Off-Season Matters: Put Your Trail Cams to Use
Here's why you should keep your cameras in the woods year around
April 12, 2017
The trail camera was invented by George Sharis during the 1880s. That is not a typo. The contraption used a particularly big camera with a flash bulb. A wiring mechanism was used to trip the camera at a bait station. Deer came in, fed on the bait, a bright light flashed and the first “trail camera” was born.
“Flash” forward 100 years or so and trail cameras become available to the public. In my opinion, trail cameras and laser range finders are the two most influential pieces of gear to hit the market in the last 25 years.
When trail cameras first hit the consumer market, battery life was terrible. I remember loading my first camera with 6 D- batteries. I set the camera on a deer trail and checked it two weeks later, only to find the batteries were dead. Running two cams and replacing batteries every two weeks got expensive on a construction man's budget. Before long, the trail cameras ended up spending more time in the shed than on a tree.
Runnin' 'em year-round
Recent advancement in battery life and SD cards that are capable of holding thousands of pictures, have made trail cameras a more valuable investment. Running cameras all year long gives you good insight to what's going on when you're not around. Let's take a look at the trail cameras value by the months.
January & February: Our cameras had new batteries put in them in November. The Moultries, Stealth Cams and an occasional Spypoint that we run generally last four months on 8, AA batteries, so most of them are left in place on the tree. We will occasionally hang on a winter food source, only if there's minimal risk of bumping deer though. Learning where animals like to winter and why, is vital information for a game manager. Winter health can prepare you for the following years' necessities. Once again, I will remind you to be extra careful when romping around the woods during this time frame. Running critters around is not good for their health when they are stressed.
March: We like to pull cameras in March. Throw a fresh set of batteries and SD card in, and hang them over mineral licks. We do this while shed hunting. We also add minerals to the licks during this time frame.
The SD cards will hopefully give you indication of what bucks or bulls made it through the season/winter. If you are not finding sheds, your trail camera may tell you why.
April: Spring green up is occurring and deer are hitting the minerals. Antler growth is starting to appear. Cameras should still be used on the licks so you can follow antler development.
For most of us, turkey season is right around the corner. I like to set cameras up in known strutting zones to see what toms are around. I also set cameras up on field edges to see where they are feeding. Fresh plowed fields and fields that have cow manure on them are my favorite spots.
May: Still following birds and monitoring licks. Not checking lick cams yet, no need to disturb them. I will check turkey cams as needed. If we have a new food plot coming on, we will set a cam up to see how the animals are using it.
June: All cams are focused on big game. New batteries and SD cards in lick cams. Cameras are set up on feed and water. June is my least favorite month. Antler growth isn't to the point of recognizable potential yet. This is when fawns and calves start showing up so you do get some neat pics during their first month of life.
July: Starts a little boring but ends with excitement. Antlers have “blown up” by the end of the month. I like to have cameras set up in areas that l can not glass, so I will make sure they are in place during this time frame. Licks are still good spots to take inventory.
August: Antlers are all but done growing. I still have cameras on licks. Different bucks start showing up at our licks in August and cameras allow us to keep track of them.
Western states are preparing for seasons to open mid-month or September 1. Water is oftentimes scarce, find good water and hang a camera. Lots of different critters will show up. It may be a good place for a stand or just a good starting point. Either way, trail cams will give you the insight.
September: I will free up some cams by pulling them off licks. I like to have cameras set up in potential hunting spots during the first week of September. I may not check them till mid October or November but at least they're in place and monitoring game movement.
Elk wallows are another good spot to see action this month. Montana still does not allow trail cam use during hunting season. For all other elk hunting states, make full use of them.
Fall bear hunting can be tricky. Water is a good place to catch bears. Berry patches and dead animal carcasses are also good places to hang cameras. If you are looking to kill a bear in such places, you will need to check cameras regularly. Bears seem to hit food sources for a few days then move on.
October: We often hear about the October lull. The reason for that has to do with changing feeding patterns and lack of rutting activity. Trail cams play in big part in figuring out where the deer went and what they’re feeding on. A quick scouting trip that shows fresh sign lets us know where to hang cameras. If you plan on hunting this time frame, you will need to check cameras every couple days. As the 20th of October nears, so does the pre-rut. Patterns will again change. Use trail cams to keep up with it. Hanging on scrapes is one of my favorite strategies during this time. I may never hunt the scrape but it's good to see how many bucks are in the area.
November: The month most deer hunters wait for. I like to have cameras in pinch points and funnels. I will still hang cams on scrapes and other active sign. More times than not, I will not even see these pics till February or March. Many might see this as unproductive but I rely on cameras to give me info that will help with stand placement for future years. A big buck spot or a good rutting spot should produce for years. I like figuring these patterns out with the least amount of human intrusion as possible. Trail cameras like the Moultrie and Stealth cams I run, allow me to do that.
December: I will occasionally move cameras to food sources during December. If you are looking to fill a late season tag, food is where it's at. Standing corn and soybeans are my favorite places to have cameras. Trails are pretty obvious, as deer come and go. By placing cameras on these trails, you will figure out what deer are around in no time. It is again critical to not bump deer. Cameras in and around bedding areas can and will give you valuable information. I just don't like taking the risk.
While most folks use cameras during hunting season to try to kill critters, I put mine to use more during the off-season. Religious use of cameras allows patterns to develop. When you pay attention to the patterns, things become a whole lot easier.
For example, we have bucks that start showing up on our mineral licks in August. They then leave when the velvet sheds. We will get pictures again of those same deer late in November and by mid-December but just as quickly as they showed up, they leave again. We never would have figured that out without the cameras. We now know to hunt that area around Thanksgiving, most other times are pointless.
When we started using the cameras during the "off-season," we figured out how crop rotations play a part in where deer will or will not be. On years when a certain field is planted to corn, we will get pics of bucks there all year long. When it's beans, we will get pics until September then they move on. Cameras helped figure that out long before we ever would have by only hunting it or using cameras just during the hunting season.
Everyone's hunting needs and desires are different. Thinking 12 months instead of 4, makes investing in trail cameras more practical. You don't need to have several dozen cameras for them to be useful, a handful can teach you a lot. My brother and I currently run 10. We try to buy two a year to keep up with technology and to keep expanding our coverage.
When time allows, get out in the woods and hang your cameras. You might be surprised at what you've been missing.