Lights, Trail Camera, Action!

By David Virostko, Hunting Consultant, July 2014

In a game where knowledge is king, very few scouting tools are as valuable as trail cameras. In fact, they have been a serious part of my scouting arsenal since 2008. Although I dabbled here and there with them prior to that, I remember vividly the day I realized the true value that these tools had to offer. It was a hot August afternoon, and as I stared at the photo of the 260" Arizona Strip giant that my camera had snapped, I was hooked. The area I had taken the photo in was a nasty, flat, and thick place that was nearly impossible to glass or track. Had it not been for that trail camera, I would have never known the giant buck existed.

As you can imagine, we hunted that buck hard for the next few years, and while I would love to say that we eventually killed the giant, I can’t. Nope, that buck proved to be one of the hardest bucks to kill that we have ever pursued, and he, believe it or not, eventually died on his own terms. However, without the knowledge first gained from that fateful trail camera photo, I would not have had the chance to pursue one of the greatest bucks I have ever seen. And not only that, but the photos that I was able to gather of the giant buck for a few years were more than worth it.

Over the course of the past several years, to put it mildly, trail camera technology has grown by leaps and bounds. In fact, I have to laugh when I think of the old models I used that literally took actual rolls of film and giant D-cell batteries. I remember racing back to town and dropping off the rolls of film at the local 1-hour photo shop, pacing back and forth to see what I had captured. Today, everything is digital. In fact, many trail camera companies have models that will send your camera’s activity directly to your phone or home computer so you don’t even have to head to the field to see what your camera is snapping photos of. While I am not too big of a fan of this advanced technology, it is pretty neat to think of how far things have come in such a short timeframe.

So how can the scouting efforts that trail cameras provide result in more animals on the ground? The answer is simple — information. Being a student of the game, for both my own personal hunting as well as for the clients I take annually, I am constantly wanting to learn more and more about our intended targets. While I can truthfully say that trail cameras have never led “directly” to the killing of a particular animal, the knowledge I have gained from what trail cameras have provided has given me that little extra edge as to what I need to do to get the job done, whether that little extra edge is where I should be concentrating my efforts, when, or how. Oftentimes, the knowledge and information I gain from my trail cameras doesn’t pay off until a few years down the road, but it’s the little habitual things that I have discovered, particularly the information I have gained during the offseason, that have educated me further and made me a better hunter and guide. For this reason, I run my trail cameras nearly year-round. I don’t want to see what’s happening just prior to hunting season and throughout. No, I want to see what made it through the hunts, where the animals pull to on particular winters (hard winters as compared to mild winters), which bucks or bulls rutted here or there, where they summered early, etc. In fact, I have even used trail cameras to keep tabs on when and where bucks shed their antlers. Trail cameras are very versatile tools which I feel get extremely underutilized by those hunters who just throw them out for a few weeks in the summer and a few weeks before the season. Again, the little things that you can learn from these tools are priceless.

Being a trail camera junky, I have tried nearly every make and model on the planet, and through my trials and errors, I have narrowed it down to one particular brand that I trust year in and year out. That brand is DLC Covert. I have yet to find a camera that has the battery life and ability to take thousands of photos with superior reliability as to what the DLC Covert cameras can do. The quality of the photos are top notch and, most importantly, the price points on these cameras make them very affordable. For a guy like me who runs nearly 70 cameras a year, I need the reliability that Covert provides. A few other great brands that have proven themselves to me over the years are StealthCam, Moultrie, Bushnell, and Wildgame Innovations. Although there are hundreds of choices on the market today, the most important thing to keep in mind when selecting a camera is that the functions and options are there to suit your individual needs.

Once you decide which camera is right for you, it’s time to put your newly acquired scouting tool to work. The biggest mistake that most people make when setting a trail camera is, without question, placement. After several years, and a lot of trial and error, I have finally found a setup that works perfectly for me. Although it’s a little unorthodox, what I have found that works the best is that I will take seven steps (roughly 6 yards) from where I want the picture to be taken. From there, I set the camera waist-high, aimed directly toward the place I just walked from. Whether I am hanging my camera on a tree or metal T-post, this method of placement has proven to be the best distance, height, and angle for getting that perfect photo.

Another trick of the trade that I have developed over the years is that I will always buy two SD cards for every camera I own. By having two SD cards for each camera I don’t have to wait in the field to load all of the photos, I simply roll up, swap out the card, and then head on to the next one. Once I get home or back to camp for the evening I drop the loaded SD card onto my laptop and see what I was lucky enough to capture. When running a truckload of cameras per year, it’s all about simplicity.

While there are many other “tricks of the trade” when it comes to running trail cameras, I don’t want to ruin all of the fun that comes from trial by fire when picking up a new hobby. The bottom line is this, although trail cameras won’t directly put your tag on more giant animals, they will, without question, educate you more to your target. While you might not notice the results right away, over time you will start to see a difference in the outcome of your hunting.

6 Tips When Setting Your Trail Camera

  1. Pick an open spot where you will be able to capture full images of your target. There is nothing more frustrating than getting part of an antler on your photos.
  2. Be mindful of tree limbs or tall grass. Make sure they are not in your camera’s view. Moving branches and grass will trigger your trail camera’s motion sensor and will account for hundreds and hundreds of nothing but scenery photos.
  3. Never set your cameras due east or due west. The rising and setting sun can and will wash out your photos. Since animals tend to move more during the twilight hours of morning and evening, you stand a great chance of missing the photo you need if you place your cameras facing the rising or setting sun.
  4. Set your camera to burst mode, if applicable. Most trail cameras have a setting called “burst mode.” This allows your camera to take a photo, wait 1 second, take another photo, wait another second, take a photo, and so on. I typically set all my cameras on “3-burst mode.” That way I will get three photos each time the motion sensor is triggered. This ensures that I get at least one good photo of my intended target as it walks by or up to my camera.
  5. Format your SD card. Many of today’s SD cards need to be formatted before they will work in conjunction with the piece of camera equipment they are in. This is done fairly easily as part of the “set-up” with your particular camera. While it might seem confusing at first, trust me, once you do it a couple times, you will be able to do it with your eyes closed.
  6. Make sure the camera is “ON” before walking away. I can’t tell you how many times that, in my rushed state, I have exchanged SD cards, slammed the camera shut, and headed to the next camera station only to return a week or so later and discover that I had forgotten to turn my camera on. Let me just say that very few things in life are as depressing as seeing giant buck tracks all around a trail camera of yours and not knowing just how big those bucks are.