By Jeff Johnston
Trail cams have revolutionized the way many Americans hunt deer, to the point that some of the old-school think they’re an unfair advantage. After all, in past times the best trick a buck could pull was going underground during daylight hours and never letting you know he even existed. But we're not here to judge legal hunting methods. What we are here to do is to caution you that there is a flipside to using trail cams. Becoming overly dependent on them can degrade your chances of success. Here’s how to avoid falling into the trail cam trap.
The Confidence Factor
I believe confidence is one factor of several that can increase or decrease your odds of bagging a big buck. If you’re confident your setup is right, it usually is. With confidence, you’re likely to stay in the field longer and be more focused while you’re there. Yet while trail cams can boost your confidence by revealing the existence of a bruiser, they can also destroy it by revealing nothing.
Several years ago my hunting buddy Chad bought six cameras and placed them over food plots. He saw plenty of bucks and does but no shooters, so on opening day he opted to hunt another property. Chad let his neighbor and his son hunt the primary property, thinking a doe would be a perfect first deer for the youngster.
The 15-year-old shot a 155-incher.
Whether the buck was living there and just avoided the cameras or was cruising out of his core area mattered little. Chad based his decision to not hunt the property because he placed 100-percent trust in his trail cams and failed to use his learned knowledge of the area.
I’ve seen other guys decline to even go hunting unless a shooter buck is captured on camera. To me, this is crazy. After all, in hunting, like fishing, there is always an element of luck. The only thing you know with 100-percent certainty is that the only thing you’ll kill from your bed is a bunch of time.
Last year I found a rub line, so I set a cam hoping to learn the size of this serial rubber. Several weeks later, while pulling the memory card, I found a fresh scrape 20 yards behind the camera. When I looked at the card, there was no buck on it, reminding me that a camera’s view of the woods is extremely limited. The vast majority of big bucks I kill during the rut on my property haven’t been captured on camera. Had I not hunted because of what my trail cams didn’t show, I’d still be in bed, crying about my bad luck.
The lesson? Let trail cams influence your hunting decisions by augmenting your scouting data, but don’t let them dominate your decisions or keep you from hunting altogether. Don’t let technology make you lazy.
“Trail cams are great tools to inventory the deer in your area,” says noted big-buck hunter Hank Tassitano. “But if they aren’t placed in easy-to-access areas like food plots or field edges, where you can access them without disturbing the woods, you may be leaving too much scent and doing more harm than good.”
But here’s the catch. Easy-to-access areas are seldom where big bucks hang.
To remedy this, several manufacturers, such as Moultrie, Bushnell, Stealth Cam, and Reconyx, offer cams that use wireless providers to send images directly to your smartphone or computer. You can place a cam in deep cover before the beginning of the season and view its contents without disturbing it. Our forefathers might roll in their graves at our laziness, but this technology is here to stay. Just don’t become too dependent on it, because it can fail—and fail to tell the whole story. But there’s also something else.
Gene Pearcy is the owner of Kansas Whitetail Adventures. He guides dozens of hunters to big bucks each year, and of course, he employs trail cams. But he says he rarely sees giant bucks on cams. Come to think of it, I’ve noticed the same thing. But why?
Pearcy thinks deer can smell them, and the wisest ones associate them with human scent and learn to avoid them. He has a point. After all, electronics have a distinctive scent, a fact proven by dogs that are trained to sniff them out. Deer have better noses than dogs. So it’s no stretch to say deer can smell trail cams.
“I’ve had better luck capturing big deer when I place the camera high and angle it down,” says Tassitano. It’s an observation that may suggest deer—especially wary bucks—do smell trail cams.
Then again, hordes of big bucks have been captured on cams and ultimately killed by hunters. So you should judge for yourself.
The lesson? Do everything you can to mitigate human scent left in the woods and on the cameras while placing them.
Rabbits During the Rut
I’m not the world’s biggest proponent of “patterning” whitetails because so many random things can happen during the course of a day that alters a buck’s movements. But in general, deer are creatures of habit, and so they tend to bed, move, and feed in the area if nothing disturbs them.
This all changes during the rut. During this time of random movement, it’s best to avoid the temptation of investing multiple days in a certain spot just because you saw a photo of a big buck there once. I call this chasing rabbits because if a rabbit is ahead of you he’ll usually dive down a hole where you’ll never get him. Hunting where you saw a rutting buck once is a reactionary response that normally leaves you hunting where the buck was, not where he is or where he will be.
The lesson? In the rut, use trail cams to learn where there are concentrations of does. Remember your past lessons and choose stand locations that naturally funnel or attract deer—not the stand where one buck showed yesterday.
Trail cams are wonderful tools that have allowed many average hunters to become great ones. Just don’t become too dependent on them, because over time they can erode skill, breed laziness, and cause you to follow a buck down a rabbit hole.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.