Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Trail Camera 101

Trail cameras are really catching on in the west, and I have had many of our friends from other areas of the country ask me how we use them out here in the west.  This is a response to those questions, as well as a little info for you from the west about camera setup, and even a couple of my favorite models.

Planning on hunting in the west?  Trail cameras aren’t just for food plots anymore.  Here are a few tips and reasons why trail cameras can be vital to a successful hunt in remote areas out west.

It’s a dilemma of many of us every fall, you have finally drawn that coveted tag that you have spent years applying for, and now your boots are on the ground in the hunting unit.  Problem is you only have a couple of days of scouting before you get right into hunting.  If you are fortunate to have a guide, no worries, you will be taken care of.  If you are like me, entering the area on a “do it yourself” hunt, you have your work cut out for you.  The only option you may have is prying information from locals, which is a risky game.  You may find a very honest response, or you may be pointed to an area with informant’s intent to keep you as far away from a trophy as possible.

Even in the mountains right out the backdoor of my house, I struggle with this dilemma.  Being a wildland firefighter, my life gets busy very quickly in May, and doesn’t ease up until September or maybe even November in a year like we had this year.  This really puts a damper on my plans to get out and scout during the summer.  In fact, I skipped out on a couple of fires in Idaho this year just to be able to go on an elk hunt, basically heading out to hunt right from work, with no time to scout.  We still had a very successful hunt, all thanks to our trail cameras.

This bull scoring over 400" was discovered by a trail cam, and later harvested by a good friend of mine.
Trail cameras have been popular on game ranches for years, especially when it comes to whitetail hunting in the Midwest and South.  I came across my first trail camera in the mountains of Utah about 7 or 8 years ago, and at the time I was convinced that it had to be owned by the state Division of Wildlife, as the cameras were so expensive most of us couldn’t afford them.  I was surprised to find out a few weeks later it belonged to another hunter I know, as he teased me about being in his hunting grounds!  The craze has really spread and caught on all over the West, along with it the selection of cameras as well.  Naturally, I had to get in on the action, as everyone was raving about how it was helping their hunting success.  

So, I bought my first camera, and placed it on one of my favorite elk wallows and deer watering holes.  Going back to check the camera, I was very disappointed!  Good news is it only took a couple of seasons to figure out where I had went wrong, and now the investment is paying off big time!  Here are a few tips and tricks, a little “trail camera 101”.

Before going too far, let me caution that a trail camera doesn’t usually bring me success in the spot of the camera.  More than anything I will just catch photos of the animals passing through.  It at least helps you know that a good animal (or maybe nothing) is in the area.  I myself have never harvested an animal on a camera location, and know very few people who have, even on a heavily used water hole.

Choosing a trail camera:  This used to be fairly easy; there were only a couple I could afford!  Now you will find dozens, if not hundreds of makes and models.  So where do you begin now?  This is where it is really up to you.  Above all, how much do you want to spend?  Cameras range in price from $50 to over $500.  As the price goes up, you will find more features available to your disposal.  Probably one of the most important items to consider, where are you placing the camera?  In the open, more range is a plus, but more range is not always good, such as in more closed timber or brush.  We will talk more about that in a minute.  Do you want night pictures, or only day?  Different models also allow you more options such as video modes, customizing how many photos per minute are taken, and how many photos per sequence.  Picture quality (megapixel) and battery life are also important considerations.  You are also going to need an SD card to store those great shots for you.
One of the most helpful tools I found was the great reviews at  This site has reviews on about every trail camera on the market, and they are easy to browse through, as well as easy to understand.  You will find that the reviews are completely unbiased, as the site does not promote any particular make of trail camera.  Let’s talk about a few more considerations to think of before choosing a camera.

Camera placement:  First things first, what are you hunting?  For mule deer I have much more success with my cameras on trails to water than on water itself, unless it is a dry year.  For elk, wallows are almost always best, or the trails into those wallows.  Look at the sign in your site.  My best results to date were where I placed a camera just off of water where 3 main game trails converged.  I had the camera on the water for a short time, but did much better on the trails.  I think this was due to the critters watering in different locations each time, but obviously using one of the 3 trails every time.  Mount the camera to the tree of choice, fire it up, and take a few photos of yourself.  Make sure you have it secured to the proper height and angle.  Also, check with the division of wildlife and land agency (Forest Service, BLM, state, etc.) to ensure that you can use cameras.  For example, in Utah you cannot use a trail camera 1 week prior to a hunt.  At this time the Forest Service has no restrictions, but some land management agencies are talking about implementing regulations to trail cameras, and even talking about having individuals register their equipment.  When you check your camera, be ready for some surprises, especially with elk!  I have tons of shots of eyeballs, tongues, and antlers as these guys like to lick, rake, and adjust my cameras for me.  The more secure the better.  This summer a curious bull had no trouble moving one of my cameras a short distance for me.  I’m glad I found it in 1 piece!  

My camera collection is small, under a dozen in comparison to friends that have dozens of them.  I add to it each year, scattering them out as if not to place all my eggs in 1 basket.  As the year progresses, I pull my less effective cameras, and place them around others that are paying off.  Scatter them out, try a variety of cover types, elevations, and water sources.  

Vegetation:  This is where a camera’s sensitivity really comes into play.  I have a Wildgame Innovations camera that took great photos in one particular spot.  However, when I placed a Moultrie camera in the same spot the next year, I had 200 pictures of trees when I checked it 2 weeks later.  Pay close attention to your camera’s range!  If it has a 30’ range, make sure there is nothing in that range (branches, bushes, flowing water) that can set the camera off.  I had to move the Moultrie to more open ground, and use different tactics than the trails to water.

Seasonality:  You will find that starting out early in the year you will be met with great success in getting great pictures.  It never fails that I will quickly get onto great bucks and bulls.  A lot of the time, the bucks will move on as temperatures climb, however elk seem to stay pretty consistent, up until about a week before the first hunt!  It never fails for deer and elk; once the velvet starts to come off, everything changes.  Patterns change, new animals show up, and the ones you were after flat out leave.  In fact, the 2 best bulls we were watching this year up and vanished about a month before the rifle hunt.  One of these bulls was taken not far from where the camera was.  He moved about a half mile away and stayed there for that month.  These cameras won’t always put you onto a trophy, but at least they can help narrow down the search!  Another worry in the West is free grazing cattle on public land.  Two years ago one of my best spots was taken over by cattle, and 100 elk photos a day turned to 200 cattle photos, with no elk at all.  The more remote a location, the better you are to escape this problem.  Also, don’t be surprised to see predators frequent your camera.  If the prey is there, so is the predator.  Use caution checking your cameras, I see more bear and cougar when I check trail cameras than any other time in the hills!

Security:  It is really unfortunate that we are talking about this.  Every year I hear stories of people loosing hundreds of dollars on stolen trail cameras.  There are ways to protect your investment.  Security boxes provide security from theft, as well as from animals.  Yes, I have seen what a bear can do to a camera, not pretty!  These boxes are very affordable, and simply allow you to screw lag bolts from inside the box into the tree.  The camera sits in the box, and you simply shut the lid and lock the box.  You can also attach a cable lock around the setup for added security.  Check out bestgamecamera, they have a wide selection for various cameras:  Remember, you will need a box that custom fits your camera, in order to fit to your camera’s lens location.

So, what do I use?  In closed timber and brush I prefer my Wildgame Innovations “Red 6” camera, with a 30’ range.  This camera can be found under $100 and is very simple to operate.  It has given me spectacular shots in close quarters, where I have worried about trees setting it off.  Check out my full review of this camera:

For more open country, and great night photos, I love my Moultrie “GameSpy M100”.  At about $150, this camera has many more features than the Red 6, such as video, shot sequence, greater range, and better infrared photos.  Check out my review:  Both of these cameras are great on the battery life, a plus for me as it is often over a month between checking cameras.

Now you are ready, happy shopping!  You are going to love it!  I get just as excited checking cameras throughout the summer as heading into the field to hunt.  It is also a thrill to see the change in your trophy throughout the year as the antlers grow and the velvet is shed.  You will find that it turns more into a hobby than simply scouting.  Whatever you benefit from it, enjoy, and good luck finding that next trophy!