Are Trail Cameras Affecting Your Hunting Experience?

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Trail cams are great, but does losing some of the mystery mean losing some of the hunt, too?

Author’s note: First off, let me say I enjoy trail cameras and use them extensively. No doubt in terms of hunters finding, patterning and killing big, mature bucks, cams are the biggest innovation of the last 30 years in the deer hunting world. — M.H. 

Does knowing every buck on the property take something away from the experience? (John Hafner image)

I, like most whitetail hunters these days, rely so heavily on cameras to scout for big deer that I forgot what it is like to hunt without them.

Until recently when I was invited down to a property in coastal South Carolina. I rolled into camp fired up, ready to see some pictures and evaluate this year’s crop of bucks on the 1,000 well-managed acres. The landowner would surely have images of five or six mature shooters for me to hunt.

“I used to run cameras, but I got to feeling like it was affecting the way I hunt and, more importantly, why I hunt,” my host, Freddy, said. “Nowadays we do it the old-school way.”

Freddy explained that beginning in late summer, he glasses deer in the food plots and along the swamp edges on his land. He walks and checks the oak trees to see how much mast they will make, and when the nuts will start falling. He checks for deer trails and buck tracks, and the first rubs and scrapes of fall. 

“These days I don’t want to see and know beforehand every buck that lives on our property,” Freddy said as he drove me out to my stand the first evening of the hunt. “I don’t want to have every buck, as they say, ‘on camera.’ I want to get out and hunt and enjoy nature, and see what I see. If it’s a little buck, fine. If it’s a big buck, I want to jump and feel that jolt of excitement, just like when I was a kid. If I don’t see any deer one day, that’s OK too.” 

I climbed into the box blind that afternoon not knowing what bucks were around. And it felt pretty good. As the afternoon waned to dusk, deer began to filter into the food plot. Does first, then a couple of smaller bucks. I sat and glassed them and marveled at their natural beauty. I did not feel the pressure to look for and wait for “a big shooter 10 we’ve got on camera,” like I do in all the other places I hunt every year.

I hunted Freddy’s place for four days, saw a hundred deer, passed a couple of medium-size bucks and happily went home empty-handed, strangely rejuvenated.    

Kids and Cameras

My South Carolina friend Freddy has been hunting deer for 25 years, and I longer than that, so we get it. We can differentiate between hunting with cameras and without them. But for kids growing up and joining our hunting ranks it’s different, and tricky, as Danny, a hunter from Maryland, relates in this story. 

“I run cameras on our property and collect the cards every Friday afternoon,” he said. “My daughter, Lexi, and I look through the pictures together that evening.”

For young hunters, cameras are good teaching tools. Danny and Lexi look at the deer and name many of the bucks. They track the times deer are showing up at different spots. They pretty much recognize every single buck on their farm.  

“The week leading up to opening day last year, a spike, still in velvet, showed up like clockwork at the stand Lexi and I planned to sit on opening day,” Danny said. “The more pictures of the spike Lexi saw, the more attached she became to him. She named him ‘Cutie.’ I didn't think much of it until opening day came. 

“Sure enough, the spike showed up. I told Lexi to get ready. When he gave her a perfect broadside shot, I told her to shoot when she was ready. I kept waiting and waiting, but no shot. I looked over and saw tears in her eyes. I asked what was wrong and she replied, ‘I can't shoot Cutie.’” 

No wonder, because the young lady had spent the last several months looking at hundreds of pictures of the spike. Danny hugged his daughter and told her it was fine, he was not going to force her to shoot anything. Out of the blue Lexi replied, "But if Junior or The Freak shows up, I'm shooting.” 

Danny thought, "What the heck have I done?" 

On one hand he was happy to see Lexi pass on a spike in hopes of shooting one of the bigger bucks they had on camera. “But at the same time, when I was a kid back in the '90s, I didn't think twice about pulling the trigger on a spike,” Danny said.   

Would that have been different if Danny’s mentors had used trail cameras back then? Would he have studied pictures of the bucks and gotten attached to them? Would he have held off on shooting a young buck because they had pictures of bigger bucks in the area?  

“Maybe,” he said. “I think of all the memories growing up hunting that I wouldn't have now. I can look at every set of antlers, little and big, that I’ve gotten over the years and remember everything about those days: the weather, the smells, the colors, the drags out … 

“Am I robbing my daughter of memories like this by showing her all the trail cam pictures of our deer? If she hadn't just looked at 100 pictures of that spike, would she have shot Cutie? Would that first deer have been a memory for the rest of her life and mine? If she didn't know there are bigger deer on our property would she have pulled the trigger?”

Whether you are a young or veteran hunter, it’s good food for thought.