A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: How to use trails cameras on your property; tips on mounting, retrieving images

This is part two of a two-part series on the evolution of remote cameras from the film era to today’s infrared digital scouting cameras, and how trail cameras are used by deer and wild turkey hunters.

Hunters wish they knew more about the white-tailed deer and wild turkeys on their hunting property. But only so much can be learned from boots on the ground scouting. It’s impossible to be everywhere at once, and there are times a hunter shouldn’t be in the woods, alerting game to human presence.

The solution? Digital scouting cameras, the so-called trail cameras, because they can provide 24-hour surveillance. The modern trail camera, which takes still images and video day and night, evolved when digital photography ended the reign of film in the late 1990s.

Trail camera technology has rapidly advanced in recent years, resulting in the wide range of feature options available today. The most advanced cameras can be programmed to take either still or video during different times of the day, based on user settings. Other advanced features include onboard viewing screens, enabling the hunter to view and edit photos or videos on the camera in the field, without ever removing the SD card.

There are a number of feature options to consider when buying a camera:

What’s the camera’s maximum effective range, which is typically between 40-100 ft. Today’s game cameras are equipped with one of two flash types for night use: a standard (white) LED array, or an “invisible” (black) infrared LED array. A standard LED flash is visible to deer, and some hunters believe white flash cameras spook deer, but there are pros and cons for both flash types. Do your homework before buying.

A wide field of view from a multi-directional image capture is a handy feature. The Wildgame Innovations 360 Cam, for example, is capable of capturing images in a full 360-degrees, making it a great choice for locations where deer may pass in multiple directions. To view details visit www.wildgameinnovations.com

Trail cameras capture still images at different resolutions. A 20-megapixel camera may take beautiful, high-resolution images, but those images may come at the expense of reduced SD card capacity and battery life. As a rule, a 5-to-8-megapixel camera will provide extended battery life and take more photos per SD card, while still delivering acceptable image quality for most purposes.

Video clips can be exciting. You might video a pre-rut buck fight. Many trail cameras that can be programmed to take short video clips of 30 seconds of less. Video can provide information that isn’t always discernible from one camera limited to shooting stills. Small food plots and game trail intersections are great locations for video cameras because they can provide more clues to deer behavior and direction of travel. But be forewarned, video-only use of a trail camera really drains batteries.

From the consumer’s perspective, one of the benefits from all that camera research and product development is a lower price. Today, it’s possible to buy full-featured cameras for just a fraction of what they cost just a few years ago. But read packaging carefully. Not all value-priced cameras are capable of taking both stills and video.

Trail cameras like the Wildgame Innovations Terra 6 or Terra 8 are priced so that hunters can afford to buy multiple cameras, and have the option of both stills and video. When you place cameras in several locations at once, there’s a better understanding of daily movement patterns on larger properties. Since cameras can be programed to provide the date, time and moon phase on images and video, it’s easy to determine the best places to hunt early and late in the day, and where to intercept game as it moves through the property.

An example of the benefits of a network of cameras might be the buck with distinctive antlers that was photographed feeding in a wheat field at midnight, then seven hours later was photographed by a second camera 300 yards away, moving through a ridge saddle in the woods. Let your hunting property’s size and terrain features dictate the number of cameras employed.

Where legal, during the pre-season, place piles of shelled corn in front of cameras to get good closeups of individual deer. In Kentucky, the use of bait is legal on private lands.

Stay away from bedding areas, or areas set aside as “deer sanctuaries” that are never hunted. Place your cameras along the trails leading in and out of these sanctuaries.

Other key locations to monitor deer and turkeys with trail cameras are:

• In late summer, high-use browsing areas, such as clover or alfalfa fields, food plots, or grain fields, are deer magnets. Monitoring over several weeks allows hunters to keep tabs on the antler development of bucks.

• Winter wheat fields planted in the fall, or fields of spring oats planted in March, green up fast and attract turkeys prior to the spring hunting season in April.

• Cameras mounted along trails leading from obvious feeding areas often result in hunters finding areas where bucks “stage” prior to coming out into the open at night.

• When acorns begin to ripen in September, place a camera on the edge of a grove of white oak trees, or beside a large tree that produces a huge crop of acorns. This type of spot is ideal for early season bow hunting. Walk in to hunt with a climbing treestand, and when you leave, switch SD cards in the camera.

• Put cameras near scrapes, and lines of antler rubs, bucks begin to make in the late pre-rut, usually beginning in October in Kentucky.

• As the rut kicks in, funnels are natural. These narrow strips of timber, fence lines, creek bottoms, or crossings at the head of steep draws, are used as shortcuts by roaming bucks looking for does going into estrus.

• Deer often take the easiest route across and along terrain features. Given the opportunity, deer prefer to travel along flat benches that parallel a ridge, where the walking is easier and they can see farther ahead. As the rut approaches, benches become excellent spots to set up a trail camera.

When not deployed, store each camera, with its instruction booklet, two SD cards, and extra batteries in a clear, snap-top box for easy transport and quick set-up. Some hunters keep track of the details of camera placement on a notepad or map.

If you have multiple brands of cameras don’t interchange SD cards. There could be SD card format issues. Set aside two SD cards for each camera. If you have several cameras of the same brand, number each camera, using a piece of paper tape and a felt tip pen.

Tips for Mounting Cameras:

• Position your camera to protect it from direct sunlight. Trail cameras facing east (rising sun) or west (setting sun) can be damaged by bright, direct rays of sunlight since their shutters are always open. The ideal set for a camera is to be in shade, facing north or south.

• Trail cameras should be mounted about five feet or higher off the ground. Some hunters put a stick between the tree and the back of the camera near its top so that the camera is angled downward slightly. This is a must when cameras are mounted high.

• Trees aren’t always where you want them to be when mounting a trail camera, so a metal fence post hammered into the ground is a good alternative.

• Be aware of vegetation growing up in front of the camera. In summer weeds grow fast. Tall weeds or hanging tree limbs can trigger the camera when they sway in the wind, draining your batteries and filling up the SD card with pictures of nothing.

In farm country, deer are accustomed to the noise and traffic of trucks and tractors moving through fields and along farm roads. When retrieving SD cards, many hunters use this to their advantage and drive to camera locations, retrieve the SD card, replace it with another, then drive off.

When traveling on foot, avoid visiting trail cameras early and late in the day, when deer are most active, to retrieve and replace SD cards.

Viewing the images on your SD cards is like being a kid on Christmas morning. But to avoid initial disappointment, do your homework beforehand. Make sure the card reader you buy is compatible with your computer or mobile device’s operating system and software. With the Wildgame Innovations Trail Tab, the hunter simply removes and SD card from the camera, and inserts in the Trail Tab to transfer images and video for future viewing.

I’m on the Macintosh Operating System (MacOS) and wanted to view my images at the house on a full-size computer, so I bought a UNITEK USB 3.0 card reader. I plug the card reader into my iMac and when I insert the SD card, the Nikon photo software that I installed in my computer opens up, displaying all the images from the card. At that point, images can be deleted from the SD card, saved, or downloaded to my computer’s desktop. It’s a fast and easy way to view and edit images and video. Every time I visit the trail camera, I simply switch SD cards.

There’s a lot to like about trail cameras. They are affordable, small, noiseless, powered by AA batteries, and hundreds of high-quality images taken day and night can be stored on a single SD card.

Tech anxiety? No problem, if you can figure out how to use a smartphone, trail cameras are a snap. You’ll enjoy monitoring the wildlife on your property, and the odds of taking the wild game you pursue will be greatly increased.

1Art Lander Jr.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the NKyTribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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