March 29, 2021
By Tony J. Peterson
Trail cameras are the go-to scouting strategy for most whitetail hunters these days, but digital recon can go far beyond pinning down a specific buck’s movements.
In fact, to enjoy trail cameras, you might not even need to leave your backyard. The practice of running a cam on a bird feeder or maybe a pile of corn in suburban and even urban settings is more popular than ever.
Not only can this be a lot of fun, but it can expose the secret travels of critters we tend to assume live deeper in more undisturbed woodlots.
I’m reminded of this often by my wife, who shares various social media posts with me from folks who capture images of a wide variety of animals in the suburbs where we live. Of most interest to her are the images of black bears, which are far more common in my part of Minnesota than most folks would assume (myself included). Backyard cameras are truly eye-opening.
This strategy isn’t worthwhile solely for the bird-watchers either. Hunters looking to test out trail camera features and see what their cams are really capable of, can learn an awful lot by doing a run-through in their yard. This can help us fine tune image and video setting so that when we do place them in the woods on a recon mission, we can expect quality results.
What You Need
Obviously, you need a camera. This category has exploded in recent years, with high megapixel, bleeding-edge, tech-heavy offerings coming down in price. What used to cost maybe $250 or more a few years ago can now be had for half of that.
It’s a pretty safe bet that any camera in the $100 - $150 range will do everything you need, including taking quality day and nighttime photos, capture videos, and not break down a week after you get it. If you opt for a cheaper model, of which there are many available, results vary wildly.
Nearly all cameras function off of four to 12 AA batteries, and either a standard size SD card or a micro SD. I used to buy expensive lithium batteries for my cameras that would be left out for weeks in winter temps, but not anymore.
Modern cameras are highly efficient, and I often get half of a year or more out of a single set of run-of-the-mill batteries. When it comes to memory cards, I still opt for higher quality. This is because cheap SD cards are unreliable, and often not built to handle the file size or the data-write speeds of trail camera videos. This is an important consideration if you want HD video clips up to two minutes in length.
To view your images and videos, take a look at your laptop or desktop computer. Does it have an SD card port? If so, you’re in luck. If you don’t have that, you’ll want to pick up a card reader. I have a simple card reader for my smartphone that also works with my tablet because they are made by the same company.
If it’s legal, you can really increase your odds of capturing images by putting out a mineral block or maybe a pile of corn. Check the hunting regulations carefully, and then consider where you’re located. If you’re near a major highway, baiting in deer might not be such a great idea. If you’re in a CWD zone or some other unit where wildlife feeding is prohibited, you want to know that.
Naturally, if you can place bait or some other attractant, you’ll want your camera positioned to capture the visitors. Most people naturally place their cameras about three to four feet up in a nearby tree, but I often like to mount my cameras higher and angle them down. An adjustable camera mount can help in this situation. This angle gives a wider look at the visitors, and provides an interesting angle.
If you can’t put out an attractant, then you’ll want to read the yard or woodlot you’re working with to see where to hang your camera. Where I live, almost everyone in our neighborhood has an acre or two of yard that typically dips down into lower land areas.
These are critter highways and great spots for cameras. Maybe you’ve got a similar situation, or just a small patch of woods to work with, or maybe you just want to see who is munching on your garden at night?
Either way, take a look around and decide where the best bet is for hanging or mounting your camera.
When I put out a camera to scout deer that I plan to hunt, the less intrusion I bring to the woods the better. This means that my cameras might soak for weeks without me returning to check them. Backyard, all-for-fun cams, are different. I’ll check them with my little girls nearly every day that we are home.
Not only is this fun, but it allows me to adjust my camera positioning and settings if I need to. For the latter, if the deer or other critters are only showing up after dark, then I might opt for burst mode with the highest resolution images possible. If they are showing up more in daylight, I might go with video mode.
This is part of the fun, because it’s a low-pressure activity that can allow you to not only get to know your camera, but get to know the animals that have adapted to suburban and urban life. Where I live, I’d have bet anyone quite a bit of money that animals like bears, mink and big bucks were absolutely rare. After running cameras for a few years in my backyard, I’m happy to admit that I was wrong.