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Getting the most out of your trail camera scouting

Trail camera on fence post

Whether you love them or hate them, trail cameras have become a new component in the hunter’s scouting tool bag. Nowadays, trail camera users can be found across the west. They are used to identify and pattern animals and have changed how many approach their western hunts.

Placed on water sources, food sources, wallows, and game trails, trail camera photos can be both a blessing and curse. Below we will examine some approaches and practical applications to using trail cameras for scouting and hunting. Below are some useful ways to incorporate trail cameras into your scouting.

Application 1: Identifying available animals

Depending on terrain, baiting laws, and resource availability, trail cameras can be a very effective method of identifying bucks or bulls in an area and targeting individual animals. The key to successfully cataloging of the male population in a given area is identifying a limiting resource and keying in on that. In many units within the west, the limiting factor is water. In others, it is often food sources or social scent marking area (think scrapes for whitetails, wallows for elk, etc).

Application 2: Identifying core areas of individual animals

Trail cameras can be used to pattern animals. Whether on a food source, water source, or any other feature that concentrates animals, knowing when an individual animal utilizes that resource can make hunting them that much easier. Spreading cameras around a geographic area can help you determine where the animal you are targeting spends most of his time.

The Old 10 whitetail buck trail camera photo from 2014

Here is a trail camera photo of The Old 10 whitetail buck from 2014.
 
 The Old 10 whitetail buck trail camera photo from 2015
 Here is that same buck again in a very similar location in 2015.

The Old 10 buck has made random appearances on my cameras in Kansas for the past three years now. With all of his history, I hopefully have his core area nailed down for next fall.

Application 3: Reaffirm scouting

Trail cameras can be used to zero in on animals you have already identified through your scouting efforts. When you identify an animal glassing, by a large track, or rut sign, moving in and placing a few cameras can help you both reaffirm what you may already know and clarify exactly what it is that’s leaving sign or giving you the occasional glimpse while glassing.

Scouting for a giant Kansas buck

I came across this Kansas buck by chance. He was utilizing a neighbor’s property most of the fall. I set cameras in hopes of catching him on the property I could hunt. Without cameras I wouldn’t of known he had moved two miles into the area where I could hunt.

Continued below.

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Beyond the basics

Above we examined some of the basic applications for trail cameras. Trail cameras are an excellent way to inventory bucks and identify which individuals to target. Yet, it is important to remember that a trail camera picture is never a guarantee of a harvest picture to follow. In reality, a trail camera picture in and of itself only reveals where that animal was at one particular moment in time. It is only one tiny piece of the puzzle.

Below are some applications and recommendations for trail cameras that go beyond the basics.

Identify the unkillable

Some bucks or bulls are trail camera candy. That is the reality. Unless you have unlimited time to hunt or are at a point in your hunting career where tag soup is just as meaningful as success, some animals just aren’t going to be easily identified through pictures and then easily harvested.

Trail camera photo of the unkillable bull

I was extremely excited to get pictures of this bull several days before the season was to start. He was the only elk to use this water source in over three weeks. After spending some time scouting the area after getting the picture, I decided to move onto other bulls. As it turned out, he quickly abandoned the water source shortly after the season started.

Scout the unglassable

This is my favorite application of cameras when I find myself hunting new units. There are always areas that aren’t conducive to glassing. I avoid using cameras in areas that are good for glassing. Placing cameras in areas that don’t provide much in the way of glassing will help you determine whether dedicating time in that area is needed.

Building history: A recipe for success

Hunting the same area from year to year makes the use of trail cameras that much more valuable. This isn’t possible in all areas, of course, but in areas you intend to hunt year after year, integrating trail cameras into your approach might be worth your while.

Watching bucks or bulls grow from year to year also helps you identify mature animals and make more informed “management” decisions. It also helps you isolate core area and seasonal movements. Elk typically relocate from summering areas to where they rut. The same is true of whitetails. Bucks typically shift core areas slightly after they shed their velvet in the fall. Building history with a buck or bull can help you find patterns in these movements that can be very helpful on the hunt.
 

2014 photo of building history with a buck on trail camera
Whitetail buck in 2014.

This buck appeared on my cameras in 2014. As you can see, he was broken up, but appeared to be a 4.5 year old.

2015 photo of building history with a buck on trail camera

Whitetail buck in 2015.

In 2015, I went into the season hoping to find him again in the same area. Worked great up until harvesting him!

Impeding the hunt: when trail cameras don’t work

Trail cameras aren’t a cure-all. There are a few problems with trail cameras. There comes a time when cameras are too intrusive or take too much time to run to provide useful information. Cameras are a tool in your scouting bag, not a silver bullet. Often, I’ve found myself or other hunters over-emphasizing their trail camera strategy. Cameras are not a replacement for time afield or traditional scouting.

Here are the are cases where I shy away from camera use:

  • If you will bump the animal or animals in the area by checking your trail camera. This is a big one. Continually pressuring an animal you are hunting by checking your cameras too frequently is a recipe for disaster.
  • Taking up too much of your time. Spreading cameras across a unit can be a great way to locate animals, but, ultimately if running cameras is taking away from your scouting time, maybe you should re-examine your approach. We all have limited times for hunts and running cameras isn’t always the best approach.
  • The over popular buck or bull. Having a trail camera photo of giant buck or bull is great, but if that animal is utilizing a food or other another source laden with cameras, the hunting pressure on that animal is likely to be immense. Avoiding these “trail cam superstars” isn’t a bad idea. Hunting pressure will likely make that animal extremely difficult to harvest.

Below we will examine some case by case examples on how trail cameras played a role in some hunts, some ending in success and some not.

Too much camera, too little time

We will start with a case study of a buck that I hunted for several years and, ultimately, did not harvest. Trail cameras were a huge part of how I hunted this particular buck and relying on them too much is probably a huge part of why I wasn’t able to harvest him.

This Kansas buck exhibited magnetic like attraction to corn and cameras (baiting is legal in Kansas). Over the course of three seasons, he found his way to three of my camera locations with great frequency.

The Big Ten whitetail buck trail camera photo

I knew this buck almost exclusively through trail cameras. He was a ghost. I actively hunted this buck for three years without so much as a sighting. Without cameras, I likely would've never known he was there and I probably would've hunted and scouted differently.

The split G3 buck

Split G3 buck digiscope photo

This story ends in success. It is always nice when it happens that way. I first saw this buck while scouting in October of the year we harvested him. After seeing him and taking this photo through the spotting scope, I used trail cameras to help nail down his core area.

Split G3 buck trail camera photo

Cameras were an important part of nailing down this buck’s bedding area. The food resources in the area were relatively limited and easy to determine. The entire key to success on the hunt was identifying the areas he was most likely to bed and finding a good travel corridor between his bedding and feeding for an ambush.

Split G3 buck harvest photo

After locating this buck scouting, cameras were an important part of figuring out his feeding/bedding pattern that ultimately lead to us taking him.

Conclusion

Trail cameras can be a wonderful scouting tool. When used properly, cameras can help you piece together individual animal’s habits and provide unique insight. Building a photo history with a buck or bull adds a dimension to the hunt and is certainly a tactic you should try if you aren’t already. Trail cameras aren’t magic, but with a little hard work, they can help you be more successful this fall.

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