As soon as trail cameras became easily available on the market, I knew they would become a game changer for deer hunters. I’ve been using trail cameras since the early 2000’s, but over the last 10 years I’ve taken the use of them to an extreme level.
In 2020, my outfitting company ran over a 100 trail cameras. Simply put, the more eyes you have in the field, the more likely you are to have success. But there’s so much more to using trail cameras than what most hunters know.
HOW MANY CAMERAS SHOULD A HUNTER OWN
There is no limit when it comes to owning trail cameras. The more cameras I deploy, the more intel I get. Many people ask me how I’m able to keep up with running over 100 trail cameras. The truth is, a lot of those cameras are what I call “test cameras”. I may go an entire year without checking certain ones. Those cameras are placed at locations where I’m looking to get an entire year of intel in a particular spot. Often these test cameras are placed in new areas. But whether it’s a test camera or one you’d rather check more often, don’t worry about having too many and keeping up with checking all of them. That intel won’t ever go away once it’s captured. And believe me, old intel can be as useful as fresh intel in many ways. So buy as many trail cameras as you can afford to. Every time you add another camera to your arsenal you’ve upped your odds in the deer woods.
In areas with a lot of available ground, especially big woods, the key is to cluster your cameras in prime locations. If you find a good bedding area, you want to know what part of that bedding area is used more than others. Placing 10 cameras on the enter/exit trails on the outskirts of the bedding area will help you dial in on exactly where and when you should be hunting it.
If you are hunting a food source, multiple cameras on that food source will tell you what part of it is getting used the most. You’ll also be able to learn where deer are entering it in the daytime. Many times I come to a small spot where there’s several things I need to be observing all within sight of each other. You might have multiple scrapes and trails within a small area that all need to be observed. Especially if you are a bowhunter, you need to get dialed in to a spot because of limited shooting distance. Too many hunters spread out their cameras, where I find that roughly 10% of the big woods is used by mature deer. Once you find that 10% mark, it’s time to hone in on it!
For more big woods trail camera tactics check out the video above as Beau Martonik of East Meets West Podcast talks about his big woods trail camera strategies.
There’s loads of information in just one trail cam photo. Dates, time of day, direction of travel, weather, habitat, ect. I note a lot of key details whenever I get photos of deer I plan to hunt and even deer that might be future prospects. Many bucks have different areas they choose to live in during different times of the year. One of the most crucial shifts to pay attention to is what I call the rut shift. In northern Pennsylvania, this roughly happens around mid October. This is when bucks start to leave their core areas and shift closer to doe groups. Many times I’ve been able to stay a step ahead of a particular buck because I remembered where he shifted to at different times of the year. Even though most bucks have a massive range during the rut, they typically have rut zones. By remembering these areas from prior years and noting specific dates and conditions, you can get to know exactly where a buck plans to go and how he uses different areas for whenever you plan to hunt him.
Time of day is probably the most important piece of information you can get from your trail cameras. Deer live their lives in different parts of the woods whether it’s day or night. A lot of hunters struggle to get daytime intel when it comes to getting photos of mature bucks. Night intel is still useful in locating big deer, but it’s very hard to hunt a buck when you are only getting night pics of him. If those pictures are mainly taken during the middle of the night, you are likely far from his bedroom and even less likely to see him during the day. I’m really keying in on photos within an hour of sunrise or sundown. When you get pictures around these time periods, you are often in the ballpark. Bucks don’t go flying in and out of their daytime/core areas. They are very cautious and slow moving creatures during the day except during the rut. So if you are getting somewhat consistent intel within an hour of legal shooting time, you are likely in a spot where you can kill that deer or at least very close to where you can kill him.
Another huge piece of information is direction of travel. This information tells you where deer are coming from and where they are going. If you were a witness to a crime scene, these would be the first two questions you’d be asked. One of the best bucks I ever killed was due to paying attention to direction of travel whenever I got pictures of him. The camera was placed on a ridge top scrape and I was getting pictures of the buck just before daylight, heading towards the point of the ridge. Instead of setting up right on the scrape, hoping he’d eventually make a late visit, I went out further towards the point where I expected him to be bedded. The first sit in that stand I ended up killing that buck. He did exactly what my cameras had been showing me. That was one of many times I know I killed a buck solely on the use of my cameras.
Photo Credit - Mathew Treat Exodus Black Hat Member
Scouting and learning about the areas you hunt are the two biggest keys for deer hunters. Trail cameras do both of those things, 24 hours a day! I attribute a major amount of my success as a deer hunter to how I take advantage of using trail cameras. We will never be better at killing deer than they are at eluding us, but effective trail camera use will definitely get us closer to an even playing field. Trail cameras are more deadly than any weapon on the market. The better you are at using trail cameras, the deadlier you will be!
Author: Exodus Black Hat team member Steve Sherk of Sherk's Guide Service