A ray of sunlight glints off the frosty back of a grizzled warrior. Scars mark up his body, each hinting at a story only he could tell. He rises from his bed, shaking the snow and ice from his shoulders. A few stiff-legged steps reveal just how old, worn, and cold he is. He stops, scans the river bottom below, and heads down the ridge. The sun sets on another deer season. And the old buck will live to see yet another one....
For most, that scene won’t be witnessed again until next fall.
All across the nation, deer seasons have come to a close (or soon will). It’s a depressing statement, no doubt. But that doesn't mean you have to sit around, with nothing to do. It’s important to note this how-to is meant for determining what bucks made it through the season. It is not a method for conducting a whitetail census. The purpose of this survey is not to directly determine whitetail populations or buck-to-doe ratios. While that information can be gathered from doing this, a more detailed version of this method is needed to fully accomplish those tasks. But for the guy or gal who wants to know what bucks might be around next season, read on.
PREP YOUR CAMERAS
I’m an average Joe hunter, just like you. I can’t afford to go out and buy a battalion of Bushnell Trophy Cam HD Wireless cameras. It would be nice. They’re fine cameras. But it isn’t feasible. Instead, make due with what you have, but make sure your equipment is in top condition before putting it out.
Things to remember:
- Replace old batteries.
- Wipe battery contact points clean.
- Ensure cameras seal well.
- Empty and format SD cards.
- Check cameras settings (date, time, etc.).
UNDERSTAND COVERAGE AREAS
Post-season surveys aren’t effective unless you have adequate gear. You need enough cameras to effectively cover the land you hunt. Some sources recommend one camera per every 100 acres. In a perfect world, that’s enough to capture most bucks, as their home ranges often average out around 600 to 650 acres. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and I don’t follow the 100-acre rule.
Why? Because deer don’t read scripts. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve posted two trail cameras in winter—100 to 200 yards apart—and watched completely different deer all throughout the winter. Sure, some deer visited both. But I’ve witnessed enough cases where they didn’t to convince me that the 100-acre rule isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Deer do their own thing. Home ranges aren’t necessarily circular, triangular, or any other defined shape. Shapes of home ranges vary, and the paths deer travel vary within them.
Personally, I don’t worry so much about how many acres I have per camera. Instead, I look for the best locations—with the highest odds of capturing photos of deer—to post cameras. That might mean I have one camera on 100 acres. That might mean I have three cameras on 100 acres. It always differs.
KNOW WHERE TO FOCUS
This is the snag people often get caught up on. Have the mindset of a late-season hunter. That’s essentially what you’re doing. You’re hunting them with a camera.
Deer come and go. But it’s wintertime, and deer are focusing on food sources now more than ever. In states you can bait, do it. In states you can’t, find agricultural fields with excessive waste grain and places that have received the least hunting pressure. That’s where post-season deer will be.
In the winter, deer bed most often on south- and east-facing slopes. They receive the first rays of sunlight there each morning. Food sources in close proximity to these are great locations to find deer in the new year.
Deer congregate in areas with a heavy coniferous presence. That type tree includes cedar trees. These trees insulate and hold heat better, often increasing temperatures by as much as 10 degrees. They also shield wildlife from precipitation. And snow is generally much shallower on the forest floor where coniferous trees are abundant.
Remember water. Open water sources—especially in colder regions—can be scarce in winter. Freezing temperatures lock up stagnant and slow-moving bodies of water. This leaves deer with limited options. If you can provide deer with water, or find a place where it rarely freezes, that’s a great place to take a post-season survey.
You know the property you hunt better than anyone else. Look for food, water, and cover. Beyond that, look for trails that deer frequently travel along. Set up along those routes where deer are forced to pinch down. No, it’s not the rut. But deer still use “funnels,” regardless of the time of year.
POSITIONING THE CAMERA
Positioning of the camera is very important. You need quality photos to distinguish different deer, and you can achieve that by effectively arranging your cameras.
Keep in mind the following things:
- Hang cameras at waist height (three to four feet).
- Don’t angle cameras pointing too high or low.
- If on trails, angle cameras at 45 degrees.
- Secure cameras down tight enough there is no movement.
- Knock down all limbs, grass, and debris in front of the camera.
Notice that I suggested three to four feet for trail camera height. Sometimes I follow that; sometimes I don’t. It depends on how well my cameras are camouflaged. If they are concealed well at that height, I leave them. If not, I hang them higher (six to seven feet) and angle them downward. Deer have had their photos taken all year. They’ve seen trail cameras. This will keep your cameras off their radar, as they rarely look up at cameras like they do when they're at eye-level.
WAYS TO DISTINGUISH BUCKS
The entire purpose of this survey is to determine what bucks—both those you’re familiar with and bucks you’ve never seen—made it through the season. You can’t do that if you can’t distinguish one buck from another. Most times, it’s easy to do. But sometimes it’s not.
Here are some of the physical characteristics that make it easier:
- Facial coloration,
- Fur patterns,
- Fur coloration,
- Scars and markings,
- Body size,
- Antler spread,
- Antler mass,
- Tine length, and
- Abnormal points.
As you can see, there are a lot of small things you can look for to distinguish bucks from one another. All deer look different. The more you study trail camera photos, the more you will notice this.
Good luck with your trail camera survey this winter. I hope you have that same feeling in the pit of your stomach as I do each time I pull cards. And hopefully you receive photos of some good ones.