September 29, 2021
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September has always been my favorite month to inventory deer on both the public and private lands that I hunt. The bucks are still in their late-summer patterns, they haven't felt the pressure from human intrusion and they're still pretty focused on socializing and food.
Through the use of trail cameras, I can get a pretty good idea of what whitetails are in the area. The best part is their movements are usually consistent from day to day. But all that changes almost overnight when the calendar turns to October.
As the acorns begin to fall and testosterone levels start to rise, deer begin to change their habits. What was once a predictable, bed-to-food-to-bed daily pattern shifts to what amounts to a vanishing act. To be successful in October, you need to first understand what it is deer are doing during this time. Then you need to follow up by locating and patterning these bucks where you are hunting.
I've found the best way to find and pattern October bucks is by moving my trail cameras. While September is good for cams over bait (where legal), food plots and low-impact areas, October brings on a new strategy.
At this time of the year, by strategically relocating my trail cameras, I not only capture some of the best images of the bucks in my area, I put myself in position to successfully harvest a mature buck year after year.
Scrapes and Mock Scrapes
By far my favorite place to move my trail cameras to in October is over scrapes and mock scrapes. Although hunting over a scrape may not be the best option, as most scrape activity occurs at night, placing your trail cameras near them can really help you get a sense of what bucks are in your area.
Scraping activity increases in October, and while scrapes are visited by all deer, bucks tend to interact with them the most. This offers a great opportunity to not only capture the bucks on your property but also provide insight to help in patterning them. If you are familiar with the bedding and feeding areas, trail cameras over scrapes can provide an idea as to how they use the land.
When setting up my scrape trail cameras, I do a few things. If I’m monitoring scrapes near a field edge, I’ll first hang a cam near the lowest lying scrape in the field (we’ll get into this more in the next section). Next, I’ll look for scrapes that are near a major game trail where a buck may stop quickly, even if he doesn’t plan on entering the field. If I’m not focusing on field scrapes, my goal is to find the largest, most popular scrape in the area and hang a cam there.
My settings for the trail cameras over scrapes are simple. I prefer a camera that has a black flash to minimize exposure, and will hang it about 20 feet away from the scrape at waist level to hopefully capture a full-body image. I set it on three-burst mode with a 60-second delay. With these settings, I am able to capture multiple images of deer and get a good look at their body size and antler characteristics. I opt for a minute-long delay since does often visit scrapes more than bucks, and a shorter delay will quickly lead to a full SD card. My goal is to capture several images of a buck, try to determine where he is coming from and going to, and use this information to help me set up my evening or morning stands.
Low-Lying Field Edges
I have often found when fields are close to bedding areas, deer will enter them in the evening at their lowest point. I believe this has a lot to do with thermals. As cool evening air pushes down on the warm air, scent is carried from higher spots across the field into these low-lying areas. These are great spots for treestands, but don’t over-hunt them—getting in and out can be difficult, and you can do more harm than good sometimes. Instead, try to split the difference between these field entry points and known bedding areas and set up there. This will allow you to exit and enter without bumping deer off the field or out of their beds.
Here again, my trail camera settings are photo-only. But, instead of a 60-second delay or burst, I set my camera to capture with zero delay and only one photo at a time. I’ll look for trailheads where deer may come in and out of the wood line and try to set up there. If I can’t find one, I’ll try to locate any type of bottleneck in the field that might force deer to move closer to my camera, or else I’ll look for areas that show heavy browsing. These areas are often visited over and over by the same deer. Many people believe deer prefer the edges, and although there is some truth to that, many will not hesitate to feed in the middle of fields. Finding where they are entering and leaving in a low-lying area can help increase your chances at capturing images of the majority of the deer using a given field.
I never used to focus on bedding areas. Growing up it was all about acorns and clover fields. And while acorns are a major food source of deer in October, trying to get a buck to walk in front of your camera on a large oak flat can be difficult. It’s often even harder to hunt a deer on an oak flat during daylight hours. Eventually I grew tired of one frustrating hunt after another and started hunting and hanging my trail cameras closer to the bedding areas.
The bedding areas are sanctuaries on my private properties. If I know where they are on public land, I also try to avoid them there unless I’m crashing in for a hunt and know I won’t be returning that season. Deer feel safe in bedding areas, and the closer you get the more risk is involved when hunting them. Additionally, continually checking trail cameras near a bedding area will send up a red flag and push deer to another location. The goal is to use these locations to gather information to pattern your deer and avoid entering and exiting as much as possible.
I’ll never move my trail cameras to bedding locations unless it’s raining, which helps mask my scent and sound. If I can, I like to get within 75 to 100 yards of a known bedding area, preferably on the predominate downwind side, as I’ve found many bucks will skirt the downwind side of a bed to scent-check for hot does as the rut comes in. I’ll keep my trail cameras low and over areas that have heavy deer sign, like droppings, signs of heavy browsing or tracks.
Deer use bedding areas as safe havens, so oftentimes they will have multiple means to access and exit such an area. A cellular cam with an auxiliary battery pack or solar charger is a good idea for minimizing human intrusion. Once you begin to collect images, you can compare the deer you capture to ones on other cameras and begin to pattern them.
My settings for bedding are trail cameras are the same as those of my field edge cams: No delay or burst, just the highest quality image possible. My bed cams also typically have a black flash in order to be as discreet as possible. I’ll often carry a spare trail camera with me that’s ready to go in case I ever have to enter a bedding area to recover a deer or for some other reason. While I’m there, I’ll hang the camera inside the bedding area.
I like to have several cameras on game trails this time of year simply to get a sense of where deer are moving to and from. These cams are very important when it comes to patterning deer because I can compare images from them to those from cams in other locations.
Let’s say there’s a buck I have seen multiple times on a set of scrapes on the north end of a property. He’s been there three out of seven nights around midnight. I also have him two out of those three nights using a particular game trail. Both game-trail images were taken prior to him using the scrape. My goal then would be to move more cameras farther from the scrape along the trail, to try to get daylight images of him. Once I begin to capture daytime or dusk images, that is when I make my move and set up to kill him.
My game trail cameras are set up a little differently. First, I want my cams with the fastest trigger speeds on these locations. Additionally, I’ll use my better-quality trail cameras here because they usually have less image blur, and I can get higher quality images if the deer is moving. I like to have my trail cameras almost perfectly perpendicular to the trail to minimize the chance of being spotted and to provide a full-body image to help with approximating the age of the deer. I’ll set the cam on a two- or three-image burst mode with no delay and try to use the largest SD card possible, as oftentimes they fill up quickly.
Overall, my goal is to collect as much data as possible. Doing so helps me increase my knowledge of the deer herd or even specific deer and establish a hunt plan. With strategic trail cam placements, you’ll put the odds in your favor for greater success this month.
Enter with Caution
Minimize your impact on the herd when moving cams.
Human intrusion or a change from the norm is the most important thing to avoid when running trail cameras. If you often ride an ATV on your property, regularly operate a tractor or walk your dog every day, it may not be a big issue for you to take an ATV across a field to hunt a stand or hang a trail camera. But if you rarely step foot on your property during the off-season and all of a sudden start using an ATV for scouting or hunting purposes, you risk invading the deer’s comfort zone and causing them to no longer feel safe. If deer on your property rarely see human activity, you need to use extra caution come hunting season.
Keep in mind that deer are prey 100 percent of the time. Once you think in that sense, you can understand how even one or two attempts to hunt them will force them to change their habits.
One thing you can control when hanging trail cameras is your scent. I’ll often shower in scent-free soap; wear scent-free clothing, rubber boots and rubber gloves; and use scent-elimination spray. It’s also good to go during or just after a rain, as this will help knock down your scent and minimize the sound you make. Wind, too, will mask noise, and since scent is carried more by the wind than thermals, you can plan your route accordingly.