The real value of trail cameras lies in their usefulness as a management tool.
At first they were little more than novelties – a fun way to get a sneak peek at whitetails at feeders and in food plots. These days, hunters are using trail cameras for more than just catching a glimpse of nocturnal bucks.
Today’s cameras allow us to gather in-depth data. They not only show us what’s visiting our feeders and plots, they can help pinpoint a specific buck’s daily activity.
Even better, trail cameras also can help us manage our deer herds. They allow us to get a reasonably accurate count of bucks, does and fawns, and that helps us make effective management decisions.
They also do it much better than any other method. Spotlight surveys, track counts and even careful records of daily field observations fail to paint an accurate picture of your whitetail herd.
There’s more to counting deer than placing a camera over a feeder or a pile of corn, however. Fortunately for hunters, the experiences of several researchers have helped smooth the learning curve quite a bit.
BAIT OR NO BAIT?
Most researchers rely on bait to draw deer to a specific location. Others have examined the effectiveness of placing cameras along known deer trails or at random locations throughout a property.
Both methods offer a glimpse into the deer using your property, but experts agree there’s no better or faster way to collect population data than with the use of corn.
Clint McCoy, while a graduate research assistant at Auburn University, tested cameras over bait, along trails and at random locations. Although he did not notice a difference in the ratio of males and females over all survey sites at certain times, he said there was no question drawing deer to a specific location with the aid of bait was considerably more efficient.
Bait also allowed him to get a much more accurate count of the total deer population.
“We got about 460 pictures of deer with cameras placed at random locations, about twice as many on cameras placed on trails and more than 4,000 at feed sites,” says McCoy, who conducted his study on a 637-acre high-fence property in east-central Alabama. The land consisted of warm- and cool-season food plots and a mix of pine and oak forests. The property was hunted, but pressure was skewed heavily toward older bucks.
Corn is an effective way to concentrate deer, but biologist Peter Acker found the most efficient way to draw them to a site was to pre-bait the area for three days. He also experimented with a five-day bait period before he activated his cameras, but he found no difference in the effectiveness between the two.
Acker, who now works as a district biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, conducted his survey on a 400-acre enclosure while a graduate student at Auburn University in 2010 and 2011.
He was the lead author of a paper titled, “Seeking Improved Efficiency of Camera Survey Techniques for White-Tailed Deer.”
“There’s certainly nothing wrong with activating your cameras at the same time you put out bait, but it’s just not as efficient as pre-baiting the area,” he said. “You’ll get the same deer, but you will just have to go through a lot more photos in order to determine your population.”
Sorting through photos might not be a big deal to someone who uses just a camera or two, but those with large properties and lots of cameras have their work cut out for them. That’s why both experts recommend setting cameras to take a photo at 10-minute intervals.
Acker determined that there was no difference in detection rates for cameras set to take photos on 5-minute intervals and those using a 10-minute delay.
Cameras set for 5 minutes took about twice as many photos, but they did not capture any additional deer. Instead, it only added to Acker’s workload.
“Deer tend to linger at bait sites, so there really is no benefit to setting a camera for a shorter delay,” he said. “Ten minutes was adequate. If you don’t get them on one day, you’ll likely get them later in the survey.”
McCoy agrees, but when he placed his cameras along trails, he set the intervals for 30 seconds and adjusted the settings so the camera stayed activated for 30 seconds at a time. That was designed to capture deer walking together. Setting the delay for 10 or even 5 minutes in that situation likely would have missed many deer.
No matter what method you use, it’s critical to put out enough cameras to catch as many unique, or individual, deer as possible. Some hunters suggest placing one camera every 50 acres. However, both researchers agreed the generally accepted camera density is one per 100 acres. That’s because adding more will only capture images of the same deer.
They also agree there’s little point to keeping cameras active for more than 14 days. In both studies, 10 days was enough time to gauge an accurate deer count, although both studies were conducted inside high-fence facilities.
However, McCoy, who now works as a deer biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, used trail cameras on another property and captured 95 percent of the property’s bucks in the first five days.
“After that, we only captured one or two new bucks per day and by the end of the 10th day, we got all we were going to get,” he recalls.
WHERE ARE THE BUCKS?
One problem both researchers discovered was that bucks were less likely to visit bait than antlerless deer, but the disparity was most noticeable during the rut.
The number of adult male photos during the rut was a fraction of the number taken at bait sites during the fall. In fact, McCoy captured more mature bucks on randomly placed cameras and on those placed next to trails than at bait sites during the rut.
“I wasn’t surprised,” he said. “Bucks are less interested in eating during the rut.”
Of course, most hunters are focused on hunting during the rut, which is one reason McCoy recommends conducting trail camera surveys in the fall, well before rut activity begins.
Not only does this free up your hunting time, you are much more likely to capture all the deer on your property. Hunting pressure also pushes deer off their normal routines, which can make them less likely to visit a bait site.
PUT THE DATA TO USE
Even if you don’t capture a photo of every deer on your land, you will still have a valuable collection of data. Determining how many deer and what ratios you have on your land is just one small step. There’s more use for those numbers than simply counting deer, says McCoy.
“It’s difficult to say if you have too many, too few or just the right number of deer. In some ways, that’s subjective, unless you see obvious evidence of a negative impact on the habitat,” he explains. “That’s not what we use population surveys for.”
Instead, trail camera surveys can help determine accurate sex ratios, antlered male age ratios (assuming you can accurately estimate deer age through photos) and recruitment rates.
Are the does producing enough fawns to sustain your current harvest level? A decline in fawn numbers might also mean an increase in predation. That has other management implications, of course, but knowing the trends can help you make smart decisions.
HOW MANY DOES?
Bucks are generally easy to count. Antler characteristics allow us to tell the difference from one buck to the next. Even similar looking 8-pointers have enough variation in their antlers for us to tell them apart.
When it comes to does and fawns, however, how can you tell one from another?
“You can get an idea of how many antlerless deer are visiting your camera sites by determining how many bucks you have photographed and using the number of photos you got of each buck,” explains Acker. “The ratio of visitations by bucks can be used to determine the population of does and fawns.”
Say, for instance, we captured photos of 15 individual bucks on 120 images. That works out to .125 visits by each buck per picture. We can use the ratio of unique bucks per image to calculate the number of unique does.
For example, let’s say we gathered images of 150 does. To get the number of individual does, we would multiply 150 by .125 (the ratio of our unique buck visits). That gives us approximately 19 does.
You can use the same math to calculate fawns.
The only problem is that Acker determined that does were more likely to visit bait sites than bucks. Younger deer were also more likely to visit bait sites.
“There is no real way of knowing exactly how many deer are using a specific property,” he said. “For all practical purposes, though, using that calculation will provide a good base of data. The main thing is consistency. Do the same thing every year, and your numbers will be sufficient to make management decisions.”
Trends are really what matter.
McCoy recommends conducting camera surveys on a regular basis, at least every couple of years, if not every year. Doing so will allow you to note trends either in total population, buck-doe ratios or recruitment rates. That information can help you manage the population to fit your goals. You might have to back off on female harvest, or you might need to increase your antlerless kill.
Of course, you’ll need more than just raw deer numbers to effectively manage your herd. Average weights play into the management equation, too, and if you want to get real serious, you can track antler beam diameters.
Trail camera surveys, however, provide the starting block for a sound and sensible management plan. Pour some corn on the ground, hang a camera over the bait and count your deer.
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This article was published in the July 2014 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.