The first time I hung a camera, I had no idea what I was doing. I picked a place I liked to hunt, found a deer trail leaving thick cover, and hoped for the best. Of course, that trail had given me a few pictures to look at, but with my lack of trail cam smarts, no big woods giants were captured.
Most people running cameras learn how to use them through trial and error. These folks are considered experts in the hunting field by many.
I had the privilege of talking to a handful of these experts and came up with the "10 Commandments of Trail Cams." If you want to take the best pictures, you'll want to keep reading to see what these ten trail cam gurus have to say!
Choose The Best Energy
Few people know the ins and outs of trail cameras, like Chad Sylvester, co-founder, and co-owner of Exodus Outdoor Gear. This guy knows more about how trail cameras function than anyone I know.
Chad focuses on educating hunters about getting the best results out of their product, no matter what brand they're using. Here is his number one rule to get the most out of your camera.
"A pitfall of running trail cameras is the lure of using cheap batteries. While there is a place for alkaline batteries, using them won't produce the best outcome for your camera.
The same goes for rechargeable batteries, which may also be a nightmare to keep organized. Often, these batteries are also incompatible with trail cameras."
Think about these tips when choosing batteries:
- Cold weather will affect function. Alkaline batteries may freeze and leak, causing damage to the entire camera.
- Lithium batteries will last 3x longer than an alkaline battery placed under the same conditions.
- The voltage discharge from an alkaline battery is not adequate past 55% of their capacity. Less voltage will change the quality and functionality of your camera.
Choose a power source that fits the right application.
Scout More, Hunt Less
Our very own Cameron Derr said, "there isn't a human more like a whitetail deer than Johnny Stewart." Whenever I talk with Johnny, I'd have to agree. I learn something new or think of things differently every time I hear him speak.
Johnny didn't need much prompting to fill me in on his trail cam smarts. Johnny told me,
"My number one rule is to scout more and hunt less. Intimately knowing the deer you're chasing is vital.
How much do you really have to hunt that buck if you know him well enough? If you have a specific buck's habits pinned down, the worst thing you can do is hunt him. The exception is to hunt him when you have the highest chance of killing him."
Johnny raises an excellent point and gives "killing a buck from the couch" its true meaning. Do what you have to to keep yourself out of a big buck's area until the time you plan to kill him. If you are having trouble, I recommend picking a handful of other spots. Something that can hold your attention for fun hunting, maybe a spot you want to learn more about, without ruining your best area.
Validate October Scrapes
When I think of Clint Campbell and his trail cam skills, the word that comes to mind is precision. Occasionally, some of Clint's randomly placed cameras have paid off, using that last camera in his pack before the end of a hike.
I've learned a lot about hanging cameras from Clint, but the best information he shared for this article is something more hunters should do.
"Use cameras to validate beliefs about community scrapes. Once you've got them figured out, zero in on a window of dates for the best odds in that area. Particularly areas that heat up in early October."
The more you employ a tactic like this, the more you'll start loving mid-October hunts.
Create a Backdrop
Cameron Derr, the Exodus Deer Gear guy, is all about quality and efficiency when it comes to his gear. If one suffers because of the other, he looks for something that will fit his need.
When we're talking nighttime, quality pictures are a problem for many. But this is what Cam has to say to help you take better night photos.
“If you want quality nighttime pictures, avoid spots without a backdrop. Spots that fail might be something like a single edge of a field or a food plot. It's crucial to hang cameras pointing towards a reflective background.
When lacking a backdrop, the light from your camera's flash will dispense into the open and won't be able to highlight the subject. With a proper backdrop, the flash can reflect towards the subject. That will cause the subject to stand out in the photo.
Good backdrop models include the corner of a field pointed at the opposite edge. Or maybe the camera is hung high to reflect off the ground. Whatever it is, get creative for better intel and image quality."
Let ‘Em Soak
Beau Martonik, an avid PA mountain buck guru and host of East Meets West Podcast, has a three-year process that he follows religiously. As far as big woods bucks go, he's got it dialed.
“It takes time to learn how deer use a spot. Start by understanding their basic patterns. After gathering some intel, I plan to hang cameras and scout over three years. That means letting your cameras soak. Maybe not even checking them for an entire year. Apply the data you collect to your hunt plan and adapt accordingly."
The long soak is a tactic that serves hunters well in the big woods. Bucks often follow a similar pattern from year to year. Using Beau's three-year plan can help you get close as time passes.
Don't Throw In The Towel
Like Beau, Steve Sherk is a camera soaker. Steve points out a vital aspect of a long-term soak; he says,
“Don’t give up on a spot unless you've found that it's a disturbed area. Sometimes that can mean deer avoid the spot because bears inhabit it. But frequent human intrusion is the biggest reason to move on."
Steve focuses on zones that are the least traveled by intruders. He wants to see deer move naturally, barring outside influences.
Persistence pays when it comes to Steve's success. He says,
"A spot might be good for early archery, or maybe for the rut. If you practice patience, that long soak may produce a spot that could even heat up during rifle season."
We all need a reminder not to give up when the going is tough!
Double Down in the Thick Stuff
His handle is @bowhunting_fiend, but in this article, I'm going to title Greg Litzinger the "Dirty East" and not because he cheats!
Greg hails from the state some call the armpit of the nation, New Jersey. He gets it done in some of the most gnarly, pressured public lands anyone can find on the east coast. If you haven't heard of Greg, check him out at the @bowhunting_fiend on Instagram.
Greg's best trail cam tactic is to ensure complete coverage in the thick stuff. Greg told me,
“Pull double duty in the thick stuff. Place two cameras 10 yards apart in the cover to see a larger area. Facing the cameras in opposite directions will help you capture even more intel."
If there is anyone we should be taking advice from when it comes to thick cover, it has to be Greg!
Use Multi-edge Cover
Bucks need a cover shield, food, and water in the fall, and they want does. Finding needs and wants spread miles apart in the big woods isn't strange. You might walk a mile before you find a reliable pocket of cover. As far as the rut is concerned, a doe might bed in an unlikely spot where you'd never catch a mature buck.
For me, camera placement is about where bucks can meet all, or most, of their needs in one location. The more habitat edges and changes in topography you can find, the sweeter the spot will be.
Tie all your findings to connecting deer sign and find a place to hang a camera where the sign is most dense.
Be Curious, Not Comfortable
Tony Peterson needs no introduction. Revered in Exodus's top 5 public land bowhunters, Tony has done it all. This guy lives what he preaches and is the creator of the best whitetail content you'll find.
There's an easy way to get pictures of bucks, but there's a better way truly to learn about them. Here is Tony's sound advice.
"When it comes to camera placement, you're there to learn a spot, not to gather predictable intel. It's so easy to get stuck in a rut, putting cameras on cliché features like a trail leading into a bean field. While it's cool to get pictures of bucks, I already know an area like that will produce.
The data I really want to capture answers what that buck is doing in the layer of cover. That is what I won't know until I explore that spot.
We hunters don't use trail cameras enough in places we're curious about; instead, we put them where we're comfortable. To use cameras as a proper scouting tool, put them in spots that answer questions. Knowing the answer before the question is asked won't make you a better hunter in the long run."
Jake Hoffer is the Co-owner of Exodus Outdoor gear. When he sent me his quotes, I could tell they came from him.
Sometimes hunters rush in because we're all jacked up to be in the woods. Here's what Jake had to say about that!
"Cameras are a powerful tool. With the correct application, it can improve the skills of any serious whitetail hunter. But, it's easy to become careless when hanging cameras.
Anyone hanging cameras should be asking a few questions:
Is the location of high value? Have I failed to use fresh batteries or a charged solar panel? What about SD cards? Do they have plenty of space, and have you formatted them to the camera? How discretely is the camera hidden?
If you were planning to hang a tree stand, you'd likely take your time. You'd think about how a deer might use a trail. Maybe there are shot angles that could affect your success.
Be deliberate with your camera placement. Practice hanging cameras as if you were your best tree stand set. You'll be happy to find that the value of your intel will drastically increase."
Get the most out of your cameras this year and use one or two of these rules. Heck, make a few of your own and stick to them for a few years. Consistency is vital in the whitetail woods, and often sticking to a few tactics while making minor tweaks can be your best approach!
AUTHOR: Aaron Hepler, Exodus Black Hat Team Member