Let's talk about butt photos for a second. Well, specifically the ones with big white tails hanging from them. As hunters, the other end of a whitetail is what we're concerned with, and nothing is more frustrating than checking a trail camera only to find images of deer rear ends, noses and blurry bodies.
This could be the result of a junk camera, of course. We all know that the technology has come a long way, but there are still some clunkers out there. But there’s also the very real possibility that you might have a great camera and are just using it wrong — or at least not to its fullest potential.
Here are three things to consider when you’re frustrated with your mid-summer card pulls.
Understanding Your Camera
Earlier this year I interviewed Tom Rainey, who works for Browning Trail Cameras. Throughout the entire podcast episode, he kept referring to the cameras settings and suddenly it hit me like a Cape buffalo charge — I hadn’t been treating my scouting cameras like an actual camera. As a somewhat professional photographer by trade, this made me feel knuckle-dragger dumb.
The speed of the trail camera’s trigger (shutter), quality of images and video, recovery time, daytime and nighttime settings, and a host of other features are right there for you to use and consider. Instead of just turning on your camera and setting the date, it pays to think about where you’re setting up your camera and what types of pictures you expect.
Lazy bachelor groups munching on soybeans or clover don’t require a fast trigger speed, but chasing bucks do. You might not also need a nine-shot burst and one-second recovery settings for the summer feeders, but you might if you’re monitoring a trail that leads from bedding to food and you want to catch images of every buck slipping along — not just the first.
If you’re not interested in dissecting every pixel of an image to see if there are more bucks standing behind your subject, you might not need to capture the highest quality images possible and thus fill up your SD card in a week. All of this is pretty simple stuff, but very important if you want to maximize your digital scouting.
The two states I spend the most whitetail time scouting are my home state of Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Proximity and access to private land lend themselves well to spending more time learning deer in these states, but the deer couldn’t be more different.
In southern Minnesota, I can hang a camera three feet off the ground to cover bisecting trails and watch as bucks stroll past without a care in the world. If I try that in northern Wisconsin, the bucks will almost inevitably stop and stare the first time they see a camera. Then, more often than not, they’ll bust out of there.
It doesn’t matter what kind of flash I use, or whether they come in at noon or midnight, those Wisconsin bucks aren’t tolerant of a small camouflage box showing up in their core area. Because of that, I hang my cameras at least six feet or more up in trees and angle them down. To avoid theft, this is my go-to public land trick as well.
A lot of hunters never consider this, but I’ve watched deer react to cameras before and I try to think of it in human terms. Imagine you live in an apartment all by your lonesome and one day you sit down on your couch to watch Netflix and suddenly realize there is a new framed picture hanging on your wall. You’d investigate, obviously, but also would probably get a little wigged out.
The square mile or so that a buck calls home is the place he spends 99.9 percent of his time, and he knows it well. He might be a tolerant, easy-going buck that doesn’t care, or he might not. Understand what kind of deer you’re dealing with and hang your cameras accordingly.
Forget The Stills
If you think about it, the ability to get HD video of bucks any time they walk through a certain spot in the woods is incredible. The downside to managing HD video is that it takes up a lot of space on a memory card, and eventually, on whatever device you download the images to. You have to be prepared for that if you’re going to run your cameras on video mode, but it can be worth it.
The first time I messed with this was on a small kill plot, and what I didn’t realize was how many bucks I was missing. Oftentimes, a buck would trigger the camera and he’d be just walking through or maybe grabbing a mouthful of greenery, when I’d notice that another buck was ghosting through farther back.
Since then, I’ve run video mode on scrapes, water holes, trails and other places. Not only do you get a much clearer picture of how deer come and go, but also what else is with them. The key is the set them up so they are aimed perfectly and then use at least a 32GB memory card — although these days I tend to use cards that offer at least double that amount of storage. That might seem like overkill, but it’s not.
You should also pay attention to the ‘write speed’ of your cards. Minimums will usually range from 2MB/second to 10. If your camera is set to HD video or 1080p HD Video, you’ll want the latter. In fact, going cheap or too low quality on an SD card is probably one of the biggest failures a lot of us make with our trail cameras. When it comes to technology, there just aren’t a lot of great deals. If something costs half of what the competition sells for, there is a reason and it’s probably best to avoid it.
Treat your trail cameras like a real camera this summer, and you’ll be far better off come fall. Also, consider where you’re setting them up, what kind of deer you’re dealing with, and whether you’d be better off with still images or should be capturing movie clips. All of this will help you achieve what you’re setting out to do — gain a better understanding not only of the various bucks in your woods, but what they like to do on a day-to-day basis. After that, it’s up to you to hunt them correctly.