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Scouting for Deer with Trail Cameras on Public Land

Successfully Find Bucks Using Trail Cameras on Public Land

Deer scouting is defined as spending time afield searching, investigating and evaluating one or more areas for white-tailed deer sign to improve the hunting experience. Basically, scouting for deer hunting is spending time in the woods looking for deer sign. Simple enough, head out a few weeks before deer season, look around and hang a few stands where you see the most sign. Or more commonly today, hang a few trail cameras and hunt in those areas where you see the biggest or the most shooter bucks. That approach can sometimes work on private land, with an emphasis on sometimes, but almost never produces consistent results on public land.

Public Land is Different

The issues with public land hunting are competition from other hunters and your inability to control the environment. It is no secret that the best hunting on public land is far from the roads. According to research from Duane Diefenbach of the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit and others, it is estimated that 87% of hunters in Pennsylvania hunt within approximately 500 yards of a road ( That said, mature bucks tend to move to more interior habitats to avoid as much human interaction as possible.

On private lands, you know exactly who is hunting the same property and more than likely where those other hunters are at on most days. The same is not true on public land. You are constantly trying to beat other hunters to a prime spot in the morning, hoping your truck alone will deter others from walking in on your hunting area. Pressure likewise poses a problem when scouting for deer with trail cameras on public land. Secure deer trail cameras with locks and protective cases so your camera and all those pictures are still there when you return.

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Also, you cannot control many aspects of the area you are hunting. For instance, other people who may or may not have the same hunting skills that you have, including scent control tactics, are going to be moving around your stands. Public means everyone, so hikers, bikers and certainly other sportsmen are going to be disturbing bucks in prime hunting locations. Bucks know this and finding the mature ones involves avoiding human activity as much as possible. Find areas that are not used or not used often by people. In addition, you have limited options to change the physical environment. Food plots and cutting trees are out; hunting public land means you have to find key habitat areas by scouting.

Scouting for Deer on Public Land

Scouting for deer on public land breaks down into two parts. First, start with a computer. Instead of pulling off the road in an area that “looks good”, start with scouting for deer on public land by using your computer. There are various freely available mapping programs out there. Find one that works for you and pull up topographical and aerial images of regions you are interested in scouting. This long distance scouting helps you discover key areas to setup your cameras. Look for cover funnels, habitat edges, saddles and points. Many of these tools also allow you to add points and save your maps. Perfect for identifying spots to hang trail cameras. Identified spots from aerial and topographical maps provide a thoughtful starting point to hit the ground.

Finding key locations from mapping technologies does not take the place of getting on the ground. The second part of scouting for deer on public land effectively is about studying travel patterns to and from feeding and bedding areas from the ground. You cannot be in different areas at different times so positioning your trail cameras in areas like these will give you an accurate picture of when and what types of bucks are around. Take note of access from roads and trails. Those play an important part in you getting to your stand and also how many other people may be using the area. Investigate land features, such as changes in habitat types or funnels, as possible options for stand locations. Look for past deer sign like old rub, scrapes and pellets. These clues help to determine placement of tree stands as the season approaches.

Scouting Deer with Trail Cameras

Trail cameras should be a significant part of any hunter’s scouting strategy. Deer trail camera photos provide scouting 24/7 so you can begin to understand deer movements in a particular area. They give clues to help you pattern buck activity and most importantly, they allow you to take an inventory of the bucks in the area so you know what kind of potential is available come fall. A good trail camera survey will help in the decision-making process when it comes time to actually head to the woods to start hanging tree stands.

Place trail cameras on trails leading to feeding areas when scouting for deer in the summer. As the season progresses, move some cameras to scrapes and other areas where rut activity is visible. Do not be afraid to hang multiple game cameras in close proximity to ensure you capture all the key elements of your hunting area. Public land bucks are more unpredictable than hunting deer on private land. Therefore your scouting for deer with trail cameras strategy has to compensate in order to get a clear picture of the type of bucks and their movements in your location.

One of the biggest mistakes deer hunters make is not identifying bucks that are killable from their deer trail camera photos. If you are scouting deer with trail cameras correctly, there will be hundreds of photos to sift through. Do not waste time analyzing bucks you will never be able to harvest. Observed activity of mature bucks on your trail cameras will determine if a buck will be able to be killed. If a buck is strictly nocturnal your only chance may be during the rut. If a buck is active during the day then it depends on where he is active. His activity must be in an area that is accessible for hunting without spooking him off. Luckily, cameras provide you all this information. The challenge is finding places to put your trail cameras on public land.

Where to Put Trail Cameras for Deer

Scouting for deer on public land does not have to be frustrating nor does it have to be an exercise in futility. Trail cameras are clearly not just for private land. However, as discussed earlier, do not just throw some game cameras up without some thought. Getting the best trail camera pictures required to evaluate an area is more skill than luck. To find the best bucks on public land, grab your deer trail cameras and head to these three places for scouting.0

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  1. Explore newly purchased public land or boundary extensions. These areas are unknown to most hunters and often border great buck habitat that was once off limits. Land acquisitions can be found on most state and federal land management websites. Keep current with those areas that have been purchased and spend time scouting for deer in the summer on these additions. Place trail cameras on border zones to capture deer activity from adjacent properties in order to plan fall tree stand placements. Also, it is worth noting any land additions that are in the pipeline. You can get a head start on these new areas by scouting for deer hunting from your computer so you are ready to hit the ground once these areas are open for hunting.
  1. Scout fringe areas, which are edges of public land. Fringes like borders with adjacent properties or areas like pipeline right-of-ways can be rewarding and disappointing at the same time. These areas are typically closer to human access points where hunting pressure will be greater. Because of this, understanding all the possible access points of other people including roads and trails is key. If you can understand the amount of and where the pressure is coming from, you will be better able to eliminate areas where not to put stands.

On the other hand, fringe habitats often provide food sources unavailable to deer in interior forests. Also, conservation agencies frequently plant food plots or other wildlife forage in fringe areas making them highly attractive to deer. Even with the added pressure deer will routinely travel these fringe areas to feed then return to more isolated interior areas. The trick here is finding travel routes to and from the fringes. Trail cameras should be setup on several deer trails. The photos can then tell you exactly when deer are using this area. Too much pressure and deer will be nocturnal. Capture a buck on your camera during shooting hours and it is game on.

  1. Focus on small, ignored public land areas. These can be an island of unique habitat or more commonly a disconnected piece of land. Do not overlook these seemingly insignificant fragments of public land. The masses of hunters rarely consider these tracts part of the larger public lands so pressure is reduced. Big whitetails seek out separated islands of lands as pressure from adjacent properties increases. Scouting here is similar to scouting fringe areas. Positioning your trail cameras on trails will give you a good idea if this isolated piece of ground is the right place to hunt.

Speaking the words public land hunting usually send chills down the back of even the most dedicated hunter. Putting big bucks and public land in the same sentence is hardly ever believable. However, every year tags are filled with trophy whitetails from public lands. What is the common thread? Scouting. Scouting for deer on public land with trail cameras is essential for harvesting mature whitetails. No more shall you be frustrated during deer hunting seasons on public land.