Bag Your Buck with These Scouting & Trail Camera Basics

What’s the difference between eating your tag at the end of the season and wrapping it around a whitetail buck? It might just be your trail camera. Learn how to make the most of your device with this how-to cam scouting guide.

Your trail camera keeps a watchful eye in the timber, providing vital information on the big bucks frequenting your hunting property. This intel is, of course, great to use when hunting — and it helps you put together an effective plan for harvesting game.

Whether you’re a skilled hunter or just getting started, there are a few trail camera basics that always hold true. Use these tips to make the most of your time in the field.

How Your Trail Cam Works

Your trail camera is out of the box, and ready for the field. But before you can begin to glean info from it, you have to master its basic functionality.

Quite simply, the detection range is the range in which your camera can detect passing game and shoot a photo of it during daylight hours. The flash range is the range in which your camera can detect passing game and shoot photos during nighttime.

Any camera used in the correct fashion will give you scouting knowledge that you would not have had otherwise. But quality counts. Cameras with higher resolution capabilities and faster trigger speeds and recovery time will capture the best images.

The camera flash type refers to how your trail camera will take pictures during the night, and how it will illuminate passing game.

  • White flash cameras generally produce the most colorful images at night, however, the flash given off by the bulbs can be easily seen by the naked eye—and can easily spook your game.
  • On the flipside, no-flash infrared cameras are much harder for game to detect, but produce grainyblack and white nighttime photos.
  • Infrared trail cams (also known as IR cams) can also be further broken down into no-glow (also called “black flash”) or low-glow types, referring to the slight amount of glow given off by the camera when it is triggered.

Trigger Speed is the amount of time it takes the camera to detect movement in front of it and then take a picture. Recovery time, on the other hand, is the amount of time it takes the game camera to properly take the picture, store it, and then be ready to take another follow-up shot.

  • A trail camera with an ultra-fast trigger speed and recovery time may be beneficial on a highly used game trail where the deer will only be in front of the camera for a split second.
  • On the other hand, fast trigger speed and recovery time may not be as important on a camera set up on a food source where game is likely to browse for extended periods of time.

Finally, think about the image resolutions and video capabilities of your camera. Your camera’s “MP rating” denotes the number of pixels in your camera sensor. The more pixels, the higher quality photo your camera can deliver.

Not all cameras have video capturing capabilities, so if this is something you are looking for, be sure to double check the specific camera specs before purchase. The same is true for audio — always check product specs before purchasing, as not all trail cams capture sound.

Where To Put Your Trail Camera

Early in the year, deer are social animals, often frequenting the same locations over patterned, daily routines. The opposite is true later in the year during the peak of breeding season, known as rut. Knowing when these pattern shifts occur helps you choose where to set up your camera.

Spring & Summer:  This is a great time of the year to get an inventory on your local deer herd as well as what kinds of bucks you will have available to hunt once fall arrives.  Focus your trail camera efforts on food sources, such as summer flood plots, alfalfa/soybean fields, heavily used travel corridors, and (if legal) mineral licks.  Mineral licks and corn piles are excellent trail camera locations at this time of the year because they allow you to set up in easily accessible, low-impact locations, such as field edges. Watering holes and other water sources are great cam location during hot summer months.

Late Summer & Fall:  As fall arrives and cooler temperatures take hold, bucks will shed their velvet (usually in early September) and their travel patterns will begin to change. Wait until late summer or early fall, and then begin transitioning your trail camera. Focus on heavily traveled trails between bedding areas and food sources. During this time of year, deer are suckers for acorns, apples and chestnut trees. Think staging areas, outside of bedding areas, pinch points and naturally occurring terrain funnels that allow deer to pass through.

You can also try placing your camera over scrapes — pawed up ground below low-hanging tree branches frequented by bucks. You should pay attention to scent control, exit and entry routes, as well as the timing of your camera set-up. Be sure not to place cameras directly over scrapes but rather 20-30 yards away to avoid spooking camera-shy deer.

Winter & Late Season: When the rut is over and hunting season is coming to a close, begin moving your trail camera location back to food sources and heavily traveled deer paths. At this time of year, deer are returning to their social nature, and their attention turns back to food.  As winter progresses, your camera gives you a better idea of how your deer herd is surviving the cold, which deer lived through hunting season and when deer begin to shed their antlers.

How To Set Up Your Camera

Treat your time with your camera — checking it or setting it up — the same as you would a hunt. Pay attention to scent control, time and path of your entry and exit, wind direction and more.

  • Mid-day is usually the best time to set up or check your trail camera. Right before or after a light rain is even better, as it helps minimize scent.
  • Make sure the sensor is pointing in both the direction that you think the deer will travel, as well as the correct height of the deer, so that the motion sensor can detect movement.
  • Always make sure your camera has fresh batteries, a clean SD card and is pointing in the northern or southern direction, so it will not constantly shoot photos of shadows as the sun moves.
  • Avoid the temptation to frequently check your trail camera. Unless you plan to travel by your camera in perfect conditions, give cameras about 10 to 14 days between adjustments or SD card check-ups.