.
Spending too much time in the woods isn’t the only mistake many hunters make when it comes to game cameras. Regardless of whether you’re using them to learn which deer you have on your land or to pattern individual bucks, there are many common mistakes hunters routinely make when it comes to deploying game cameras.
Let’s take a look at some of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint in the whitetail world, then examine other potential blunders and how to avoid them so you can become a game camera genius.
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THE INTRUSION QUANDARY
It sounds simple: To prevent deer from realizing they’re being monitored, take fewer trips to the woods to manage your cameras. Easier said than done, because most hunters are constantly looking for an edge to help them be more successful. Game cameras provide a wealth of deer intel, and it’s tempting to overuse the technology to acquire more and more information on whitetails’ whereabouts.
“The greatest challenge when using cameras to collect intel is to not put on a beauty pageant with them,” Dougherty said. “If you already have a good idea of a buck’s whereabouts, then constant monitoring will only hurt you. Back off so you don’t alter its movements.”
You can get most of the information you’ll need to survey deer or pattern specific ones within the first 10 days of installing a camera at your hunting spot. After that, change the memory card and then leave it alone for a month before revisiting. Better yet, pull your camera and stay out of the area until it’s time to hunt there.
You might be worried that — because deer movements change with fluctuations in food sources, time of the year, the weather and many other factors — you’ll miss the latest information on deer whereabouts if you don’t continually move and monitor cameras. But game camera usage is best viewed as a law of diminishing returns. Sure, relocating cameras every two weeks might give you more current deer information, but it also could push a buck you’re targeting off your property. And just because you can afford 20 cameras doesn’t mean you should have all of them deployed at the same time.
Visit cameras during periods of off-peak deer activity, such as midday when deer are bedded down. Avoid setting up or checking cameras on humid and/or rainy days, because both conditions cause scent to linger in an area. The sun helps to burn off your scent, so sunny days are prime time to get game camera tasks done. And carry a portable game camera kit with you when you’re in the field to properly maintain your cameras so fewer return trips are necessary.
Your kit should include:
— Bungee cords/mounting devices
— Folding handsaw and shears
— Extra batteries and memory cards
— Can of compressed air
— Camera log (see below)
— Lens cleaning wipes
— Multi-tool for minor repairs
Before deploying cameras, create a log book containing information on every camera you’ll be using. Include the manufacturer and model (most hunters use different brands); camera name (often by the location where it will be deployed); type of batteries it uses and the date(s) new batteries were installed; maximum memory card storage capacity; date the camera will be deployed; and date the memory card will be exchanged and/or camera will be relocated.
Recording this information also helps you monitor how often you’re in the woods for camera-related purposes. Test each camera in the daytime and at night to make sure it’s working properly and to measure flash range.
Where you place cameras can have an enormous effect on deer behavior. Most hunters know to put cameras in areas they can easily access without spooking a lot of deer (field edges, property boundaries), but many err by placing cameras in the same locations year after year. Doing so not only makes it easy for deer to detect human activity, but might prevent you from getting new information on deer movements. Dougherty recommends being fluid by placing cameras in different spots from year to year, and never placing them near blinds or stands.
“I put cameras at least 100 yards from where I’ll be hunting,” Dougherty said. “That way, if my cameras alter deer movements, it won’t ruin my hunting.”
Remember that today’s game cameras do a lot more than just take photos and video.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see hunters make is not setting the correct time and date before putting out their cameras,” said Martin Hill, online marketing manager for Moultrie Game Cameras (www.MoultrieFeeders.com). “They also put in the wrong batteries. We don’t recommend using rechargeable batteries in our cameras, and using the wrong batteries can greatly affect how long your camera will operate and capture photos.”
Always dress for success when setting up or managing game cameras.
“Wear rubber boots, scent-reducing clothing and use scent-elimination spray on anything you touch,” suggested Jacob Edson, communications manager for Vista Outdoor Inc., the company that owns Bushnell game cameras and optics (www.Bushnell.com). “You never want to lay a scent trail, and never walk down a trail that leads from your camera to your hunting spot.”
The sun can ruin a lot of good photos and cause your camera to trigger. To prevent both, wildlife biologist and host of the popular online “Growing Deer” series (www.GrowingDeer.com) Dr. Grant Woods recommends facing cameras north. And to always have clean paws whenever handling game cameras.
“Any food scent will attract bears, raccoons and other animals to your camera, and they’ll leave debris on your lens and degrade the quality of your photos,” Woods said.
Take the time to remove tall grass, swaying limbs or anything else that can trigger a camera and check to make sure the area in front of the camera is clear each time you visit. Over time, grass grows, high winds can blow limbs in the way, and other changes in the surroundings can interfere with obtaining good pictures.
One error hunters tend to repeat is trying to evaluate a buck’s rack from only one or two photos.
“To accurately judge the size of a buck’s antlers, you need to obtain multiple photos of the buck at different angles,” Woods said. “If you’re trying to judge the age of a deer from photos, the deer needs to be standing perpendicular to the camera in the normal head-up position.”
A photo showing a buck facing away from the camera usually makes its rack look larger than it is. Remember that the time of the year influences your ability to accurately judge antlers. Breeding season causes bucks’ necks to swell, which can make racks look a bit smaller, while also making the buck look older. In contrast, late in the season, bucks’ significant weight loss from rutting activity can make racks appear larger than they are.
Similarly, hunters often mistakenly think they’ve figured out a buck’s travel pattern from a few photos of the deer. No matter how many photos you get of one deer, you’ll never achieve 100 percent accuracy in determining its movements. Many factors influence where a deer chooses to go (predators, food sources, water, etc.), and it’s next to impossible to account for all of them.
“I don’t depend a lot on what I see in photos during the rut, when deer tend to be on the move,” Dougherty said. “I’m more focused on photos taken early and late in the season. And when I get a photo or two of a buck I’m after, I pay close attention to how quickly the deer comes back through the area and is photographed again.”
How many times have you gotten tons of quality photos of a shooter buck, and then the buck seemingly disappears? Don’t assume it pulled a Houdini.
“Just because a deer stops showing up in front of your camera doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not there,” Edson explained. “It may just mean you’ve tipped him off to the camera or he’s visiting another food source you don’t know about.”
It could also mean the buck you’re after went on an excursion, temporarily leaving its home range. If you’re a regular reader of D&DH, you know that recent research on buck movements has shown that many bucks take excursions, usually lasting less than 24 hours, before returning home. Be patient. If the deer is still alive, it’ll come back.
“I see a lot of hunters not hunting during the rut just because they’re not getting a lot of good information about deer activity from their game cameras during that time,” said Brian Murphy, a wildlife biologist and CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association. “Breeding time is one of the best times to harvest mature bucks, and you’re more likely to see a buck you’ve never seen before during the rut.”
Game cameras provide a mountain of photos, but what do you do with them? If your camera didn’t come with photo-management software, organize your photos by creating a simple spreadsheet and recording all of the information gleaned from them. Study the information and you’ll see patterns of deer activity. For example, you might notice that the buck you’ve nicknamed “Wide Eight” tends to walk by your ridgetop camera during the morning on its way to a bedding area several days a week.
Note that you’ll be able to identify general travel patterns — not precisely predict a deer’s movements throughout the day. Whitetails are individuals with unique personalities and preferences. Just when you think you’ve figured one out, it will show up in front of one of your hunt- ing buddy’s cameras and leave you baffled.
Finally, like any other form of technology, game cameras can fail. Inexplicably, batteries become drained, memory cards burn out and technological glitches can mean the camera you’ve had deployed for weeks did nothing but decorate a tree trunk. There’s no substitute for traditional scouting methods such as glassing fields and looking for sheds after hunting season. Use game cameras, but do so carefully and methodically, and never rely on them as your sole source of deer intel.
— Darren Warner is a passionate deer hunter, freelance writer and photographer. He lives in Michigan, and is obsessed with white-tailed deer.