Field Notes – Industry Insights
3-Year Trail Camera Strategy
One of the big evolutions within the sport of hunting has been the advent and use of trail cameras to locate and monitor the quality and quantity of game species on a property. Trail cameras have increased hunters’ knowledge and understanding of whitetail deer movement patterns and behaviors without the need to spend countless hours of observation in the field. The excitement of getting high quality and unique wildlife photos from camera traps can, at times, distract from the practically employing and using cameras to their full potential as invaluable intel gathering devices. After gaining access to a new property, whether it’s a lease, by permission, or piece of public land, deployment of trail cameras should be high on the priority list.
Trail cameras can help to cut down on the learning curve associated with a new property. If you have work and/or family obligations, it is important to be as efficient with scouting and intel gathering efforts as possible so as to maximize your time afield. The quicker a new property can be dissected, the quicker you are able to add even more properties and expand your hunting options and chances of harvesting a target deer. Getting on a three year plan with your trail camera strategy provides some deliberate structure and method to your efforts, as opposed to relying on a more random and scattershot approach. Here are some steps that will keep things affordable, (even if you are starting from ground zero), while steadily increasing your camera inventory over time and maximizing your time and your equipment’s potential.
Once you’ve located a new hunting property, post season scouting efforts should be underway. Ideally you are scouting last Fall’s sign in the Winter and early Spring. This will help you to identify the deer’s Fall movement and activity, which is what will be the most relevant intel in terms of hunting. When you discover areas of significance, such as bedding, travel corridors and funnels, primary scrapes, and food sources, make notes and mark these locations. They all have value as quality places for camera deployment in the right scenarios.
If you don’t have any trail cameras, purchase as many as is affordable within your budget. To gain as much intel as possible in the shortest amount of time, its beneficial to have multiple cameras. For most private parcels, a camera set approximately every 50 acres is adequate to start. A good goal in the first year is to purchase 3 of the highest quality cameras you can afford. If you already have an inventory of cameras, you will be ahead of the game. It’s important to consider the different specifications on each manufacturer’s line of cameras. Most offer different cameras of varying quality at varying price points. Many manufacturers are coming out with “budget” cameras that offer extremely good performance at extremely reasonable prices. Your first three cameras should have a fast enough trigger speed (under 1 second) and a fast enough recovery rate (how fast they re-arm for another picture) to be set up on a travel corridor and capture deer mid-frame while also resetting quickly to capture all the deer within a passing group. The good news is that most cameras being manufactured today meet these specifications with ease and don’t break the bank, either.
Deploy your first three cameras in locations that will provide you with the kind of information you would have the most difficulty acquiring by simple hunter observation. During this first year, putting a camera over a soybean field during the summer months may be a good method to inventory the bucks in your area, but it doesn’t tell you much that you can't achieve via summer glassing. One could safely assume deer will travel to a bean field in Summer or a standing corn field in Fall, so these destination locations are not as valuable to your reconnaissance efforts in the early years of hunting a property.
Instead, set up your cameras on travel corridors between identified bedding areas and destination food sources to help you determine movement patterns their timing. If you have a target deer moving past your camera consistently just after dark, you will know he is bedded close, and that a tree stand in the area of your camera may be just a bit too far away from his core area to get a crack at him during daylight hours. This helps you to know how aggressive you need to be with stand placement. Keep in mind that cameras should be set high and angled down, out of the line of sight of both deer and humans (especially when placed on public land), and products like the Stik-n-Pic Strap On Tree Mount are great, public-land-legal options to accomplish this.
Getting pictures in the first year is going to be exciting but be you will need to curb your enthusiasm so as to not adversely affect sensitive areas on the hunting property. Cameras placed adjacent to bedding areas may need to “soak” all year and be retrieved after season. Consider a camera model with a good battery life rating for this kind of situation. Even if the deer you got pictures of is harvested by another hunter, that bedding area will be filled by another buck the following year and your intel will still be relevant and provide you with information about the perennial deer movement on the property. Other cameras that are placed within travel corridors should only be checked or moved in conjunction with you actually hunting the area. If you need to pass a camera on the way to a tree stand, stopping to swap out a memory card is a good idea to obtain real-time information that can be utilized within the current hunting season. However, trips into these areas for the sole purpose of checking a camera card are counter productive to your hunting efforts.
At the end of the season, compile your photos and compare the deer movement you captured with historical weather data that is available online. This will help you identify what kind of wind and weather situations resulted in increased levels of deer movement. When those same conditions occur in year 2, you will be better informed and positioned to move in for a drone-like strike.
Hopefully, by year two you have learned a lot about the property from post season scouting and season of observation from the treestand. Your in-field observations will tell you what slight adjustments can be made to your camera locations in order to capture a higher percentage of deer movement on the property. You will be able to make far more educated decisions about where to place cameras, where sensitive bedding areas, and even specific individual bed locations, are on the property. You should be prioritizing post season scouting when hunting season ends to continue to increase your knowledge of the property. In year 2 you will again want to purchase as many cameras as your budget will allow for. Again, 3 is a good number.
The good news is, in year two you can get by with a couple cameras that are fast enough to capture traveling deer, and 1 or 2 budget cameras that may have a slower trigger speed, longer recovery time, less image stabilization and, along with that, a more palatable price tag. By year two, your scouting efforts should yield some destination sites where deer will spend some amount of time before moving through, and so cameras placed over these areas do not need to have high trigger speeds or even nearly as high megapixel counts as those placed on trails and corridors. These destination areas are communal spots that serve as a great place to inventory deer, and can be good stand locations as well. Primary scrape areas, wild apple trees within cover, or white oaks on a heavy mast year, are all areas that you can use to gather inventory via trail camera traps. Still reserve checking the cameras to times when you will hunt the area, so as to avoid excessive and unnecessary ground scent in a possible hunting location. Inventory focused cameras help you to determine the quality of the local deer herd and make decisions about what buck(s) you would like to harvest so you don’t have to make a difficult judgement call in a split second from the treestand.
The other camera(s) you purchase in year 2 should be deployed in the same way as the cameras were set in year 1. You will simply be able to cover more areas on the property and the intel you gather and compile at the season’s end will be that much more of a comprehensive view of the deer activity in the area. You may be now covering multiple trails along the same side hill, as you are “blanketing” the property with more cameras per acre. Patterns will become easier to see when you dissect your photos at the end of the season. You may recognize movement on a lower trail earlier in the morning with an increase in movement along the military crest of the hill once late morning thermals cause the air to rise. You may also be able to check multiple cameras on the way to one stand location. Moultrie’s Picture/Video Viewer makes it convenient to quickly click through the images to determine what the current activity is around that location. If you see regular buck activity on camera, occurring within the past few days, you may want to post up for a hunt and not go any further than that first camera! Make sure that any cameras that are placed within a core bedding area have a fresh set of lithium batteries and force yourself to let them soak again in year 2. Trust me, pulling them in January will be like a late Christmas present.
By year 3, you should be well on your way to systematically narrowing down high percentage areas, and high percentage wind/weather conditions for the property you are hunting. The information you will have gathered via three seasons of post season scouting and 2 years of camera deployment should also be helping you to determine how you need to access and exit stand locations so as to keep hunting pressure as low as possible. The cameras you placed on any identified destination locations, in addition with summer glassing activities (where possible), should give you a good idea of the quality and quantity of the Whitetails in the immediate area.
In year 3, you should again be looking to add several cameras to your inventory, if your budget allows for it. Now, you can get by with adding cameras that fall within that budget price point. You need far fewer cameras on travel corridors and the risk vs. reward of having a soaker camera near a buck’s bedding area will now be yielding narrower returns. By this time, you will have a good handle on the deer movement and the bedding areas on the property. What will be the most relevant information to you will be the inventory of target deer on the property. Inventory can be taken during the summer months, over bait or mineral piles (where legal), or over the aforementioned primary scrape areas that are used year-round by all of the deer in the herd. But, be aware of the Summer shift that occurs once bucks shed their velvet and disperse from bachelor groups. Not every buck you inventory in the Summer will be a resident, hunt-able animal in fall. Food sources of hard and soft mast can be inconsistent depending on the yield for the year, but they are also good places to inventory deer when they produce.
Hopefully the excitement and rewards of learning a new property have not caused you to become complacent in what should be your continuous search to find new areas and access to additional parcels to hunt. If you have done your homework, by year 3 it will be time to start the whole process again with a brand new piece of land. You will want to keep your lower price point cameras on the first property and move the cameras with faster trigger speeds and shorter recovery times to the new piece of property. You will be starting over at year one, and the process begins again. But the good news is that you already have 4-5 cameras to start out with, in addition to any you will purchase! Now you will be able to cut additional time off the learning curve time and your 3 year trail camera strategy can evolve into a 2 year strategy. You will be able to drastically increase the amount of intel you gather in the first year and increase your efficiency when spending time afield. That means better odds and success rates from the treestand via more deliberate hunts during in high percentage stand locations during high percentage weather conditions. A purposeful trail camera strategy has the ability to teach you more than you ever knew about the game animals you are pursuing, but what’s more, your increased level of efficiency will make the demands of your family life, hunting passion and work responsibilities more manageable in this fast paced culture we live in.
How to Pack a Mobile Stand
With aggressive whitetail tactics becoming increasingly more in vogue, many hunters are looking for ways to pack a stand and sticks into the timber, marsh or swamp quietly and efficiently. There are many advantages to staying mobile, not the least of which is that your first sit in an area is likely your best opportunity to connect on a target buck. Hunting near sensitive bedding areas requires quality, reliable gear. The other consideration when walking deep into a public parcel is stand weight. Shaving pounds off your total pack weight can make access into remote areas more feasible and less physically taxing.
A highly efficient mobile set-up can be achieved using numerous different brands, and in reality, a combination of several might be just what is required to customize a set up and meet individual needs and different styles of hunting. Here are some fundamental principles to consider when assembling and packing a mobile stand system:
1. Select a light weight stand: Manufacturers are finding ways to reduce stand weight while maintaining strength and rigidity. Rigidity is important because the more the stand flexes, the more opportunity it has for creaks, pops and other noises. It's hard to find a stand that more meets the criteria of being light weight and strong than the Lone Wolf Assault II. Coming in at 11lbs, this stand maintains portability while the cast aluminum platform is far superior to tubular aluminum construction in terms of noise reduction. Metal on metal contact with a cast platform has much less resonating effects than tube aluminum or steel and the absence of weld joints make it a better option in colder weather when welded stands can begin to creak. Its important to mention that the design of the Assault II, its offset bracket and platform leveling capabilities, allow it to go in crooked trees that are not suitable for climbing style tree stands.
2. Select sticks that nest together: It's very important that the climbing sticks that accompany the hang on treestand nest together well, like Muddy's ProSticks. This is important for the pack-ability of the system but also for noise reduction. Sticks that nest together tightly can be attached to the stand as one unit, avoiding multiple pieces of metal shifting around if a strap or bungee becomes loosened. Since the ProSticks utilize a rope and cam cleat system for attachment, four metal buckles can also be eliminated from the system! Shorter sticks, which do not extend past the stand platform when packed, are convenient for the hunter who finds themselves in either the thick mountain laurel of hill country or deep in a dogwood swamp. For these reasons, a bundle of Muddy ProSticks packs nicely with a Lone Wolf Assault II stand. The shorter ProSticks can be laid flat across the stand and they do not stick past the platform. The width of this stand and stick combo is no wider than the average hunter's shoulders!
3. Add a molle waist belt: Along with the purchase of better straps, like Lonewolf's Padded Back Pack Straps, a molle belt tranfers the weight of the stand and sticks from your back to your hips. This quick and simple add-on can make it feasible to walk several miles with your stand in order to access remote pieces of less pressured public lands. Not only is the weight distribution favorable for physiological reasons, it makes access quieter and safer by allowing for better balance.
4. Use bungees to pack your stand and sticks tight: A Lone Wolf Treestand and Muddy ProSticks that has been fitted with some kind of noise deadening wrap, will have most of the possibilities for metal on metal contact eliminated. Still, if the sticks are not tightly secured they may shift and cause noise during the pack-in. Using bungee straps like the Lone Wolf Quick Straps is a good option for a reliably secure pack assembly. Plenty of other options exist, but the best choices are straps that either have coated hooks or utilize plastic buckles instead of metal. Taking care to position climbing sticks in such a way that they lay as close as possible to the stand platform will keep the mass weight of the pack close to the hunter's body and make for a more efficient and easier-to-carry system. The stand and stick system should be secure enough to be able to sustain aggressive shaking without shifting or making any metal-on-metal noise.
While each hunter's system may be tweaked in one way or another, it is hard to beat the tried and true brands of Lone Wolf and Muddy. Reliable, safe, quiet, innovative and efficient. These are products that can indeed help hunters connect on mature deer, year after year. A bit of forethought and planning can help a hunter assemble the perfect, customized system for their hunting style and their treestand needs.
-Reuben Dourte, Kinsey's Staff Writer
As an avid outdoorsman and a studied whitetail hunter, Reuben's experience offers valuable insights from the woods. His published blog, Common Ground Bowhunter, further documents many of his explorations.