Trail Camera Strategies to Start This Summer
If you’re anything like us, you eat, sleep, and dream about deer hunting throughout the year. If there is a winter storm coming through, we’re thinking about the rut. If we’re sweating through a summer heat wave, we’re thinking about how to get ready for opening day. If that describes your lifestyle too, you probably also enjoy watching deer throughout the year by using trail cams. There’s just something special about trail cameras and how you can stealthily keep track of the deer herd on your property without them having a clue. Sure, you could start glassing fields or summer food plots in the evenings, but that takes more time than most of us actually have. Plus, you might not have any fields near you; maybe you hunt deer in a big woods setting where you can’t easily watch wildlife. These are the situations where having a few hunting cameras hung in key spots on your property can make a big difference to your hunting strategies next fall. Here are a few trail camera strategies to get you started this summer.
Top Trail Camera Strategies for This Summer
It’s not quite as simple as just throwing out a few trail cams in the woods and seeing what walks by. Sure, you could try that approach and you might get to see some wildlife eventually. But to get the most pictures, to get high-quality pictures, and to get information that will actually help you next fall, you need to focus on putting your trail camera in a spot that focuses deer traffic. Here are the best trail camera strategies for the summer.
Food Plots/Agricultural Fields
Food plots are great spots for getting pictures of deer for a few reasons. One, does and bucks alike need lots of calories in the spring to bounce back from the stress of winter. Throughout the summer, they need the food tonnage to build up their body weight and grow antlers to prepare for fall. This means high quality, protein rich forage! If you live in a forested area with very little agricultural food available, a single food plot is even more attractive to deer and your results will be better. Since it’s so critical for their survival, it’s probably the best place to hang trail cams on these locations.
For larger agricultural fields (e.g., corn, soybeans, alfalfa, etc.), the best location for game cameras might seem like the middle of the field where you can see the most deer. But since deer are creatures of the edge and will usually have set travel patterns throughout the summer, the best spot is generally along the field edge near a dominant trail. For smaller food plots (e.g., clover, cereal grains, brassicas, etc.), you can place a trail cam on a post in the middle of the plot without any issues. But really it comes down to just finding a spot that concentrates the activity and facing the game camera in the right direction. One thing to keep in mind is that facing cameras any direction but north will inevitably produce some glare in pictures at some time of the day.
Another reliable spot to capture deer pictures on your trail cams this summer is around their bedding area. After feeding throughout the night in destination fields or browsing in cutover areas, deer will shift to daytime bedding areas to chew their cud and rest. Often does and fawns will rest near or even within feeding areas, while bachelor groups of bucks will bed further away. Taking a quick scouting stroll from feeding areas and along main trails can lead you to bedding areas. They’re often easy to spot because of the oval depressions in the grass or weeds. If you’ve ever tackled a few habitat projects on your property, hinge cuts are great bedding areas to check out.
If you’ve designated some bedding areas as deer sanctuaries that are strictly off-limits throughout the year, try installing trail cams along trails on the fringe of the sanctuary instead. Be cautious about checking them too much towards the end of the summer when you want to really hold deer in-place. The bugs will likely be bad enough to convince you to only go once or twice the whole summer anyway. More than likely, you’ll find some small bedding areas outside of these sanctuaries too that you can set and forget until the end of the summer.
Of course, any main trails and travel corridors between the two areas above are also great spots to intercept deer movement. With a little desktop scouting, you can easily map these areas and find good potential corridors, but you likely have a few tree stands already hung in these areas anyway. Clear out the herbaceous vegetation in a spot along one of these trails so that you can get a clear trail camera picture. These small openings can also make deer pause long enough for a good picture.
When it comes to positioning your trail cams along trails, the common instinct is to place them so that the camera is off to the side facing perpendicular to the trail. Unfortunately, unless deer are really slow-moving, your camera will likely trigger too late and you’ll only get pictures of their rear end – hardly useful from a hunting perspective. Instead, try positioning your camera facing up or down along the direction of deer travel. Granted, you’ll still get pictures of deer moving away from you half the time, but you’ll get pictures of deer facing the camera the other half of the time.
Mineral Sites/Mineral Stations
Throughout the spring and summer, whitetails love to get an extra dose of minerals from the soil and plants around mineral stations. Lactating does need extra minerals to support their fawns, while Bucks need minerals to build their bony antlers. If you keep the station going for a couple years, you can easily train deer to keep coming back to it as a seasonal mineral source since fawns will be raised to use it. Eventually, the stations often become huge craters where deer have eaten the soil away. Luckily, you can easily set up a mineral site by scraping the debris away and exposing the soil in a given spot. Then you can incorporate some crushed mineral into the top inch of soil or simply place a block or rock on top of it. You can even place it on a semi-rotting stump, which will slowly absorb the minerals as well. But that’s about all it takes to set a station up.
If you’re installing one of these sites expressly for pictures, it’s best to locate it in a shaded understory area. Pictures from trail cams along fields and exposed sites often suffer from lots of glare, which greatly reduces the quality of the photos. But pictures within shaded areas can turn out crisp and clear any time of the day since light doesn’t interfere.
The final place that works great for trail cams are water sources, especially when paired with mineral sites. After eating something salty, we all crave a drink of water – deer are no different. Deer crave sodium due to the high amount of water they get in their metabolism during spring and summer. However, as the summer progresses and other waterholes or creeks go dry, a small water hole next to a mineral site will pull deer in. If you have natural wetlands, ponds, or streams on your property, you can easily locate mineral sites near them for the easiest solution. If you don’t have any water sources, you can easily sink a bucket, small rubber tank, or kid’s pool into the dirt to let it fill with rainwater. You can keep it cleaner by simply refilling it once you check cams. During hot summers or in southern, more arid areas, water sources can be the absolute best place for a trail camera setup, since it is such a draw for them.
How to Hang Trail Cameras and When to Check Them
Once you’ve identified the spots and trail camera strategies you want to install this summer, it’s time to actually get them out. As already mentioned, pay attention to the direction you face your cameras, as south facing cameras will get lots of unusable pictures with a heavy glare. The one time you can get away with south facing trail cams is if you are in a forested or heavily shaded area. One of the best trail camera tips you’ll hear is to check the batteries and then recheck them to make sure they are fresh. You should also generally clear out some of the tall weeds, grasses, and even some brush in the area so you can avoid lots of false triggers. It’s a really deflating experience when you check your camera to find 1,000 pictures and 900 of them are of swaying grass. You can change the sensitivity level on many cameras to reduce this problem, but it still doesn’t hurt to make a small opening in front of the lens. Bring a simple folding saw with you when you enter the woods so you can easily cut any obstacles down.
Depending on where you’re hanging trail cameras, you may want to leave a trail to get back to them. For new deer bedding areas in big woods spots, for example, consider putting out some trail markers or trail marking tacks to help you find them again. This isn’t a good idea on public land, obviously, as would-be thieves could follow your tacks/markers right to the camera. But it’s a nice option for private land.
As far as when or how often to check your trail cams, it’s a tough call. The less you check them, the less invasive it is and more discrete your spying will be. After all, if you set it and forget about it for a few months, you can basically guarantee that you won’t interfere with the natural deer movement on your property. On the other hand, if your camera malfunctions after only a week of being outdoors, you could miss out on an entire summer’s worth of intelligence, which is just a terrible feeling (we’ve probably all had it happen at some point). Besides, we all feel the temptation to check them weekly. It’s kind of like Christmas morning when you get your chip and start to glance through them on the computer. If you have fresh batteries and haven’t had any issues with your camera before, let it sit in the woods for a month or two at a time, if you can bear it. If you’re not sure about your gear or if the opportunity is too great, then you’ve got two options. You can either charge right in making lots of noise (e.g., starting a chainsaw once in a while, driving an ATV, etc.), which will push deer away well before you spook them at close range. Or you can stealthily sneak in with scent-eliminating clothing and rubber boots to be incognito. It’s up to you and how your property is managed.
Good luck with your cameras this summer. With any luck, you’ll get some great pictures of deer to help guide your bow hunting on opening day this fall!