7 Tips for Public Land Trail Camera Success

Stolen or smashed cameras, yanked SD cards; sometimes running cameras on public land sucks. Thankfully, those factors are only a small part of running cameras on public. But when weighing the risk versus reward, the reward on public land is tough to match. 

Using cameras on public land is similar to running them on private. They are prime scouting tools for hunters who use them wisely. 

Public land trail cam placement must be deliberate. With so many options, the choices can be overwhelming, but you've got to start somewhere!

Because there are so many challenges, hunters often give up their best efforts to build a good trail cam regimen. But practicing mindful habits will help you use these tools successfully. If you've been mulling over the idea of running cameras on public land, don't wait. Get started this season!

When To Set The Trap

Speaking about the timing of camera placement Kenny Rogers said it best. "You've got to know when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em!" 

Follow a good routine of hanging your cameras in June or July. But as late as August or September is fine as long as you keep your impact low. 

Summer hangs make sense for two reasons. One is because who doesn't love some good velvet pictures? The other reason is that it keeps human pressure spread out. Even though a scouting trip this early won't impact the deer that will be there in the fall, your scouting trip won't be the only one happening this summer. The less intrusion there is, the better your pictures and hunting will be.

Pulling your cameras comes with a few instructions attached as well. First, don't pull them. Be patient if you're not getting what you want to see on camera. You never know what happens in front of the lens until that camera has been there for at least a year. Second, consider the risk; if you're concerned about stolen investments, use a targeted time frame. We all work hard to buy the gear we own. Hang your cameras in summer and pull them when you're season is over. 

For example, Pennsylvania has a break between bow season and gun season. I use that time to take down the bulk of my cameras, leaving only a select few at low risk of being stolen. Maybe I'm missing valuable information that could be used in gun season, but that is where raw scouting needs to come into play.


Use The Landscape, Spread Them Out!

Crucial and often overlooked is setting cameras on the whole landscape. One or two cameras in the locations you plan to hunt isn't much help. 

If a spider sat in one position without making a web, it wouldn't be nearly the bug killer as we know it. Spread a web of cameras like a spider looking for its next meal. Instead of picking a place to hunt before collecting data, use the gathered intel to choose the spots you want to hunt.

When weaving your web, use all types of sign and terrain features. Everyone loves a good scrape, but don't miss out on travel routes, water holes, drainage crossings, rub lines, and bedding areas. 

See a lightly traveled trail? Often there could be a single deer using that trail. Confirm with tracks and scat. Is there buck sign close by? It could be the home of a brute that no one has been able to find in season. But how will you know if you don't put a camera there?


How Much Pressure is Too Much

Some places have pressure from people, while other regions rarely see any. Maybe the places aren't even that far apart. One larger area could see less pressure than a smaller location 5 to 10 miles down the road. But despite the pressure, there can be big bucks on both those properties. 

Human pressure is only relative to the area that you hunt. So keep track of when you see people in person and on your cameras. Knowing when the crowd is there will tell you the days and proper weather conditions to hunt. It will also fill you in on where deer go to hide. It's becoming more known that deer are giant rabbits with antlers. The more people on the public you've chosen, the more true that theory becomes.

As disappointing as it is to find that there are people on your camera, that information can be useful. Do you really want to be hunting next to a bunch of other people? Better to know they are there on your camera than to climb a tree in the dark and see another hunter 50 yards away at sunrise.

So how much pressure is too much? It all boils down to how much pressure deer are willing to tolerate. You need to interpret the pressure that's on your cameras. Is it hunting pressure, mushroom pickers, dog training, or recreational traffic? The type of impact matters to a deer. If it's just someone passing through, it will have a less negative effect than someone squatting down in a bed or placing their hand on a rub.


The Basics of Theft and Bugs

Hanging cameras high and locking them up helps. But someone looking to steal a camera will do just that. The best way to prevent theft is to place cameras out of view. Dense cover makes cameras hard to find, so crawling on your hand and knees until you reach an opening will keep more cameras in your stock.

For bugs that lurk in and around your cameras, the guys at Exodus suggest permethrin spray. Spray your camera strap or paracord in permethrin and the bark around the camera. That will usually prevent bugs from entering your camera. Also recommended for long-term sets is to tape the microphone hole closed to deter ants from entering the case. 


Hunting a Camera Site

Hunting over a camera set demands careful thought. You'll want to consider the nature of the deer. If you noticed deer in your area are skittish and look up often, you might want to hunt out of view of that camera. 

Also, if your pictures often show deer looking at your camera, they might be alerted to your presence in the area. They will often be cagey in their approach, even if they don't spook. There isn't a need to be a mile away from the camera, but placing cover or distance between you and the set isn't a bad idea.


Don't Rely On Pictures Alone

Spring Scouting

My Grandfather always used to tell me, "there's more room around 'em than there is on 'em, Aaron." He was, of course, talking about making a kill shot on an animal. But the same can be said for cameras.

The point I'm making is that there are more woods than your camera can see. Trust your judgment when you're scouting. When the deer are laying down sign, and the features of a spot make sense, don't skip hunting that spot because you didn't get a good picture. We live in a tech-savvy world, but sometimes nothing can beat raw effort and instinct.


Checking Your Cameras

Some will say check them every two weeks, four weeks, six months, maybe even a year. The right answer is, again,  to pay mind to the impact you're having!

The best way to choose a time to check your cameras is to consider where those cameras are placed. 

Bedding = Least frequent checks. (every 2-4 months)

Isolated food = Moderate-low checks. (every 6-8 weeks)

Travel = Moderate-high checks (every 4-6 weeks)

Major food sources = Most checks (every 4 weeks)

Maybe you prefer to check yours more or less than what is listed above. This model is a guide to something I might follow. Check your cameras less often as the days get closer to hunting season. 

Capping your checks to 0-1 time when passing a camera during the season is ideal. It's better to save that intel to capture a pattern you can use in future years. 

A crucial part of a camera check is to avoid backtracking. The more you double back, the more scent you'll leave behind. Sometimes we need answers, so when an in-season check is vital, plan a direct path to all the camera sites. Skip cameras that land outside the direct loop. Putting missing pieces together without seeing a picture is vital to using camera intel.

Trail cameras come down to experimentation. What works for someone else may not be what works for you. Take a few of these tips, use them, and tweak them to fit your style. 


Author: Aaron Hepler, Exodus Black Hat Team Member