Picture This: Trail Cam Perfection

Without tapping a trail camera, the author would have never taken his record blacktail. (August 2008)

Author Angelo Nogara's 157 3/8-inch Pope and Young Club non-typical blacktail had an outside spread of 26 inches.
Photos by Rob Rowland.

Trail cameras are effective and efficient scouting tools that you can use year 'round. For a modest investment, their high-resolution photos can help you understand the behavior and patterns of wild game -- and boost your odds of taking a trophy deer.

We bowhunters are always looking for that extra edge to help improve our success in the field. With a bow, the deck is stacked against us from the moment we enter the woods because for an accurate kill, we need to get so close to our quarry.

To compensate, bowhunters like myself seek out new products each year to give us advantages. We're constantly on the lookout for faster, smoother-shooting bows, more accurate and durable arrows, range finders equipped with Angle Range Compensation, clearer and more powerful binoculars and deadlier broadheads.

Some might now accuse technology of making it too easy for bowhunters to fill their tags. But I welcome the new improvements of technology that has soared in the last decade. Why not take advantage of the new products that technology has to offer to improve your accuracy and make you a more efficient hunter?

You have to understand that I'm the type of guy who eats, sleeps and lives bowhunting. Weeks before the season starts, you'll find me out in the woods scouting for days at a time.

But a few years ago, suddenly my work schedule became much more complicated. As I tried to scout multiple areas, I was faced with time-management issues. It's a common dilemma many hunters face when trying to juggle time among family, work and hunting.

One day I saw some promotional clips of trail cameras in action. The idea of being able to scout an area 24 hours a day, seven days a week, appealed to me. If this would save me time in the field during my pre-season scouting, I thought it was worth a try. What did I have to lose?

So I purchased my first trail camera. Little did I know the impact it would have upon my upcoming deer season.

While scouting an area prior to California's 2005 A Zone archery season, I noticed a great deal of deer activity in a canyon. A natural funnel led to and from a feeding and bedding area. I set up my trail cam there.

Within days, I had a number of photos of various bucks using a well-worn game trail.

Knowing that I was on to something, I followed up with a regular routine of downloading photos from the camera's SD card to my computer every few days.

While checking the memory card one day, I almost fell out of my chair. On my computer screen appeared the photo of a tremendous blacktail buck. I'd never seen a blacktail with such a big rack. His main beams were extraordinarily heavy. I guessed his spread to be about 25 inches.

The problem I faced was that every photo of him had been taken at night, just after dark. He was nocturnal.

Even so, I decided to set up a tree stand to give it a try. I thought that if he was to make one mistake, it would be his last: I'd be there waiting to take full advantage of it.

For 20 consecutive days, I sat in that tree stand, waiting for him to show himself, watching many nice bucks pass within yards of me.

Finally, just before dark on the 21st day, my prayers were answered. He stepped out from behind a large oak tree, only 13 yards from my stand.

Finally, just before dark on the 21st day, my prayers were answered. He stepped out from behind a large oak tree, only 13 yards from my stand.

He had made that one fatal mistake that I'd been waiting for. As it turned out, he shattered the California state record for a non-typical blacktail taken by a bowhunter.

Since then the record has been broken once again. My buck is currently ranked as California's No. 2 non-typical blacktail taken with a bow. It netted 157 3/8 Pope & Young points, with an outside spread of 26 1/2 inches. If it hadn't been for my trail camera, I would never have known of his existence.

If you're looking for a new area to hunt, where should you start?

One of the best ways to begin is by contacting a state wildlife biologist. He can provide you with valuable information to help you narrow your search. Ask him for details on areas that contain high buck-to-doe ratios.

Find out if there are any high-percentage early-season spots. Also ask about late-season wintering grounds.

Once you've decided on an area, it's time to focus your efforts on a spot worthy of placing your trail cam. Get a U.S. Forest Service map, BLM map, U.S. Geological Survey topography maps and aerial photos of your chosen location.

The keys to setting up a trail camera properly are location, location, location. Finding a spot with a great deal of deer activity is a must. Look for sign in low-pressure areas where bucks can go about their daily routines undisturbed -- the ideal hunting environment.

Unfortunately, if you hunt high-pressured public lands, spots like this are few and far between -- unless, of course, you hunt designated wilderness areas. Hunting pressure is much lower because of restricted vehicle access.

These productive public grounds do exist. You just have to put in the legwork required to find them.

Here are some characteristics of the terrain of you'll be looking for:
'¢ Natural funnels leading to and from bedding and feeding areas.
'¢ Springs and seeps located within heavily timbered or thick, brushy areas, and
'¢ Saddles that bucks use to traverse ridges.

These are all great spots to set up your trail camera because they provide blacktails with a sense of security. When you locate these areas, then look for sign:
'¢ Well-worn game trails that contain large buck prints, and
'¢ Later in the season, look for primary scrape areas and rub lines.

When you find them,

you'll know you're in a place where a dominant buck is marking his territory.

Now that you've found a good spot for your trail cam, it's time to set it up properly to get the best performance.

But first, to make sure you get photos of good quality, here are a few points to keep in mind:

1. Distance To Target Area
The first and most important factor is to place your trail camera at the correct distance from your intended target area. If you want clean, crisp photos -- especially if you're using the night-vision mode -- make sure to place your camera no more than 20 feet from where you expect a deer to trigger the Passive Infrared sensor, or PIR, which operates by detecting a change in the infrared level within its trigger area.

Most cameras have a field of view consisting of a 45-degree cone. The trigger area lies in the central 10 degrees of the cone. When the PIR is triggered, the unit will take a photograph of the target area.

2. Camera Height
The second most important factor is camera height. I've found that mounting a camera at about waist height (yours, not the deer's) is excellent for capturing full-body photos of bucks with plenty of space above their antlers.

This height also eliminates the PIR being triggered by smaller animals such as squirrels, raccoons or skunks. Most trail cameras come with a standard SD card, which has a limited memory capacity. So if you plan on leaving your camera on for days at a time, you really don't want photos of other animals.

3. To Avoid Lighting Problems
Direct sunlight is another factor to take into account when mounting your camera. If you intend on capturing photos at first light, don't mount the camera facing east where the first beams of sunlight will shine directly into your camera's lens.

My cameras face north.

Sometimes, you might not have a choice of where to mount yours. Try placing something just above the camera to shade its lens from direct sunlight. I carry a piece of plastic bent into a 90-degree angle, which I'll wedge between the tree and the rear of the camera.

4. To Flash Or Not?
Some trail cameras are equipped with both a regular incandescent flash and an IR flash combined with digital night-vision technology. They give you the option of using either a regular camera flash or stealth-like LED IR illumination.

Infrared LED lamps take photos of game at night discreetly, with no visible flash. Although this is a great feature -- especially if you're worried about giving away your camera's position in heavily hunted areas -- I've found that photos produced in this manner lack the quality of photos taken using a regular flash.

I've also found that the regular flash doesn't have much of an effect on deer at night. Certainly it doesn't spook them, as you may have been led to believe.

I've captured photos of deer looking directly into the lens, almost curious about the flash, as the camera continues to snap photos of them. If you want quality photos, my recommendation is to use the regular flash.

5. Preventing Theft
Most hunters don't look for cameras mounted to trees. Even though I've mounted cameras in many heavily hunted public areas, I've never had a camera stolen. But if you're concerned about theft, get a camera that's equipped with a metal mounting bracket, cable and padlock.

Pass the cable around the tree and through the metal bracket. Secure it with the padlock. Any thief would need a bolt cutter or a chainsaw to take your camera. But just in case, it's a good idea to use tree branches, leaves or any other natural growth you find nearby to help camouflage your camera's position.

Over the last few years, I've taken many very nice deer -- including a state-record blacktail -- with the aid of a trail camera.

6. Controlling Your Scent
When checking your camera, make sure to approach it when deer are usually bedded for the day. You'll be setting up your camera literally in a buck's back yard, where he's grown accustomed to every different type of smell that's there. Be very careful and take every precaution to control your scent.

While walking to and from your camera's location, it's a very good idea to wear rubber boots. They will reduce the ground scent that any smart buck will detect immediately.

When opening your camera to retrieve its memory card or to view its LCD monitor, put on a pair of thin latex gloves. You just can't be too cautious when dealing with wise old bucks.

7. Keeping A Log
Accurately record and analyze the images from the trail cam.

Each photo captured will display both the time and date when it was taken. If you can, try to pattern a buck for an ambush.

Most deer, if undisturbed, will establish a pattern in their daily routine. Sometimes they may disappear for short periods of time, maybe due to an intruding predator, but they will return to establish their same pattern once again.

Due to hunting pressure, some bucks will become nocturnal. These are often the older, wiser bucks that have survived several seasons and know how the game is played. Your best chance of taking a buck of this caliber would come when he makes a mistake and accidentally steps out just before dark, during legal shooting time.

If this happens -- and believe me, it does! -- you'd better be ready for that one and only opportunity. The chances of it happening again are slim to none.

8. Ambush Tactics
Whether you plan to hunt from a natural blind, a pop-up blind or a tree stand, make sure that the spot you choose will be always downwind of your target area. Monitor and determine the exact direction in which wind currents are blowing during both the morning and evening hours.

Thermals will change direction throughout the day. During early morning hours, they'll begin traveling upward toward ridgetops as the heat of the day begins to increase.

The opposite usually occurs during the period just before dusk.

In order to compensate for changes in wind direction, it's always a good idea to have two ambush sites within range of your target area. After all your preparation and hard work, you don't want a trophy buck to scent you because your setup lies upwind.

Over the last few years, I've taken many very nice deer -- including a state-record blacktail -- with the aid of a trail camera.

If you use it properly, this valuable piece of hunting equipment will enhance your scouting and ha

ve a tremendous impact on the success of your upcoming deer season.

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