Trail cameras are among the most-important scouting tools available to hunters today. Except for states like Arizona, which recently outlawed these incredible scouting tools, most American hunters enjoy the benefits of these full-time scouting aides. Fortunately, in most states, these can be used all season long, and make for a great in-season strategy.General Trail Camera Strategy. As with any scouting effort, the goal is to learn something. These things include where deer are bedding, feeding, watering, staging, traveling, etc. Of course, deer change their behavior and habits throughout the year. Being able to shift trail cameras as deer shift is an important aspect of using them. Staying ahead of them is part of being consistently successful.
It isn’t easy to predict what deer do before they do it. Fortunately, there are things we can learn with this technology during fall and winter. We can refine camera use to get meaningful info throughout each phase of the season.
Every property is different, though, and while general information is good, know that it’s important to learn your property as well as possible. General information applies to most areas, but you never know how deer behave in each area until you scout it. Fortunately, this comprehensive trail camera plan will help you determine just that.HuntStand Can Help. Before we jump into each phase of deer season, it’s important to express just how beneficial HuntStand is for the trail camera process. It can play a huge part from start to finish.
One useful tip is using the app to help choose trail camera locations. HuntStand helps you pinpoint these places before stepping foot on the property, and the list is extensive. Here are some of the best: Benches, brush piles, clear cuts, drainage ditches, early successional growth, inside field corners, islands, leeward ridges, ridge endings, outcroppings, overhangs, oxbows, ridge hubs, saddles, small woodlots, water seeps, food sources, water sources, staging areas, solar bedding, thermal bedding, traditional edges, and other areas that offer food or security are important areas to deer.The most obvious feature is the ability to mark your trail camera locations. Those who’ve used them for very long have likely forgotten (at least once) where they hung one. Sometimes, you stumble upon them weeks, months, or years down the road. Other times those cameras are gone for good. But that doesn’t have to happen when you keep track of your cams in the HuntStand app.It’s also important to check the HuntStand wind direction tool when checking cameras. The scent you leave behind when checking trail cameras is no different than when hunting. Deer smell human stench either way, and immediately translate it to pressure. So, when checking cameras, make sure scent isn’t blowing into likely bedding areas, and other places deer frequent. It’s just as smart to check cameras with a good wind as when hunting.
With that, let’s dive into the best plays for each phase of deer season. Learn the windows for each phase (the when), where to post cameras (the where), and additional tips (the how).Early Season Strategies. The early season is best defined by bachelor groups, consistent bed-to-feed patterns, and predictable travel routes. Generally, those who put the time in can rely on the intel they compile.
The When: For most deer hunters, especially north of the 35th latitude, the early season lasts from opening day to about October 15.The Where: Certain areas are better spots for cameras than others. The rut isn’t here yet, and virtually all deer are on bed-to-feed patterns. Whitetails eat hundreds of different foods throughout the country, and so, finding what deer are targeting where you hunt is the key.
In ag country, deer are still targeting alfalfa, milo (sorghum), soybeans, (dry) standing corn, and more. Food plot species such as clover, cowpeas, iron clay peas, lablab, and other legumes are solid early season picks. Planting these is a surefire way to draw early season deer.Don’t overlook mast. Hard mast, such as acorns found within the red and white oak families, are key. Just remember that deer prefer white oaks due to their lower levels of tannin. These are sweeter, and don’t have the more bitter taste that red oak species do. Naturally, white oak species are cleaned up by deer first, and generally don’t last through the end of the early season phase.
As for bedding, deer are likely bedding in areas where it’s cool. These areas might be north-facing slopes, near waterways, and in low-lying areas.
The How: Deer are fairly unpressured. We want to keep it that way. Position cameras in a manner where these are concealed, but not so much that brush, limbs, and leaves get in front of lenses. Wear gloves while handling cameras and spray them down with scent killer afterward.Pre-Rut Strategies. As testosterone begins to rise, bucks start changing their behaviors, habits, and movements. It’s a period of transition, and deer continue to shift. Moving cameras accordingly is necessary.
The When: For most deer hunters, especially north of the 35th latitude, the pre-rut typically lasts between October 16 to 31.The Where: Bucks that hadn’t already are certainly settling into their fall ranges now. These can be the same as their summer haunts, or 10 miles away. It’s different for every deer.
Nonetheless, food sources are changing, too. This affects deer behavior and travel patterns as well. For example, green soybeans are no longer viable. Some deer will eat yellow or dry soybeans if better food sources aren’t available, but it’s limited. Most cornfields are shelled now, too, which means deer will be searching for waste grains.Popular food plot species are changing, too. Clover is still good, and some other legumes are, too. But so is buckwheat, chicory, and other options.
Mast crops are changing, too. Most of the white oak acorns (which produce every year) are cleaned up now. But red oak species (which produce every other year) will likely last well into fall and winter, acorn load depending. Soft mast, such as apples, pears, persimmons, plums, and more, are very attractive to deer, too.
Bedding areas are beginning to change. Deer are shifting away from cooler bedding and focusing more on thicker cover. This is especially true as hunting pressure ramps up and leaves fall. Other areas to consider include islands, ridge endings, oxbows, ridge hubs, small woodlots, and more.Now is also a great time to post cameras over emerging rut sign, such as rub and scrape lines. To get more daylight photos, focus on those that are located along staging areas and within cover. To reduce pressure and get more nighttime photos, post cams over field-edge scrapes.
The How: Deer are starting to feel hunting pressure. Because of this, it’s best to be even more careful when using trail cameras. First, in high-impact areas, place cellular cameras with long-lasting external battery sources. This prevents the need to check the cameras in person and to frequently replace batteries. Secondly, hang cameras higher and angle them downward. This keeps the cams out of their line of sight, and works especially well over scrapes. Early Rut Strategies. For the most part, the pre-rut is over. This is the phase when even the mature bucks start moving frequently.
The When: For most deer hunters, especially north of the 35th latitude, the early rut lasts from about November 1 to 10.
The Where: Aforementioned food sources are still good trail camera locations, but it’s time to start shifting strategies, at least in part. Still, find whatever deer are keying on the most at the given time.
If scrapes haven’t gone cold, these are still good camera locations. Rub lines are less important now. But don’t put too much stock in these, as bucks will vacate them as they really begin searching for does.
Most does aren’t entering estrus yet, though, but some are. So, hunters should also start thinking about moving trail cameras to benches, saddles, pinch points, and other areas that bucks frequent during their rut-time travels.
The How: Bucks are starting to run around with their heads unscrewed. Deer move fast during the rut, so make sure cameras are set to the fastest trigger speeds and intervals between images. Burst mode works wonders during the rut. That said, don’t rely too much on cameras during the rut. They simply don’t tell the entire story. Just because you don’t have a buck on camera doesn’t mean one (or several) aren’t nearby.Peak Rut Strategies. This is the timeframe when most does enter estrus. Generally, bucks pair off with them for 24 to 48 hours, and they’ll find the most-secluded spots possible.
The When: For most deer hunters, especially north of the 35th latitude, the peak rut lasts from about November 11 to 20.
The Where: As stated, bucks are tending does in the most-secluded areas they can find. Their goal is to get does away from the bulk of the herd. These areas include brush piles, drainage ditches, small woodlots, and other oddball locations.
Don’t forget about traditional rut spots, though, such as pinch points and saddles, food sources, bedding areas, or staging areas. Bucks frequent these areas between does to find more of them. This is especially true for doe bedding areas.
The How: Much like during the previous phase, it’s a fast-paced time in the deer woods. Make sure cameras are operating on the best, meaning fastest, settings. Late/Post Rut Strategies. Things are finally slowing down, but mature bucks with gas left in the tank are still roaming the landscape in search of the last does. That said, most of the rut activity is over.
The When: For most deer hunters, especially north of the 35th latitude, the late rut lasts from about November 21 to about December 10.
The Where: Now that most rutting is over, it’s best to start shifting back to a bed-to-feed-pattern frame of mind. Except for some bucks that are still searching for does, that’s what most deer are doing now.
Soft mast is long gone, but some hard masts, such as red oak acorns, likely remain. When oaks are all gone, deer even eat hickory nuts, among other options. Deer are also eating forbs and other natural greens. Browse is on the table, too. Any available food plot species such as clover, cut (or standing) corn, standing soybeans, oats, wheat, and other sources are getting hit hard as well.
Deer are beginning to shift back toward their winter ranges. This means new bedding areas, and ones that offer them security from hunters. Try posting cameras on the fringes of south-facing benches, islands, leeward (downwind side) ridges, ridge endings, and other areas with early successional habitat, especially those near water sources, such as in-timber seeps.
The How: By now, deer are becoming warier of trail cameras. It’s paramount to use infrared (not flash) models. Hang them up high so deer aren’t as likely to see them. Keep them sprayed down with scent killer. Do everything possible to keep them off the radar.Late Season Strategies. The final phase of deer season is one of the most difficult to hunt, especially if you don’t have necessary food or late-season bedding cover. But if you do, it’s game on.
The When: For most deer hunters, especially north of the 35th latitude, the late season lasts from about December 11 to closing day.
The Where: It’s all about food now. Some does might re-enter estrus, or doe fawns might enter it for the first time, but bucks aren’t actively seeking them out. At this point, it’s largely opportunistic when bucks pair off with does.
Because of this, focus all energy on food sources. Remaining waste grain (or standing crops) in ag fields is dynamite. Remaining acorns are, too. Don’t underestimate browse and forbs. And don’t forget about food plots, such as beets, cereal rye, radishes, turnips, winter peas, etc. Also, where legal, bait is an excellent way to draw in late-season deer.
Thick bedding areas are great, too. Position cameras along solar bedding (South-facing slopes), thermal bedding (coniferous trees, such as cedars, spruce, and pines), clear cuts (which offer bedding and food), and other areas where deer sign suggests whitetails are living there.
The How: The foliage is all gone now. When positioning cameras, make sure these are in areas where you can check them without deer seeing you. This is necessary for reducing pressure. Some Universal Truths. All things considered, there are certain locations that work year-round for trail cameras. Keep in mind that deer are always on the best available food, whatever that is at the time. They’re also hitting the best water sources nearest to the best food, and oftentimes prefer small, secluded water holes over larger bodies of water. Third, the securest bedding is where the biggest of the big bucks will be. And the less hunting pressure around the area, the better. Remember, the best places for your cameras are generally the places you’d like to hunt. Just make sure you check them wisely, and don’t do more harm than good by spooking the local bucks you’re after.