Using Trail Cameras with a Purpose

By Aaron Stonehocker

I wouldn’t exactly call myself “old school” out of respect of those who were hunting before the debut of Real Tree Camo, however I can attest that the game of hunting has changed way more than the game we are hunting in the short 13 years I have been blessed to be a sportsman. Scouting has changed more than almost every other aspect of the hunt and is the factor that separates the ever successful from the ever hopeful in the world of hunting. What was once an evening sit on a hilltop with binoculars is now an evening sit in front of the computer downloading the latest trail camera pictures. Trail cameras are a great way to know what deer are on your property as well as pattern your deer herd year round.

Most sportsmen who use trail cameras only do so for about a month before hunting season really starts. This is ok if your prerogative is to simply see what deer are hitting up the trails under your stand, but trail cameras provide much more bang for their buck if you know how to properly scout with them. All you need is a single trail camera and a couple dedicated days each month to figure out what the deer are doing on your property year round.

Trail camera scouting should start in May or June by locating a hotspot food source that attracts deer during the summer months. This will make a great starting point for patterning your deer herd. I like to canvas the edges of agriculture fields for fresh deer tracks after the farmers have freshly disked or sewed the field. Locate an area that is getting trampled pretty heavily and place a trail camera on a tree facing the trafficked portion of the food source. After a week or so, we will hopefully have some action shots of deer frequenting the area.

These pictures are worth more than a thousand words. In each picture we can pick out details like the direction the deer is facing, the time of day the deer was photographed, whether or not it was a buck or doe, was the deer alone, etc. All of these things tell us what is going on in the deer world and allow us to develop a picture of the herd’s routine. The first detail I look for is where the deer came from.

If most of the deer are facing or clearly moving in a particular direction, it tells us a general location of their bedding areas. Generally, deer move from their bedding area to their food source. The exact direction and time can vary depending on weather and wind, but the overall pattern is the same. Once you’ve drawn a conclusion on where the deer came from, head back out to the field and investigate the area where the deer were coming from. The goal here is to find the most heavily used trail in this area.

During the early part of the year, we know that we will find a mix of does and bucks using common trails because they have not started their rutting rituals. Because of this, we can ignore less used trails and search for the heaviest hit trail in our search for the herd’s general pattern. Once you locate the most used trail, follow this until it splits or another obstacle forces the deer to pick a different direction. Place your trail camera in a location that will allow you to capture pictures of the deer as they merge onto the single food source trail.

Repeat this process until you can positively ID the area the deer are most likely using for a bedding location. This may not always be on your property so be courteous of other landowners when doing this. (Neighbors can be a great resource for providing valuable information on the deer movements to and from your property) The process we just used can be done exactly the same to find out where the deer are headed when they exit the food source. The pattern you will discover will become the baseline for all other patterns the deer develop during other parts of the year. These variations most often start in the late summer months of August and September.

When late summer rolls around, we start to find bucks separating from the herd to form bachelor groups. We can use the same information we gathered about the herd’s summer time movements to start our bachelor group tracking. More than likely the major food source will be the same, so place the trail camera facing the heaviest trafficked spot on the food source. It is a good bet that the deer will use the same trails for a while, but keep an eye out for when the bucks start to enter the frame from a different angle or direction. During this time of the year and into pre/early season, the bucks will start utilizing different routes and bedding areas from the does. The pictures will tell us the same information as before and allow us to put our cross hairs on their “buck only” trails. Find the direction the bucks are headed and back track this movement until you find a freshly developed or a slightly less used trail than before, this is likely the trail the bucks are using.

During these months, it may be wise to utilize aerial photos or Google Maps to do the rest of the research. Getting too invasive may alter the buck’s habits and make your tracking difficult. Once you locate a buck trail, take a look at the aerial photos to locate where the best habitat and terrain is for them to be bedding. It may not be too far from the originally determined bedding area. Once you feel confident you know their newly formed routine route, it is time to pattern your target buck.

The bucks will use the same trails for most of the early season until the pre-rut starts. This is when the mature bucks separate from the younger ones, and things really get heated. The buck trails are the best bet for the pre-rut when trying to locate your target buck. Keep your camera focused on the main doe and buck trails, and when the bruiser stops for a selfie, pay attention to the direction he is headed and where he came from. Because you have determined the bedding areas and food sources, we can assume that his territory will develop in this general area as he establishes his dominance among the other bucks.

During this time, keep an open mind about more dense areas of thick cover near the bedding areas of the does. Use the aerial photos to locate these because a dominant buck will seek his own hide outs, and as the rut approaches he will use these while he his keeping tabs on the does. This is also when we see scrape lines and rubs that are the tell-tale signs of mature buck activity. Place a camera along one or more of these lines to ensure you can track the buck you are after. You will get feedback from other bucks in the area as they challenge a scrape line, however you can bet the big boy will be back to mark his territory. When he does, keep record of the time of day, the direction he is working, and how frequently he hits the line. Use this information to coordinate a perfect ambush when the conditions are right.

You now have all of the information you need to set a stand and have put the odds in your favor for harvesting that big buck on your property. You have used your camera to establish the early season patterns of the deer and although the buck routines change during the rut, you can bet that the does will remain relatively constant in their daily routine. When the rut dies down, the bedding areas and food become top priority. This means the work you did in the early months has already set you up for late season success. When scouting keep in mind that deer think about three things: cover, food, and breeding. When used with a purpose, trail cameras can help you to draw the lines between these dots and form an accurate picture of what the deer are doing on your property year round.