These techniques for using trail cameras could help you in your pursuit of mature bucks.
I want to let you know up front that I am a very unlikely candidate to write about anything with “high-tech” in the title. Let me give you a little insight into my past, so you will understand why I make that statement and also to let you know something about where I came from.
I remember the first mention I ever heard of a “TV.” That evening, Dad had returned home from town (Pikeville, Tennessee) after visiting with his sister and her family. He was very excited, having watched a show called “Bonanza” in a box called a “television.” The following weekend Dad began taking my brothers and me to town so we could see this marvel, though it would be a number of years before we could afford one.
In the evenings, after returning home from grade school we would go to the field and break corn off the stalks until our hands bled, then throw the ears into a wooden wagon pulled by a team of mules. There were tractors on neighboring farms, but my grandfather said they would pack the soil down so crops would not grow. I seriously doubt that he could have afforded one anyway. After the corn had all been picked, we would follow Grandpa to the woods to cut down timber with a crosscut saw; he did not believe in chainsaws, either.
I vividly remember my four brothers and me squeezed into the back seat of an old car as our father drove us to church. If it had been raining recently, our mother would be on the lookout for mud holes in the dirt road. As we approached one, Mom would holler back for us to hold our feet up. You see, the car’s floorboard was rusted out, and if we did not pick our feet up, mud would splash onto our church shoes and pants legs. It was mesmerizing to me to look down and watch the road pass under my feet as we traveled.
But back in those days our car’s floorboard was not the only thing that was open. You could throw a cat through the wall of our house. If it was snowing on the outside and the wind was blowing, it was also snowing on the inside. I was out of high school before we had an inside bathroom or a telephone.
No, I am really not that old. It is just that things change slowly in rural southeastern Tennessee, especially if your family does not have much. I believe the way I was brought up has had an impact on the way I think about change. I guess my boys think a wave of modern conveniences hit the market about 1999. That is when I stopped burning wood in my home as a source of heat. I also purchased my first air conditioner, weed eater, riding lawnmower and microwave oven that year. Then, in July 2003, the first computer entered my home. In the next few years I might even get connected to that monster called the Internet. I hope you can now see why when I reflect on seeing my name as the author of anything under the title “high-tech,” it amazes me.
Using Scout Cameras
Used correctly, a trail (or scout) camera can be a big asset in your pursuit of trophy whitetails. On Dec. 1, 2003, I shot a massive, 13-point non-typical I more than likely never would have shot if not for photos I got of him with my digital scout camera. As it was, I hunted the big fellow for two seasons before I took him. (The story of this remarkable hunt is in Chapter 13.)
The author generally uses his trail cameras to locate mature bucks long before he will be hunting them. However, he also has benefited from employing them during open season.
I probably would not even have hunted this great buck that first year had I not been able to get a picture of him. Because of the sign I found, I knew there was a mature buck using the area; however, because of out-of-state plans, I had little time to hunt in Tennessee that year. What little time I did have I probably would have used to hunt a piece of ground I already knew held a buck I wanted to shoot. Also, without a trail camera to confirm that the smeared tracks I found on Nov. 21, 2003, had been made by the non-typical, I do not believe I would have set up and started hunting him in the area where I shot him only a few days later.
In this study, I will discuss the use of trail cameras in two different ways, both of which I used while hunting the monster buck in Chapter 13. First, I will look at using a trail camera in the off-season as a tool to locate a trophy buck and his core area. Second, I will discuss how to effectively use it for in-season scouting.
This photo of a mature Tennessee 8-pointer and a companion was taken in August. The deer were visiting one of the author’s mineral licks, which was within 10 yards of a grown-up clearcut.
Each year, many trophy hunters waste a lot of time – sometimes all season – hunting an area that does not hold a buck they would consider a trophy. I know this to be true, because I have done it myself. However, this is rarely the case for me any more, because of the information I now acquire by using scout cameras.
On all of the properties I plan to hunt, I obtain photos of as many bucks as possible. By doing so, I can determine which areas have bucks I would like to harvest. Using the same method, I will also pinpoint a target buck’s sanctuaries. Needless to say, this will be very useful information when I start hunting the buck. These locations are where I begin my trophy hunting during the late pre-rut, before I turn my attention to hunting funnels. What follows is the method I use to find a mature buck’s hideouts and to see what he looks like long before I begin to hunt him.
At some point during February I will make mineral licks on the edges of the thickest cover I can find on all of the properties I plan to hunt. These mineral licks will later be used as “baits” to get photos of bucks in the area. The thickets I will be looking for could be clearcuts or old fields that have grown up. They could also consist of thick vines or other dense vegetation along a drainage. Regardless, I will be looking for anything of an acre of more in size that is so dense and rough I would not want to walk through it.
If the thicket is very large (50 acres or more), I will subdivide it and make a mineral lick every 300 yards or so around the perimeter. Placing the mineral licks (and later cameras) just on the edge of thick cover and not out in open areas is the secret to finding a mature buck’s bedding area. A mature buck’s sanctuary will always be associated with a habitat change that includes some type of thick undergrowth.
Once I have identified all such thickets on my hunting properties, I walk their perimeters to find the exact locations to place my mineral licks. I look for anything that will funnel deer down to a confined area. I will also look for large buck sign. I am most interested in large sign that appears to have been made early in the fall. During the spring, summer and early fall a mature buck will stay very close to his core area. In early September, when he sheds his velvet, he will still be in and around his core area, and this is where he will begin his rubbing and scraping activity.
I recently read an article in which the author said that early rubs and scrapes are not useful to find. In my opinion, nothing is further from the truth. When you find rubs or scrapes within a week or two of velvet shedding, you can bet you are very close to the core area of the buck that made the sign. Conversely, when the rut starts bucks will begin traveling, and their sign might be found anywhere.
After I have my licks in place, I monitor and refresh them every four or five weeks throughout the summer. When checking the licks, you should use the same scent-control precautions used anytime you scout or hunt.
The author’s digital camera captured this photo of the same 9-pointer on Sept. 8, and in the same place. In late October the bowhunter again watched the large buck walk to within10 yards of where he stands in this photo. Bucks do not always move far after velvet shedding.
Around mid- to late July, when bucks’ racks have developed to the point I can tell something about them, I will place cameras on the mineral licks. I do not necessarily place cameras on all of the licks I have made, as I usually will make a lot more licks than I have cameras for. Even though I move my cameras around every couple of weeks, I still will not have enough cameras to place one on every lick. I must prioritize which licks to place cameras on.
Through experience, I have found that the licks with the most tracks in them are located close to doe bedding areas. While this is useful information, I have rarely obtained a photo of a mature buck on such a lick. During the summer and late fall, mature bucks are usually nowhere near the does’ bedding areas. So, if I find a lot of small to medium-sized tracks, and in particular fawn tracks, in a lick, I will not place a camera there at that time. However, I will continue to monitor all of the licks every couple of weeks, in the process keeping a watchful eye for any large tracks that might show up.
What I look for most is a mineral lick that is not heavily used but has some good-sized tracks in it. These are the licks I suspect mature bucks are using and are the ones I will place my cameras on first. Once I start getting a good buck’s photo, I will carefully observe and measure the large track in the lick. I want to be able to identify the track and connect it to the photo of a buck I might want to target. I need to be able to recognize his track any time I see it, so I will to be able to keep tabs on his movement.
I do not expect to get a picture of a good buck around all of the thickets I have placed cameras on. However, when I do get a photo of a mature buck close to thick cover, I know that more than likely I have found his bedding area.
When bucks start shedding velvet, I begin looking for rubs and scrapes in the vicinity. (Again, to avoid letting the buck know I am pursuing him, I use the same scent-precaution measures I use while hunting.) I also try to find any funnels in the buck’s core area that are close to his bedding location. I will utilize this information to help me decide where to place my stands to hunt the buck during the late pre-rut.
I realize some of you are wondering, “Will the buck I photograph in July still be in the area in late October?” In some locations, a lot of bucks change their territories during the transition from summer to fall. This is especially true in areas such as the Midwest, where a big part of the landscape takes on a drastic change when the crops are harvested in late summer and early fall. However, in locations that have a lot of brush and woods and less crop acreage, I do not see this shift in a buck’s territory nearly as often. In fact, around my home here in Tennessee I often find that a buck beds in the same cover throughout the fall as he did during the middle of the summer.
This was confirmed for me again not long ago. In August, I photographed a monster velvet-racked 8-pointer with 13-inch tines. After I got several good images of him, the camera was moved to another location. In early September, I began monitoring the location around the lick where I had taken the photos of the big 8-pointer. Soon after the time for velvet shedding, large rubs started to appear within yards of the mineral lick. I placed my digital trail camera at that location and on Sept. 8 got photos of the 8-pointer standing with a 1 1/2-year-old buck. Then, on Oct. 26, the big buck walked to within 15 yards of me as I sat in the same tree my digital camera had been strapped around on Sept. 8.
Locating mature bucks and their core area by using trail cameras is a learning process. I continue to learn and tweak my techniques, and over the years of trying to perfect the process, I have learned much more than can be covered here. The more you work at it, the better you will become. The things I have outlined here will start you in the right direction to learning how to find a mature buck and his bedding area long before it will be time to hunt him.
The author got several photos of this huge-bodied 8-pointer after deciding to set up his digital camera near some of the largest deer tracks he had ever seen. He estimates that this bull of an Illinois farmland whitetail had a live weight of between 350 and 400 pounds!
In-Season Camera Use
Even though I do my primary scouting during the early spring, long before deer season opens, each year it seems I also need to do some in-season scouting. It is a real asset to be able to confirm that the fresh, large tracks and other sign you just found were made by a buck that carries headgear worth your time and effort.
Most of the time a big track means a big body, and a big body usually means a large rack, because it is an extension of the deer’s skeletal system. However, this is not always the case. Once, when I was hunting in central Illinois, having my digital trail camera along saved me a lot of wasted time and effort hunting the wrong deer.
On my usual farm the buck activity was really slow, so I asked around and received permission to hunt a new piece of ground a few miles away. As I looked over the property, I became encouraged when I found some of the largest deer tracks I had ever seen. They were coming out of a standing cornfield and going into a drainage that led into big woods. In the drainage there were also some large saplings with major damage done to them. As I made plans to put several stands on the property, I first decided to place my digital camera in the drainage, to see what kind of rack the huge-footed buck carried.
After three days, I returned to view the images. As I approached the camera site, I knew I had some photos of the mammoth-footed buck, as there were several new giant tracks heading in and out of the drainage. When I scrolled through the images, I was amazed to have captured several photos of a buck that obviously would have weighed between 350 and 400 pounds! However, he carried an 8-point rack that would not even have made P&Y (125 inches). My camera had saved me a lot of wasted time and effort hunting a buck I would not have shot if I had been given an opportunity.
A couple of days later, a similar thing happened on the original farm I was hunting. As mentioned, things were slow there, so I decided to do some looking around at a location I was not hunting. While doing so, I found several large willow trees that had been ripped up. As I closely examined the ground, I found some large tracks in and around the willow patch. I again decided to set up my digital camera.
The author captured this digital photo near some fresh rubs on an Illinois farm he was hunting. Even though the buck was mature, he lacked the size antlers the bowhunter sought.
When I returned to the willows a few days later, I discovered my camera had taken a photo of another large-bodied buck. He was a 130-inch basic 9-pointer with a bladed sticker coming off one antler base. Again, however, he was not the quality of buck I was hunting for. Twice on one hunting trip my digital trail camera had saved me from wasting valuable time setting up on bucks I would have not shot.
That said, on other occasions I have set up a trail camera on some average-sized tracks I suspected had been made by a mature buck, due to other sign in the area, and confirmed my suspicions. It can work both ways.
The exact place in which I want my camera set up is where the sign that caught my attention is located. I might want to place my camera to photograph a large scrape, one containing large tracks or a rub line on big trees. It could also be a heavily used funnel with several sets of the same large track moving through it. Regardless, whenever I decide on the exact location in which to place my camera, I usually use brush to block off areas I do not want the deer to walk and clear where I do want him to move through. This will help ensure that the buck does not walk a few yards out of photo range or a few feet behind my camera.
Before the introduction of high-resolution digital cameras, I would not use a trail camera in a hunting location close to when I would be hunting it. There were good reasons for this. First, the noise of focusing and the film-advance motor of most 35mm trail cameras will spook some deer. Many hunters believe it is the flash that frightens deer; however, this is not my feeling. There are a lot of lights in a deer’s world, among them flashes of lightning and vehicle headlights.
With my auto-focus, auto-advance 35mm camera, I have often ended up with a photo of a deer’s foot or hind leg as it jumped away from the camera. I know the flash did not spook the deer, because it was already in flight when the flash fired and shutter opened. This is why I think it is the noise associated with these cameras that spooks game. This is why digital cameras are so much better: They are silent. I believe I can safely use one in a location I might want to hunt in the near future.
Another reason I prefer the digital camera during season is that I can see the picture as soon as I get to the camera; there is no film to develop. Most of the time, you must make a quick decision as to whether or not to set up on fresh sign you have found. It is not convenient to have to take the film in for developing, and you might not have time to do so anyway on a hunting trip – especially one in a remote area. Another advantage to a digital camera is that it avoids film’s strong, foreign smell. Digital cameras cost more than film cameras, but when you consider the expense of film and developing, I believe you will see that a digital camera will pay for itself over the long run.
On mineral licks I photograph in the summer and early fall, I use 35mm as well as digital cameras. Once I get a photo of a good buck using a 35mm, I usually switch it out with a digital. (Some bucks will spook from the sound of a 35mm.)
The film I use in my scout cameras has a speed rating of 100. I stay away from the 200- and 400-speed films, because I like high-resolution prints. Higher-speed films have more grain than does 100. I do not want to get a photo of a monster buck and then not be able to make a high-quality enlargement because it was shot with grainy film. I realize 100-speed film gives me less distance at night; however, when I put a mineral lick out, I position it 8-10 feet from the camera tree. At that range, film speed is not an issue.
I use the Original Deer Cane powder and blocks for my licks. Deer, particularly bucks, seem to love this product. However, several other types of mineral licks on the market also work well.
A Final Note
In some places, it is illegal to hunt near a mineral lick. (Here in Tennessee, at this writing it is legal.) There is no need to put minerals in a lick after late summer; as you probably know, deer do not use them after the weather turns cool. There should be no problem with hunting around a lick if minerals have not been added for a couple of months; however, if you want to hunt a stand that is close to a lick, first check with the game department to be sure.