What Your Trail-Cam Photos Are Telling You

You've collected hundreds, maybe thousands, of trail-cam photos of deer on your hunting property, but what does it really mean and how do you apply the information to your fall hunting plans?

Trail cameras have taken their place among the most significant tools in deer hunting -- and in deer management. That's especially true when camera users go beyond the routine of simply collecting hundreds of photos and looking for "nice bucks." Anyone can do a lot more with all those photos. Here are some tips to help you do just that.

This doe, obviously a good mother, has produced three fawns. But is that good news or bad for your deer herd?
Photo by Chuck Sykes.

Jason Snavely is a wildlife biologist who works with hunters and landowners all over the country through his Drop-Tine Wildlife Consulting business. Snavely is an expert at 1) using trail cameras and 2) analyzing photos to develop truly useful data.

"Trail camera surveys generally are done in the summer, when bucks are still in velvet," Snavely asserted. "We know that as soon as bucks shed velvet, their whole attitude changes."

We'll deal with how that change affects your use of trail cameras later. For now, however, you can concentrate on analyzing the photos to help you plan your hunting this fall.

Snavely's recommendations are critical to that plan. After completing your survey, it's imperative to go through all the photos to identify "unique" bucks. "We completed a survey for a client that produced more than 1,100 photos of bucks," he said. "After going through all of the photos to specifically identify deer, we determined that those 1,100 photos included 55 unique bucks."

After reducing the raw numbers to a more accurate view of the buck population on the property you hunt, the next step is more important. Take the time necessary to use the body characteristics to age all of the unique bucks as accurately as possible. Because of resources such as posters and books available from organizations like the Quality Deer Management Association (www.QDMA.com), many hunters and landowners already age their bucks on the hoof. If you don't, you should start. Here's why.

Antlers alone don't tell the whole story. After going through your photos and determining the number of unique bucks on the property you hunt, you may decide there's one particular buck you want to hunt because of the size and/or look of its rack. Using available information on body size and characteristics, you could discover that -- yes -- the buck has reached maturity. But maybe it's only 3 1/2 years old.

What will it look like at 4 1/2 '¦ or 5 1/2? Aging bucks on the hoof is imperative if you want to achieve the best hunting prospects on your land. It could be that you eliminate the "best-looking buck" from the camera survey for that season -- because it still has a year or two before it reaches "perfection."

Using photos to age deer on the hoof also will help you improve your ability to do so in real time. That can be important if/when you book a hunt with an outfitter in another area or another state, and you have to make hunting decisions in a few seconds. Even on your own property, it can come in handy during the rut because bucks' ranges inevitably expand when they're focused on finding and breeding does. That's the time of the hunting season when you're most likely to see bucks that never show up in your trail camera photos.

By the time most hunting seasons open, bucks have shed their velvet. As Snavely said, their attitude changes when that happens. That's the time to place cameras in any number of spots so you can begin patterning the buck or bucks you want to hunt.

"Placing cameras along major trails is a good idea," Snavely said. "You also should have them at the edges of food plots if you have them, and also in areas where there is hard or soft mast for them."

Natural bottlenecks along travel routes also are great spots.

Here's a yearling buck and a 4-year- old. You surely can pass up the yearling, but should you shoot the 4-year-old?
Photo by Chuck Sykes.

There is no denying that bucks' attitudes change when they come out of velvet. There also is no debating the fact there is a period when they will be most predictable and consistent in their movements. You can use that fact -- and your trail camera photos -- to plan stand locations and hunting strategies from opening day through the peak of rutting activity.

"The clients I work with who are the most consistent in taking mature bucks do so by following that rationale," Snavely said. "When rutting activity starts, you have to focus on the does -- not the bucks. They are going to focusing on the does; not food, not cover ... nothing else. If you follow the does during the rut, you're going to see the bucks you're after.

"However," he continued, "using trail cameras to patterns the unique bucks you identified from your summer survey gives you the information you need to place stands and know when to hunt those stands based on buck movement. That's a critical way that cameras can help you beyond your annual surveys."

Snavely said that approach can be most important on small properties because the additional photos can help you see which deer are "hanging out" where you hunt. "I spend way more time with clients' trail cameras and photos than I do my own," Snavely said with a laugh. "When I finally did pull my cameras last year and analyzed the photos, I discovered a clean 8-point that scored 151 4/8 and another 140-class buck that hung out on my place."

Some hunters and landowners believe that being proactive with habitat and deer management involves more money than they can afford or are willing to spend. The trail camera photos you use to identify the bucks using your property every season also can help you determine a management approach that might produce good results without a big price tag.

"People who buy into the concept of managing the deer herd using their property and managing the habitat on it have plenty of good information at their fingertips in those trail camera photos," Snavely said. "One key, however, is understanding that this is not a 'one and done' deal. The more annual surveys you complete, the more information you have to he

lp determine trends on your property. Successful management involves doing the work necessary to impact the trends you don't want."

You can use the photos to develop accurate estimates of the numbers of unique does and fawns using your property by applying the numbers you gained from bucks. If, say, 1,127 photos of bucks helped you determine a "unique" population of 55 antlered deer, apply the percentage to the total numbers of doe photos, and then fawn photos.

Divide 55 by 1,127 and you get .048. Now, let's say you have 2,349 does in your photos. You haven't tried to identify them yet. It's the raw number, like the 1,127 buck photos. Multiply the 2,349 by .048. You get 131.9; so, say 132 does. Do the same thing with the raw number of fawn photos.

You begin to get an accurate "snapshot" (no pun intended!) of the deer herd you're dealing with. But it is, indeed, just a snapshot because it only covers one survey. What if you have those numbers covering the past four to five years? Do you see how you can begin identifying trends?

"When it comes to taking management steps to improve the quality of your deer, their habitat and your hunting," Snavely said, "you need to do camera surveys over a period of years. Analyze the information you gather. When you have more than one year's worth of data, you can begin to ID trends, then react to that with management steps like improving natural vegetation or adding food plots -- or even creating sanctuaries that will help hold deer on your property.

"The more information you have to compare from year to year, the better job you'll be able to do of identifying trends," he added. "You gain a more accurate, data-based look at the deer population. That will help you modify or set goals for any management steps you take. You'll get a baseline that you can use to measure the success of anything you do by continuing the surveys and comparing the data you gather."

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