Trail cameras are fun. They’re also helpful when trying to pattern white-tailed deer. And for those hoping to arrow a big buck on opening day, trail cams can put you in the best position possible if you follow these 10 steps.
Step 1: Prep Your Cameras
Prepping cameras is important. Keeping them in top condition ensures they’ll run longer and more efficiently. Begin by removing old batteries. Check the contact points for corrosion, dirt and other debris. Clean as needed. Next, check all seals and weather stripping to ensure everything is watertight. Reinstall the batteries, insert a formatted SD card, and program the camera with the correct settings. Having the correct dates and time is very important when patterning deer.
Step 2: Scout on Foot
Trail cameras have earned their place in scouting, but don’t abandon your boots. I use mine as much as ever to scout on foot. Now, though, I use trail cameras to confirm my scouting finds. Search for tracks, trails, old rubs, scrapes and other deer sign to learn how deer use the property. Note everything on an aerial map.
Step 3: Identify Core Bedding, Feeding and Watering Areas
As you search for sign, also pinpoint bedding areas, and food and water sources. Again, mark these finds on your aerial map. Combine this information with other deer sign you find to help connect the dots. Make as little impact as possible when scouting. Avoid sites where you expect to bump deer.
Step 4: Analyze Your Maps and Scout from Afar
Now study the aerial map you’ve marked up. If you do your field work properly, you’ll soon learn how deer use the property. Once you’ve studied all your information — and you have a decent idea where to start — scout the food sources from afar. Retreat several hundred yards and glass large farm fields, food plots and other open areas late in the day. The goal is to confirm what you found while scouting. But things don’t always work that way. Sometimes you disprove what you thought you knew. That said, don’t make preseason assumptions based on one scouting mission. Go another time or two to confirm your findings.
Step 5: Hang Cameras in Noninvasive, High-Traffic Locations
Now it’s time to hang a camera. Choose noninvasive, high-traffic areas where deer congregate often, but not so remote that you can’t easily check them from a truck or ATV. That helps reduce pressure by leaving little scent. I like to focus on water, scrapes, funnels, field edges, pinch-points, fence crossings, ditch crossings and other hotspots.
Step 6: Check Cameras and Move Them as Needed
If opening day is still a month or two away, I leave my cameras out for a couple of weeks before checking them. That gives deer plenty of time to hit the cameras. When checking the units, I don’t move any camera that captures a target buck. I move unproductive cameras closer to those that took photos of bucks I want to target.
Step 7: Repeat Previous Steps
Repeat the previous steps every week or so. That should gradually put you closer to patterning a mature buck. Deer often repeat activities day to day this time of year. If you spot a good deer in the area, apply a little more sweat and strategy, but check your cameras less often once you’ve moved them enough to get a good read on what they’re doing. You don’t want to risk pressuring deer. Once my cameras are where they need to be, I check them no more than monthly.
Step 8: Zero in on the Core Area
Moving unproductive cameras to new locations should help you pinpoint a buck’s core area. While getting a buck on camera likely means you’ve found part of its home range (roughly 650 acres), pinpointing its core area (about 30 to 50 acres) — and learning how a buck uses it — is crucial if you want to slip in close enough to kill it.
Step 9: Hang Stands in High-Traffic Areas
You have two treestand options once you’ve patterned a deer. If you plan to hang treestands in advance, consider hanging stands for at least two wind directions. That provides more options and increases the odds you’ll have a suitable stand site on any given day. Learn which direction deer will likely come from, and where they’ll likely go, to position your stand for specific winds.
Step 10: Stay Out of There
Patterning deer doesn’t have to be difficult, but you must avoid areas you plan to hunt. Intruding every few days — or even weekly — can alert deer and hinder your efforts to pattern a buck and arrow it on opening day. Remember: Check your cameras regularly only while zeroing in on a core area. After that, don’t risk it.
Instead, stick to this 10-step plan to wrap your tag around a big whitetail this fall.