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Trail Cameras: Are they hurting or helping your hunting strategy?

trail-camera
Don’t grow discouraged when a big buck doesn’t walk by your trail camera. Remember, a cam-era doesn’t capture everything that happens in your hunting area. (Photo courtesy of Bowtech Archery)

We discuss whether trail cameras should be part of your hunting program.

Trail cameras. They provide definitive edges to modern hunters. They provide key details to an-imal-movement tendencies, plus they show us what’s roaming around our hunting areas. Early hunters didn’t have those advantages. But, the question is, are trail cameras purely beneficial, or do they have negative sides, too? Absolutely. In fact, trail cameras can actually hurt your hunting strategy in some instances.

In this article, we’ll break down the pros and cons of using trail cameras to help you scout and put the pieces of the puzzle together on your next trophy buck. By the end, you’ll be able to iden-tify if you’re currently using them to hinder or help your potential for success. And if you aren’t currently using them at all, our discussion will help you decide if the investment is right for you.

Follow along as we objectively look at several things related to using trail cameras as part of your hunting strategy, and you’ll walk away with some points worth considering.

checking-camera
It’s easy to get excited about going hunting when a big buck pops up on your camera, but if you only hunt when that happens, you might be missing out
on some buck encounters. (Photo courte-sy of Bowtech Archery)

Intrusion

Today’s conventional trail cameras, the kind you have to physically visit in order to obtain the stored data (pictures and videos), require trips into your hunting areas. Each time you enter the woods, you introduce some level of human presence. Aside from urban environments where game and humans virtually coexist, wild animals fear human presence. Spelled out, that means each time you check the camera, you could be educating the very animals you intend to pursue.

I understand the temptation: You wonder what’s walking by your stand, and your curiosity can cause you to check the camera too often. Remember, each visit introduces human presence, and that can cause animals to become nocturnal or even vacate the area.

Of course, there are ways to manage your intrusion. On field edges where farm equipment oper-ates, driving right up to the camera might have littler disturbance on the area than walking. In any given location, checking cameras in the rain can help minimize your impact — both scent and audible noise. Also, you can solve the dilemma entirely by using cellular cameras, but then you have the added expenses of a data plan, which some suggest pays for itself in time saved and disturbance minimized, and I concur.

cellular-trail-cameras
The beauty of cellular trail cameras is that they text and/or e-mail you the pictures. That means fewer woods visits and less impact on deer. The downside is paying for a cellular plan, although most are reasonable given the convenience. (Photo by Darron McDougal)

Making Hunting Decisions

I think most hunters, including me, will or already have fallen for the misconception that a shooter buck must show up during daylight in order for us to go hunting. Now, on micro-managed private lands, that’s a good plan. On pressured lands or even public lands, I don’t buy that plan one bit. Where pressure abounds, a buck isn’t likely to start a one-week pattern of walk-ing down the same trail at the same time every afternoon. It might happen only once, and if you’re not hunting, you’ll miss the show.

conventional-trail-camera
A conventional trail camera requires lots of visits to the woods, which introduces human pres-ence to deer. Try to minimize your impact by checking the camera in the rain or only when nec-essary. (Photo courtesy of Darron McDougal)

To that, I say that trail cameras aren’t the problem. Relying too heavily on them is the problem. You can easily use trail cameras to make poor hunting decisions. Tony Peterson, another outdoor writer and host of the Hunt For Real Podcast, discussed with me on the podcast. He’d been try-ing to hunt bears in Minnesota while juggling his robust deer-hunting schedule, and he would hunt when bears would show on his cellular camera, but the bear visits to his baited area were far too random, so he missed his chances to kill a bear in broad daylight by only hunting after cap-turing a daylight image.

In areas with pressure, don’t let your trail camera influence every move you make, or you’ll miss opportunities due to random movements. Also, remember that your camera simply cannot cap-ture everything that unfolds in your hunting area. Old mature animals are liable to slip through behind your camera or 30 yards out which is typically well beyond a trail camera’s effective de-tection range. Regardless of species — elk to turkeys and deer to bear — if the conditions are right, just go hunting, even if your trail camera isn’t showing you what you want to see. Far more activity happens in the woods than what your trail camera captures.

Hunting A Specific Animal

I annually interview numerous hunters who’ve killed deer scoring well over 170 inches, and most knew their bucks existed and were able to put everything together using trail camera data. I’ve never owned my own hunting land, so I’ve never hunted solely for one specific animal. On public lands where I typically hunt, there are many unknowns. In other words, a monster like the 175-185-incher I saw in Iowa in 2019 could wander off private land to look for does. For that reason, I stay flexible.

However, it’s easy to become married to one buck after capturing a single trail camera photo of him. This can be very detrimental to your success, though. If you don’t care about filling a tag and don’t mind going for seasons at a time without success, then no problem. But, if you want to be successful, then letting a deer get into your headspace after getting just one trail camera pic-ture can grind you down, make you feel incapable as a hunter and an assortment of other things.

In contrast, folks who own, manage and hunt larger tracts of private lands often have “resident” deer that don’t leave the property. In that case, chasing a target buck is far more practical. If you have an entire season to dedicate toward figuring out a buck that spends time daily on property you can hunt, then go for it, but always check your motives and make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

buck-captured-camera
While this buck was never captured during daylight on the author’s trail cameras, he hunted an-yway and encounter the buck in broad daylight about 100 yards from one of the trail cameras. (Photo courtesy of Darron McDougal)

To Finish

Again, trail cameras give modern hunters edges our ancestors did not have. Used correctly, trail cameras can be invaluable in putting the puzzle pieces together on a huge buck. Used incorrectly, though, trail cameras can set you up for heartache and failure. Know the cons of trail cameras and how to manage those, and the odds will tip in your favor. To that end, ponder whether your trail cameras are currently hurting or helping your chances, and then make some changes, if needed.

By Darron McDougal

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