5-Step Strategy for Running Trail Cams on a New Property
How to shorten the learning curve and maximize your use of trail cameras on a new property
Learning a new property is easily one of my favorite aspects of hunting. Diving into an unknown piece of dirt, exploring the deer it holds, and how they’re using it, always ends with valuable experiences and a bunch of learning opportunities. However, being patient and processing information over time is the key. You’re not going to completely figure out a new property in the first year. Heck, it’s likely to take at least a few years depending on the size, habitat, and features. But, everyone has to start somewhere so, here’s a five-step strategy for running trail cameras on a new property.
Step 1: Look at the Big Picture
Everyone wants to know how many cameras they need based on the number of acres they have. Looking at the acres-to-camera ratio holds value for determining certain things about the deer herd, specifically like buck to doe ratios and herd size. In fact, the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) strategically uses and instructs this method to conduct buck population surveys. However, when it comes to gaining an initial understanding of how deer are using the property, the focus needs to be more on the topographical features of the land itself and less on the deer. Therefore, the number of cameras for this purpose matters less, as long as you are covering the primary activity areas for movement.
It’s important to understand how a property fits into the surrounding landscape. I’ve found an aerial map to be extremely helpful. Look at the map and identify where the primary food sources are as well as the likely bedding areas. Then reference the location of your property with these areas.
Maybe primary food sources are located on or near your property, in which case most of the peak activity is generally around sunset, through the night and sunrise. If bedding or security cover is on or near your property, expect the peak activity to be more frequent throughout the day. If the property is big enough, you may be hunting an area featuring all primary activity locations.
Regardless of the size of your property, look at your parcel with a wide lens. This will significantly improve your initial approach and help you figure out the highest and best use of your cameras.
Step 2: Break Your Property into Key Features
Once you’ve identified potential bedding and food sources, you’ll want to understand how features and terrain dictate travel patterns between them. Identifying areas with the highest concentration of travel helps you select the options, for the highest odds to capture movement. This accomplishes two important things: learning natural movements in different areas of the property and maximizing efficiency with your trail camera placement.
In the field and on your map, explore natural and manmade funnels to take advantage of influenced deer movement. Areas like creek crossings, benches, habitat transitions, and physical terrain features are great places to concentrate your efforts. Deer are creatures of habit and commonly take the route of least resistance whenever possible—as long as there isn’t too much human intrusion.
Let the sign be your guide. Focus on the most heavily-used areas of travel and begin laying out your strategy from there. If you find a well-used creek crossing, for example, start by backing out from the location and draw conclusions around most likely time and reason for travel. Reference the distance from bedding areas and food sources; this should help you make some general predictions on the reason for use and direction of travel.
Over time, you’ll build a database of evidence from your cameras, and you can start compartmentalizing your property by proving, disproving, and creating entirely new predictions based on the evidence of how and when the deer traverse specific areas. Don’t just put a camera up where there’s a couple of sets of tracks. Find the worn-in, historic crossings that deer are frequently and comfortably using.
Remember, the goal for this initial strategy isn’t necessarily to concentrate on specific deer. You should be trying to build a foundational understanding of how and where deer are interacting with your property. A byproduct of focusing on these hubs or high-percentage travel areas should be a good sample of the different bucks that are roaming your property.
Step 3: Take an Inventory
Now it’s time to get a head count of the deer that use your property and one of the most effective ways to do this is to attract deer to you with supplemental feeding. Standard options when it comes to using an attractant are corn, mineral licks, and other supplements with strong aromas. Before choosing an attractant, be sure to check your county and state game regulations to make sure it’s permitted and legal.
Place attractants in areas that do not penetrate the core of the property and are easily accessible. Areas tucked just off of main trails, field edges, and spaces, where human traffic isn’t completely foreign, tend to serve the purpose of this strategy the best. This approach lends itself to frequent returns to check the cameras and replenish the feed sites. Use cameras in these spots to focus on the quantity and quality of deer that are moving through your property.
It’s important to remember though, that by using attractants, you’re essentially influencing travel instead of capturing it naturally. In most cases, don’t put these sites too close together so you can get a more accurate sample of what deer are using the different regions of the property.
Adequate spacing between feed sites also provides the opportunity to determine individual buck’s ranges by tracking where and when they are showing up on different cameras throughout the property. Although tracking specific bucks isn’t the primary goal in this approach, positioning a camera over an attractant casts a wide net and helps in understanding the age structure of deer that are on your property throughout the different phases of the year.
Step 4: Place Your Cameras: The Three-Zone Approach
When it comes to running trail cameras, especially on a new property, often you are your own worst enemy. One of the hardest challenges hunters face is overcoming the anticipation of what’s on the cameras. The goal is to have as little impact on the property as possible. This helps gather as much information about natural movement and patterns as possible. To keep myself from checking cameras too often, I break a property into three different types of zones.
The first zone, or outer zone, is intended primarily for inventory purposes. I want to use these cameras (whether positioned along wide-open trails, field or food source edges, or attractant sites) to identify the most-traveled areas and which specific bucks are using certain areas of the outer zone. I check the outer zone most frequently—anywhere from once a month to once every 10 days, depending on the time of year and phase of the season.
The second zone centers around the use of natural travel corridors. My goal here is to position cameras along areas I believe result in the most concentrated movement on the interior of the property. These can be ridge saddles, benches, creek crossings, transitional cover, and other forms of terrain and habitat features that influence or focus movement. If the goal is learning a new property, I want to try and capture as much natural movement as I can to get the clearest understanding of how deer traverse the property. The only way to accomplish this is by staying out of Zone 2 as much as possible.
I typically don’t check cameras in the second zone more than once per month throughout the fall, unless I get a ‘free pass.’ A free pass is either a heavy rain that washes away my scent, high winds that cover noise and make for difficult scenting conditions, or if I’m passing the camera location as I head in for a hunt, I’ll quickly swap out the card for a fresh one.
The third and most critical zone is a bedding area or thickest security cover the property offers, generally the most interior part of the property. I like to have these cameras in place before bucks shed their velvet, and I don’t check them until well after the season closes. I use cameras in bedding areas purely to acquire data of which bucks are using the bedding area at what times of the season. The key is a long-term, year-after-year strategy. Much of my hunting takes place in or adjacent to bedding areas. As I hop around to different bedding areas on different pieces of property, the cameras in this zone are still scouting for me when I’m not there since I’m usually only in this zone a couple of times a season. Once I take the cameras in zone three down for the year, I have an entire season worth of data to apply to next season.
Step 5: Write Everything Down
All of this acquired data and studying mean nothing unless it is carefully cataloged and organized so you can apply it to the future. Again, learning a property and how deer use it takes multiple seasons. Saving pictures of bucks from individual cameras is great, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg of information you should be tracking if you want to connect the dots.
I like to keep diligent notes for each camera on each property. It starts with the year and type of surrounding food source or crop rotation. From there, I filter out buck from doe pictures. Before discarding the doe pictures though, I make a note of peak activity days for each property based on which days the most pictures were taken. Then I also record any images where bucks are chasing or tending does. After I gather the general information, I’m primarily looking at buck pictures to make the rest of my notes.
I note the day, time, and direction of travel of each buck I consider a potential target or within a year of being a target. For me, those are bucks that I believe to be three-and-a-half-years old and older. After I have the date and time, I look up weather history for that specific date on Weather Underground and record temperature, barometric pressure, wind direction, and wind speed. This lays the foundation for identifying trends over time and understanding how and when deer (in general and specific bucks) are using the property.
These details piece together the larger picture of movement trends across a property, in specific locations at specific times of the day and specific times of the year. Once you start analyzing the data you’ve gathered from scouting and your trail cameras year after year, consistencies and patterns begin to reveal themselves.
Just like anything else, trail cameras are an incredibly useful tool, but they are not the only tool. Apply the information you learn from them, use it in conjunction with the rest of your scouting and hunting experiences, and you’ll be well on your way to confidentially learning your new property.