Picture This — Exposing Big Blacktails

Hunters using trail cameras are making startling discoveries that help take some of the guesswork out of blacktail deer hunting.

By Duane Dungannon

Under the cover of darkness, the 5-point blacktail buck slips along a trail through thick brush that provides him a safe haven he rarely leaves. Here, sequestered away in a fortress of nearly impenetrable ceanothus and poison oak, the massive monarch makes his way down this dark corridor from his sleeping quarters to a small opening where he will forage on forbs that will provide him the nourishment necessary to build reserves for the rut and the long winter to follow.

But tonight an ambush awaits him.

Even the buck's finely tuned senses and wisdom of a long lifetime are no match for man's modern technology. A few more steps and he will walk into full view of high-end optics, and an infrared beam will fall squarely on his vital area.

At the last instant, the buck almost senses something is wrong, as he sneaks along with his head down. Perhaps it's an object out of place, or even the lingering odor of - man! The buck's head jerks up, but it's too late.

With the buck solidly in view, the weaponry fires and a flash of light stuns the buck momentarily before he bolts into the brush. He won't make a clean getaway tonight; the shot was perfect. Now it's just a matter of retrieving the trophy. That may not happen for days, but there's no worry of meat wasting away. Why? This trophy comes in the form of a photographic image perfectly preserved on film loaded in a trail camera mounted to the tree he walked past.

Oregon Fish and Wildlife biologist Merv Wolfer sets up an infrared trail camera along a game trail. Photo courtesy of ODFW

Scenes like this one are rapidly becoming more common on the West Coast, where blacktail enthusiasts are discovering the value of trail cameras that capture the images of deer roaming their favorite hunting haunts. Hunters who utilize trail cameras - either still cameras or video cameras - find the recorded data produced by these candid cameras both informative and entertaining.

For hunters with more money than time to spend in their pursuit of elusive blacktails, these expensive camera setups can yield more information about what's going on in a given area than hunters could ever learn in an entire season of scouting.

Everyone knows that extensive scouting is the key to getting the drop on blacktails, but few of us have the time to devote to an ambitious scouting schedule. That's why an increasing number of hunters are discovering that a trip camera set up along a game trail can be like having a scout working for you around the clock every day. These devices show you the animals that are using an area, and the dates and times they passed.

Hunters who buy the cameras tend to become obsessed with them, and the most common testimonial they all offer is that they never had any idea how much wildlife was using a particular area until they began setting out trail cameras. One avid hunter set his camera up on his own property behind his house just for kicks, and discovered for the first time that he had elk on his property that he never knew existed!

Bowhunter Tim McMahen enjoys this "shoot-and-release" form of hunting blacktails. "I have used a few different kinds of trail timers over the last four years, and have gotten some great shots of deer, elk, raccoons and a few other animals," he says.

Borrowing a trick used by an increasing number of blacktail hunters, McMahen is now positioning his cameras above the deer's line of sight. "I tried something new this year," he explains. "I'm situating the camera directly over the trail, looking straight down, because I found that a flash at ground level seems to make the deer start going other routes."

An ideal location for a camera ambush would be at the intersection of two or more well-used game trails.

Hunters who occasionally glimpse a few does, fawns and smaller bucks in a particular area are sometimes shocked to see trophy blacktails caught by their cameras.

Not surprisingly, many of the bruiser bucks that are exposed by trail cameras are photographed at night, which on the surface, might seem like just a tease. So what good does that do? Plenty.

WHAT CAMERAS TELL BIOLOGISTS


Merv Wolfer, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District office in Medford, says game cameras give deer managers highly accurate data they can use in a variety of ways.

 

They help with determining a region's deer population and buck-to-doe ratios, and they also help wildlife managers develop a better under-standing of migration routes and migration timing. This information helps with the management of blacktail habitat to ensure that migration corridors and winter range are not destroyed by development or disrupted by high-impact resource uses.

 

Wolfer presented photos and other information at several seminars attended by hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts. Many hunters expressed surprise to learn that more trophy bucks are available than they realized, and that the deer in this region typically leave the high country much earlier than most hunters believed. -- Duane Dungannon

 

IT'S ALL ABOUT CONFIDENCE!
Seeing is believing. You'll have an easier time crawling out of your warm bed on cool autumn mornings when you've seen film or photos of bruiser blacktails that are cruising your hunt area. Perhaps the most important element of successful blacktail hunting is persistence; put simply, the more time you spend in the field, the more the odds of a chance encounter with a nice buck shift in your favor.

It's a matter of added exposure, and the key to persistence is confidence; if you know there are trophy blacktails hanging around your hotspot and you believe that it's just a matter of time until you cross paths w

ith one of them, you've already won half the battle.

Of course, one of the best ways to ensure that you don't hang your tag on a wallhanger is to settle for less by shooting the first small buck to blunder by your stand. For the hunter who doesn't know what he's missing, this is an easy mistake to make. But you may find it easier to pass up smaller bucks if you know that bigger bucks might be following just a few strides behind.

After hearing a shot from the direction I was hunting one opening morning, a very competitive hunting buddy of mine opted to pass up two small bucks that stumbled past his stand that day, fearing he'd be shown up by whatever I'd taken. His having seen a handful of big blacktails in the area prior to the season gave him the confidence to hold out for something better than their little brothers. In the end, he was rewarded with a heavy-antlered 4-point buck. And, for what it's worth, the buck I had shot was a dinky forkhorn.

NEED TO CHANGE YOUR GAME PLAN?
In addition to giving you the confidence to be persistent and selective, pictures of trophy bucks captured by trail cameras may also suggest that you need to change your game plan.

If you're devoting countless hours of hunting from dawn to dusk and you're not seeing the Brahma bucks your camera caught at night, you may have to accept the fact that these bucks are not going to come to you during the daytime. You may have to go to them, which might mean leaving your stand and busting the brush.

Deer don't burrow underground during the daytime. If they're in the area, they can be found, but you may have to work harder and try a few new approaches - all of which is made easier by the knowledge there's a rich reward waiting as a payoff for your persistence.

What you should keep in mind, however, is that some of the deer that are using the trails you've chosen to monitor may not be resident deer but rather migratory animals that are only passing through.

Some users of the cameras find that - like the tracks on certain trails - all of the deer that are photographed on a particular trail are going the same direction, and they never manage to photograph the same deer twice. That's a good indication you're monitoring a migration corridor. This is not all bad, of course, because plenty of deer will pass by as the migration continues, but you need to understand that deer you photograph a week or two before the season may be long gone by the time the opener rolls around.

If, on the other hand, you get several photos or film clips of the same monstrous buck roaming around, or if you record bucks coming and going from each direction, you can reasonably conclude that these are likely to be local boys. You could meet face to face with them if you happen to be in the right place at the right time.

CAMERAS DON'T LIE


Game cameras used by biologists on game trails in southwest Oregon led to some startling discoveries. Among them: More blacktail bucks and a greater percentage of trophy-class bucks live there than previously believed.

 

Biologists have used census routes for years to estimate deer population trends in Oregon, but reclusive mature blacktail bucks hindered those efforts. Fortunately, even the biggest bucks aren't camera-shy.

 

Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Merv Wolfer said biologists were stunned to see images showing monstrous 5-point blacktail bucks migrating into the area. -- Duane Dungannon

 

PICKING A CAMERA
So now you're convinced - you've got to have a trail camera. But like trophy blacktail bucks, they're not easy to find. Perhaps the best bet for getting started is to contact manufacturer Web sites and read as much information about their products as you can digest.

Some systems include several components, such as a two-piece detector that creates a beam, similar to security motion detectors. When an animal breaks the beam, a cable connected to the camera triggers the shutter. Other systems house all the components in a single piece of equipment.

There are essentially two types of sensors available: active infrared and passive infrared.

Active infrared systems are two-piece setups that include an infrared transmitter and accompanying receiver. These systems allow you to better define what subjects you want to photograph, because you can set the two instruments that create the beam high enough that only large game animals will break the beam. When aligned, they transmit a beam that can be separated by 100 feet or more, depending on the model. In most cases, the two units are attached to trees on either side of a trail or water source. By placing the opposite pieces about 3 feet above the ground, you can effectively eliminate wasting film on small mammals and birds.

Passive infrared systems work with a single sensor device that detects motion and variations in temperature (body heat) over a wide area. Any warm-blooded animal moving within the wide detection area will activate the sensor to signal the camera to take a picture. With this system, you won't be able to be selective about the animals you photograph; you'll get everything from deer to deer mice. If you're interested in capturing a variety of wildlife, this might be the way to go. These systems are generally the least expensive and the easiest to set up.

FANCY SETTINGS
Other adjustments on some models allow you to select what you are looking for. By setting the amount of time the beam is required to be broken, for example, you can prevent the camera from wasting film on pictures of a bird flying.

Some models allow you to specify time periods you want to photograph subjects. If you think it's a waste of film to get pictures of deer that pass by in the dark, or you simply don't want to be teased, you can program these systems to take daytime pictures only.

A delay setting on some models will prevent you from taking a whole roll of film on a doe and fawn that hang around your setup, repeatedly breaking the beam. This delay can be set for anywhere from a few seconds to over an hour. The risk with a long delay, of course, is that you may get the doe in the lead but miss the buck bringing up the rear.

Most still camera uni

ts are modified 35mm cameras with auto-focus and auto-advance features. They shoot regular 35mm film you can have developed anywhere.

The infrared systems typically operate on standard C or 9-volt batteries that can last for months.

Trail camera manufacturers market a variety of accessories for mounting camera setups on trees. Most of the trail camera systems come with some type of weatherproofing to protect them from the elements and pesky critters.

Some models come in camouflage that is intended to hide them from creatures that walk on hooves, as well as those that walk in boots. Theft is a legitimate concern for owners of these expensive systems.

Usually these units are set up along well-used trails - paths of least resistance for mammals walking on two feet as well as four. To guard against theft, some manufacturers even claim to have installed tracking systems on certain models that they say have been used successfully to lead authorities to stolen units.

Like anything else in life, with trail camera systems, you get what you pay for. Systems range from about $250 for a no-frills passive infrared system and 35mm camera to more than twice that amount for an active infrared system with more options. A complete video system could cost $2,000 or more.



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