Running trail cameras in the West can be as effective for big game such as elk and mule deer as it is for our eastern whitetail brethren, but since so much of the western hunting grounds are public property, it is a much different game than using them on private property.
Trail cameras are frequently stolen or tampered with by unethical folks, and even hunters with higher moral fiber (but protective of a hunting spot) will sometimes take a look at the images on your camera card and delete images of particularly interesting animals in hopes that you’ll go elsewhere.
Also, stringing a set of cameras across a big tract of public land is a lot of work. In many cases, the use of ATVs is prohibited, so those cameras must be hung and tended on foot—sometimes for miles.
Here’s how to place your trail cameras for the best pictures, minimize chance of theft, keep nosy but honest folks out, and glean the most information from the info the camera gathers.
Feed, Water, and Cover
When hunting areas are measured in square miles rather than in acres, picking the right spots for your cameras is critical to success. And you can’t really plant a food plot to play the crowd, either. Although cameras are fantastic scouting tools, you’ve got to pay the scouting piper and wear out some boot soles finding high-traffic game areas before your cameras can give you the feedback you want.
We’re pretty much talking elk and mule deer here, and spring, summer, and early fall scouting because bucks and bulls get a lot less predictable and a lot more nomadic as soon as they shed their velvet in mid to late August. During those preseason months, males of both species tend to like secluded areas that provide feed, water, and cover all close together, minimizing the effort they have to put in and the exposure they encounter while accessing them.
Get off the beaten path and wander the country, looking for hidden, hard-to-access spots with those three elements. Stalk through looking for bucks and bulls summering. It will take time, but eventually you’ll find big deer or bulls standing from their beds in surprise, staring at you before fading into a nearby thicket. Deer don’t smell much, but an area loved by summering bachelor bulls will reek with the rich aroma of elk.
Glassing can help you find those bedroom areas, too. Get up high and glass the early morning and late evenings, finding where bucks and bulls feed along the meadow fringes and where they disappear into thickets to bed. Once you stumble into a spot that combines all of these desirable attributes, spend a quiet hour wandering around it, looking for trails, water crossings, and beds. If you can hang a trail camera within 50 yards of all three, the photographic rewards will be rich.
The Hanging Tree
Once you find the magic spot(s), take the time to find the right tree to hang your trail camera on. Ideally, face the camera north, which minimizes the sun hitting the lens and causing flares in your photos. Failing that, hang it facing south, where the flares will be during times of low game movement. Avoid hanging a camera facing east or west, where the morning or evening sun will pretty well ruin your chances of getting good photos half the day.
I used to hang cameras between waist and chest height. Recently, I’ve begun hanging them higher, with a slight downward tilt, to avoid more sky/horizon. The result is more evenly exposed images with less blown-out areas of light sky. As when hanging a camera anywhere, get it tightly strapped into place and use a wedge or twig to tweak the angle to perfection.
Once you’ve got the camera hung, it’s time to people-proof it as much as possible. In reality, if someone wants to steal your camera badly enough, they’re going to get it done. But wiring or cabling the camera to the tree makes it a lot harder to steal, and as my buddy Wes Hogan puts it, putting a small padlock on the camera door “keeps the honest folks out.” These are the guys who will look at—and sometimes delete—your photos but would never think of actually stealing the camera.
I carry a roll of high-tensile-strength wire and a stout Leatherman tool as standard-issue trail-cam gear, and I wire every camera tightly to the tree, then cut off the wire ends to make it impossible to untwist by hand. Hogan goes one better. Using quarter-inch cable with loops crimped into each end, he screws the cameras to the tree with a compact cordless drill and odd-head screws that can’t be removed without the correct, specialized bit.
Homemade or commercial camera cages provide the best protection of all from theft and from bears, which like to mess with trail cameras. However, cages are expensive and heavy. If you’re stringing a dozen cameras deep into wilderness country and tending them on foot, cable or wire is more feasible.
Before leaving your camera, run it for a minute or two and ensure that the photos encompass the area you want and that the camera is straight. Put the card back in, turn it on, double-check that it’s on (few things are more heartbreaking than a camera left “off” for several critical weeks after all the work you put in to placing it), and put a small padlock on the camera door if possible.
With your camera hung, it’s well worth putting out, where legal, an attractant, such as Trophy Rock or one of the other proven buck and bull lures. In reality, packing all that in on your back is one of the more punishing sides of setting and maintaining trail cameras on public land.
Sleuthing The Photos
If you read between the lines, trail-cam photos will provide a lot of information beyond just the size of the local bucks or bulls. You can pick out and study certain individuals, so as to know them at a glance should you jump them during hunting season and have to decide in a fleeting second whether to shoot. Watching the date stamp on the photos, you can learn when animals begin stripping the velvet from their antlers and then predict the behavioral change sure to follow.
When predictable individuals disappear and new ones appear, you’ll know that testosterone is beginning to flow and the rut is imminent. A helpful tip to elk hunters: This is the time to begin shifting cameras to nearby elk wallows, because they’re about to quit hitting your attractant.
It’s difficult to know whether you’ll feasibly be able to hunt a mule deer or elk you’ve gotten to know over the summer. Some will stay in the area, particularly during early archery seasons, but others will wander far. Perhaps you’ll find them on other trail cameras strung across the area, perhaps you’ll never see them again.
Whether you end up shooting an animal you’ve trail-cammed through the summer, being in the woods and seeing the photos you achieve is reward enough in itself.