July 06, 2016
When it comes to using scouting cameras, there is a trend among most hunters that involves doing everything in our power to get as many pictures as we can. This often involves hanging a camera on a no-doubt food source like a soybean field or a small, lush food plot. It might involve dumping a bag of corn in front of the camera or setting up a mineral site (where legal) to further encourage the local ungulates to visit.
This is certainly one way to fill up an SD card with images and allow us to take an inventory of which bucks are roaming our grounds, but it might not necessarily help us actually kill deer. Take the trail camera placed along the edge of a soybean field or a an alfalfa field, for example. That camera will capture plenty of images of deer passing by both during the evening, the nighttime, and often, early in the morning.
Anyone who has whitetail hunted for more than about six seconds knows that the deer will eat in either of those types of fields all summer long, but what does that tell us as hunters? It tells us who is there, and might tell us when they are there. Until they aren't.
Deer that step out of the woods two hours before dark and munch lazily in crop fields during July are different than they will be in September and October. They just are. That means those same deer that were so reliable during the summer will suddenly appear to be nocturnal once they shed their velvet and the hordes of bowhunters and small game hunters hit the woods.
What do those summertime pictures do for you then?
Nothing, or not much anyway. If you have an extra camera or three, consider a different strategy this summer and commit yourself to hanging them where they'll do you the most good - in the cover.
Here are three places to consider for your next-level scouting recon.
Given the choice between sitting on a killer food source or a secluded water source, I'll take the H2O all season long. This goes for hot days in the early season, and much frostier sits later on. Deer drink every day, and they know where every water fountain is on their home turf.
If you find a natural water source, which could be anything from a tiny, hillside seep to a pond tucked into a the head of a valley, monitor it with a camera. The deer will come at all times of the day and night, which is another benefit depending on whether you can get to the water in the dark because unlike most food sources, you can have a stellar morning sit where bucks slake their thirst.
If you don't have any good water sources on your hunting ground (look hard, you probably do), you can also create one. A simple ornamental pond dug into the ground will do the trick, just make sure it's legal and positioned so you can hunt it correctly in regards to wind direction and overall access.
When I walk through the woods while scouting in the late-winter and early spring, I'm continually amazed at how many different deer trails are engraved into the landscape. This goes for nearly everywhere I hunt, from ag-rich, deer-heavy areas of the midwest to the northern Big Woods where overall populations are much lower.
Myriad trails can make it tough to figure out exactly where the deer like to travel. Because of this, I like to go where I suspect the big boys are hanging out and set up cameras overlooking intersecting trails. Places where two trails meet increase my odds of getting pictures of natural travel, it's that simple. If after a week those cameras show nothing but squirrels, it's time to move.
Now, it's not always necessary to seek out a spot where trails cross one another. Sometimes you just find a pounded trail that gets your deer-hunting instincts all tingly. This might be an etched-down-to-the-dirt path along a ridge or through an obvious pinch-point, or it might be something else entirely. It doesn't matter, because you need to get a camera on it to see who is using the route. Again, if a week or 10 days doesn't show you what you want to see, move the trail camera.
My personal favorite spots to hunt are staging areas. Whether I'm on public land, or heavily pressured private ground, I tend to run into mature bucks where they stage. These are the spots the deer feel comfortable moving during daylight hours and they'll use them all year long.
The best bet for finding staging areas is to walk your hunting grounds in March or early-April to look for clusters of rubs and scrapes. We're well past that point, however. So now it's best to backtrack off of a destination food source toward the thickest cover around. Oftentimes, at the edge of the morass, you'll find an area in which the deer like to kill a little time. You might see faint evidence of rubs from last fall in these spots if you're lucky.
Either way, set up a camera to catch the comings and goings of the local deer. This isn't the kind of trail-camera work that is going to result in 5000 pictures in a month, but you might get 100 that are really valuable. If you don't, keep looking. Eventually you'll find a staging area that will produce deer activity from the season opener to the season's close.
Go ahead and hang a couple of trail cameras over food sources this summer to get your fix, but don't forget that you might just find a truly reliable ambush site by backing off of the groceries and monitoring places where bucks like to drink, travel, or simply lounge around. Those spots, and the images you capture, might just be the clues that lead you to a have-to-hide-it-from-the-spouse taxidermy bill.