A few paces inside a tree line that borders an open field thick with chest-high grass lies a tangle of narrow, sun-dappled game trails just a stone’s throw from the Kentucky River below.
Bo Spencer knows deer, turkey, raccoon and the occasional bobcat travel these thoroughfares because a trail camera he set up to photograph the spot has captured images of them.
He’s returned this morning to swap out the SD card, replace the batteries and see that the unit is operating properly before moving on to do the same with trail cameras deployed elsewhere on his family’s central Kentucky farm.
“You can’t spend 24 hours a day in the woods when you work and have family obligations but the camera can,” said Spencer, an information specialist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “You can see what’s there that you don’t get to see.”
Trail cameras have evolved from somewhat of a novelty to one of the most sophisticated and useful tools available to hunters, landowners and wildlife biologists. Biologists use them for research purposes and to derive density estimates.
For hunters, setting trail cameras out now can heighten excitement about the approaching hunting seasons and pay dividends once those seasons open later this summer and fall.
“Your camera can scout when you can’t,” said Spencer, an avid deer and turkey hunter who makes his own turkey calls. “Whether it’s a big deer, turkey or another species that you’re looking for, you can find out where it’s at. Right now, deer are holding to a summer pattern. You can kind of gear up in preparation for the early archery season.”
The summer pattern for deer is characterized by limited movement. Therefore, areas near food sources and along travel corridors leading to and from those areas should be a focus.
“Bucks aren’t spending a lot of time on their feet. They feed at night or around sunrise and sunset and bed during the day,” said Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “Your female deer are going to move more because they’re feeding fawns. Their nutrient intake needs to be higher, so they’ll move a little more.
“The pattern really changes right about the time our archery season opens in early September.”
Setting a trail camera in an easy-to-access location minimizes disturbance to the area. Patience can limit pressure felt by the animals. Spencer generally waits one to two weeks before checking a trail camera.
“If I’ve got one around water that can fluctuate up and down if we get a rain, I’ll go move it up, take it down, whatever I need to do to make sure it doesn’t wash away or get swamped,” he said. “I almost lost a camera to rising water last year.”
The right mounting height for a trail camera may depend on the species of animal most likely to be encountered as well as the surrounding vegetation. Wind-blown tall grass or leaves can trip a camera, eating up memory and diminishing battery life.
In general, 36 to 48 inches off the ground is a good rule of thumb. Hunters may want to place their trail cameras higher to get them out of an animal’s sight line and above vegetation or if there are concerns about security.
Where the camera is pointed can make a big difference in image quality. Position the camera so the lens isn’t pointed directly in the direction of the rising or setting sun. Direct sunlight can cause “lens flare” and reduce image quality. Angling the lens downward can safeguard against this effect.
Batteries are the lifeblood of the trail camera. Spencer doesn’t skimp. He prefers name-brand alkaline batteries.
The newest trail cameras take high-resolution photos and high-definition video. Some models can wirelessly text photos to mobile phones or email accounts. Those photos may be stamped with the date and time but also the temperature, barometric pressure and moon phase.
Spencer considers three primary things when choosing a trail camera: ease of use, quality of the pictures and features. He prefers at least an 8 megapixel camera paired with a 4 gigabyte SD memory card.
“You don’t have to break the bank but you do want to weigh the options and get one that’s going to have really good picture quality,” Spencer said. “You could buy an inexpensive trail camera but you may not get a good array of features or good battery life or quality pictures.”
Spencer uses three types of trail cameras that vary in cost.
“Mostly, I have infrared cameras because they’re often the most affordable,” he said. “A lot of times, people use black flash cameras in high-traffic areas where they’re trying to hide them from people. White flash cameras are going to produce good night pictures. I really like to use my white flash camera in the fall and winter to take pictures of predators at night. They also work well for deer over a mineral site. The infrared pictures get the black and white at night but can have a limited flash range.”
As a hunter would sight-in a rifle or pattern a shotgun before a hunting season, take time to read the owner’s manual and familiarize yourself with the trail camera’s features and functions. In turn, it will reward you with beautiful images and valuable insight into the land and the animals on it.
Editor’s Note: Author Kevin Kelly is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Get the latest from Kelly and the entire Kentucky Afield staff by following them on Twitter: @kyafield.