It’s time to catch up and start using this amazing scouting tool.
As an outfitter whose business depends on putting clients on big deer, Josh Cobb needs all the help he can get. So when he started using trail cameras eight years ago in an attempt to gauge the caliber of bucks that were on his southern Iowa properties, Cobb was floored.
"I was amazed by what the cameras captured that I wasn't seeing through regular scouting," he said.
Since those first bucks started showing up on his trail cameras, Cobb has turned into a junkie, using as many as 15 Moultrie Game Spies and sorting through as many as 100,000 photos in a single year.
He uses cameras in the summer, fall and into the last days of Iowa’s deer season, shifting them to new locations to keep tabs on the giants that roam his land. He’s certain that his overall success has increased dramatically. Cobb arrowed a 165-inch buck that he patterned with the help of a trail camera, and he knows exactly where to put his clients as deer shift their patterns throughout the seasons.
The bad news? For deer hunters born in the era of manual typewriters, vinyl records and Pong, game cameras can be a bit intimidating. They’re high-tech gadgets that require at least some working knowledge of computers.
The good news is these handy tools have become much more user-friendly in the last five years. Most are as simple to use as cell phones or a standard digital camera. You only need to know how to read photos from a memory card, just as you do with any digital camera.
Most trail cameras also offer plug-and-play technology. Just plug the unit into your computer with the provided cord and view the photos on your monitor.
Even better, camera prices have dropped substantially. Some sell for less than $100 and do a fine job. Others with advanced features sell for upwards of $600.
How much you spend matters little if you don’t use a trail camera to its fullest capabilities.
Cobb sets up his cameras in the late spring and checks them about once a week throughout the summer. Like most hunters who use them, he wants to know what’s out there. He typically places cameras near mineral licks and summer food plots, monitoring the deer herd and checking for bucks that are worth targeting.
“They allow me to focus my scouting efforts on specific spots that are holding quality bucks,” he says. “I can get a whole lot more scouting done with trail cameras than by sitting in my truck and watching a single field for the last 30 minutes of daylight.”
As the season draws closer, he moves his cameras to trails leading to and from fall feeding areas. That’s exactly what he did when he captured several images of a giant buck he estimated at more than 180 inches last year.
Cobb set up four cameras on a 350-yard section of fence to try to determine exactly where the buck was coming to and from a cornfield. The bruiser managed to give Cobb’s hunters the slip last season, but not because the guide did anything wrong. He’s careful about staying far away from bedding areas and will rarely venture closer than 500 yards to thick cover. Cobb is also adamant about staying away from his cameras when deer are most likely to be moving.
“If I’m checking them during the hunting season, I only go in during the middle of the day and I’m in and out real quick,” he notes.
When he sets up a camera along a trail, Cobb makes sure it is 15 or 20 feet away — the best distance for most units — and he always angles the camera so it points down the trail, not across it.
Wild Game Innovations product development manager Ron Ferguson agrees. He says angling a camera down a trail gives you a better view of a buck’s antlers, allowing you to judge width and count points. And because many trail cameras have a delay between each photo, a doe walking ahead of a buck can trigger the shutter while the buck walking behind her will pass by without showing up on camera.
“I always recommend setting the camera so it takes two photos five seconds apart if the camera has that capability. That way, you’ll get that doe if she walks by first, but you’ll also get the buck,” he says.
Cobb also learned it’s vital to clear brush, grass and overhanging limbs out of the camera’s view before turning it on and walking away. Limbs or grass blowing in the wind can trigger the sensors, giving you dozens of blank photos. He carries a string trimmer and a set of pruning shears when he sets up a camera in the summer, but he avoids such activity during hunting season.
Ferguson says many beginners inadvertently point their cameras toward the rising or setting sun, which can trigger the camera to take photos, even where there is nothing in the frame. They also aim them too high and miss deer that don’t trigger the sensor.
“You’d be surprised at how many people don’t change the batteries often enough,” says John Viehmann, who works for Trailcampro.com, an Internet site that reviews and sells trail cameras. “Some models have a very short battery life, while others can last for months on a single set.”
Newer cameras can plug into an external battery, which can extend the camera’s usage, and Moultrie sells a solar recharger. Some units also have features like built-in viewers that allow you to see photos in the field without plugging the camera into your computer. However, it’s a good idea to take a look at the pictures on a bigger screen.
“You’ll get a much better idea of what you’re looking at if you see it on a computer monitor,” says Ferguson.
Cobb agrees, adding that the longer you hang around a food plot, trail or feeder, the more scent you’ll put down. Instead of looking at photos in the viewer, Cobb recommends swapping memory cards and getting out quickly.
A few models have electronic lock-out devices that prevent thieves from using the camera, but Viehmann isn’t sure if that’s a necessary feature. A stolen camera is a stolen camera, he says. Instead, he recommends locking the unit to the tree with a cable.
One feature that is important is the trigger speed, adds Viehmann. Some cameras take photos in fractions of a second, while others can take up to four seconds between the time something walks in front of the camera and when the photo is actually taken. That delay can lead to scores of blank photos.
“If you’re setting it up over a food plot or a feeder, then a slower trigger speed won’t matter as much,” notes Ferguson. “However, if you’re monitoring trails, you want a fast trigger speed so you won’t miss any deer that pass in front of the camera.”
Trail cameras also vary in the resolution, or clarity, of the photos they take. Some cameras are as low as 1.3 megapixels, while others are as high as 8 megapixels. The higher the megapixel count, the better the picture quality, but fewer photos will fit on a memory card. Viehmann says larger photos also take longer to sort through on your computer.
“The only real advantage to a larger megapixel count is if you want to blow up the photo and print it,” he says.
So which one is right for you? They all work, of course, so do you really need to spend a week’s salary on a trail camera? Cobb emphatically says no. He’s been using moderate-priced Moultries for years and has had few problems.
“I’d rather get two or three decent ones for the price of one real expensive one. If one wears out, I don’t feel so bad about buying a new one,” he says. Cobb lost one camera set up along a creek after the water rose and covered it.
“I was more concerned about the photos I lost than the camera itself.”
Viehmann, however, says there are differences between low priced cameras and the most expensive ones. He says the high-priced brands use the best components, including the electronic parts inside and the lens and sensors on the outside.
“The more expensive ones are definitely more expensive for a reason. We’ve had very few of the higher-priced ones returned due to malfunctions, and they tend to have a faster trigger speed and clearer photos, even if they take smaller photos,” he says.
No matter what you choose, make sure you use it often. As Cobb says, there’s nothing better than uploading your photos and yelling, “Wow!”
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• Pondering Point Restrictions: Are antler point restrictions the answer to quality buck opportunities? This article was published in the September 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.