Lessons Learned from 1 Million Trail Camera Photos

Lessons Learned from 1 Million Trail Camera Photos

Those who use trail cameras understand just how beneficial these tools can be. Where legal, it isn’t a question of whether hunters should or shouldn’t use these scouting tools. It’s a matter of how many you can afford. I run approximately 50 cameras annually, with a mix of cellular and traditional models.

As a result of robust trail camera use, throughout the past 12 years, I’ve captured around 1 million trail camera photos. That translates to a lot of lessons learned. Some of these are helpful in terms of mastering equipment, understanding animal behavior, and executing tactics, while others are merely truths to know. Regardless, all of these were learned from years of using trail cameras.

1. Some Deer Hate White Flash, Others Don’t
I’ve used every type of camera flash on the market. From white flash to infrared varieties, every deer reacts differently. Some whitetails flip out with white flash. Others don’t mind at all. Every deer is different.

2. Most Issues Are Preventable
Trail camera users who use good practice preventative measures tend to experience fewer problems. Avoiding ant infestations, cleaning battery contact points, and taking other necessary steps can stop a future camera issue in its tracks.

3. It’s Usually User Error
Those who have consistent issues getting quality trail camera photos might have a defective device, but it’s more likely a user-error issue. Education is the primary response for this. If that doesn’t solve things, a quick troubleshooting issue or customer service call can go a long way.

4. Consider the Sun
Getting the best possible trail camera photo requires certain general practices. One of these is to remember the sun. Throughout much of the year, it’s best to point cameras northward or southward to prevent severe glaring. However, as winter approaches, and the sun moves toward the southern sky, it’s good to adjust cameras as necessary.

Ignoring the position of the sun can mean big issues for your trail camera photos.

5. Optimize SD Cards
Showing up to check a trail camera only to learn an SD card corrupted, or it stopped taking images, isn’t fun. Optimizing, formatting, and maintaining SD cards can help prevent that from happening.

6. Think About Batteries
All batteries aren’t created equal. Certain cameras do better with different battery brands, such as Duracell vs. Rayovac. They also perform differently with various battery types, such as alkaline vs. lithium. Choosing correctly can extend the camera life, battery life, and even increase performance.

7. Megapixels Aren’t Everything
Higher megapixel counts can account for bigger, cleaner images. That’s an incredible feature to have. If your camera of choice offers that, great. That’s certainly a good thing. However, there are other camera features that are equally important, perhaps even more so. Some of these include detection range, trigger speed, flash range, field of view, and more. While there’s nothing wrong with more megapixels, don’t get fixated on that spec alone.

8. Settings Truly Matter
Just as with any camera, choosing the right trail camera settings is crucial. Doing so will result in higher likelihoods of getting good images. Have a goal in mind. Match the settings to that goal, or list of goals.

9. Whitetails Have Personalities
Every whitetail has a distinct personality. This isn’t a personality in the human sense, mind you. But each tendency culminates into a personality-like groupings of behaviors. For example, some deer are timid and shy away from confrontations. Others seek out trouble. Knowing how your target behaves can and should influence your tactical approach.

10. Video Mode Is Incredible
One aspect of patterning mature bucks is learning their behavior. There’s no better way to do that than via video mode. You learn so many details from their body language you likely won’t get from intermittent photos alone.

11. Every Buck Reacts Differently
Trail cameras have revealed to me just how different bucks are. Some are accepting of certain levels of human intrusion. Others want no part of it at all. Some bucks return immediately if they get spooked. Others take weeks, months, or never return. That said, if you spook a deer, don’t immediately think it’s gone. If trail cameras have taught me anything, it’s that.

Rub lines, especially those used year after year, are a great place for a trail camera. 

12. Still, Pressure Matters
The previous statement isn’t an all-access pass to every bedding area and sanctuary on the property, though. Still, be stealthy. Use good entry routes, exit routes, stand locations, etc. Monitor the wind. Hunt smart.

13. Deer Can (Seem) Calculative
Whitetails are reactionary by nature. Every action is a response to a stimulus, positive or negative. That said, they’re so reactionary that they can seem calculative. As far as we know, they can’t use rationale, or think critically, but they’re so in tune with their environment and adept at evading danger that they can seem to hold high levels of cognitive intelligence. (They don’t.) But there’s no doubt they do everything with a purpose.

All things being equal, deer tend to prefer to bed on high ground. 

14. Deer Can (Seem) Random
Despite seeming to think before every action, whitetails can be random, too. At least, it can seem that way to us humans who don’t fully understand the spectrum of their psyche. Therefore, right when we think we have them figured out, they make a change or do something unexpected, leading us to believe their random. Generally, this isn’t true, though. Something in their environment changed, including a seasonal-, bedding area-, food source-, predator presence-, or hunting pressure-related shift.

15. Antler Size Generally Peaks at Age 6-8
There are many factors that impact when bucks grow their largest set of antlers, including the age at which they grow their largest rack. That said, I’ve had the opportunity to follow some truly old bucks on camera, a few of which nearly reached double digits. That said, in most cases, it seems most whitetails grow their largest rack between 6-8.

There's no better scouting tool than a good trail camera.

16. Info Strips Are Great
Merely seeing a big buck on camera is a good thing. But studying the time of day and comparing that to the direction of travel is a great way to home in on bedding areas, feeding destinations, and more. It also helps unveil other important clues when trying to pattern a deer.

17. Data Plays a Major Role
General info is great. But studying the historical weather and wind data for the exact times of trail camera photos is a must. Deer don’t always walk into the wind, but by studying the wind direction and other relevant factors, you just might start to see a pattern in daylight appearances.

18. Other Details Matter
The number of things you can glean from a trail camera photo are many. Mud on the legs indicates possible swamp inhabitation, river crossing, etc. Behavioral tendencies that reveal potential high odds hunting tactics. These and many more are other details that matter, of which you likely wouldn’t get without a trail camera.

Bedding where people don't want to go? The details may reveal exactly that.

19. Bucks Follow Short-Term, Mid-Term, and Long-Term Patterns
I’ve been blessed to follow some bucks virtually their entire lives. One thing I’ve noticed is that almost every buck will follow short-, mid-, and long-term patterns. Short-term patterns are almost always driven by food. Mid-term pattern are much the same, but also involve short seasonal cycles. Long-term patterns are also dictated by food but are more largely impacted by season.

Once acorns start dropping it's best to transition closer to these tasty morsels. 

20. The Most Recent Information Is Necessary
Despite the above variety of patterns, things can change daily. This makes the most recent available information extremely important. The only way to get that is with cellular trail cameras, of which can be viewed in virtually real time.

21. Finding a Big Buck Is a Third of the Battle
The hardest part in killing a big buck is finding it. That’s a third of the process. It requires casting a wide net with numerous trail cameras. The second stage is learning that buck’s behavior, patterns, etc. Drilling down with micro trail cam tactics improves this effort. The final and third stage of the process is tagging the animal. In my opinion, in the real world, it’s the easiest one.

22. Property Lines Can Suck
Before trail cameras, you didn’t see nocturnal bucks, or bucks that bedded too far away to see during daylight. Now, with the advent of trail cameras, we see nighttime bucks that are virtually non-huntable. We end up reverse-engineering their travel patterns, only to be stopped by a property line. I guess it works both ways, though. Property lines can either save a deer from a neighbor that you eventually get, or vice versa.

Property lines save a lot of lives.

23. Trail Cameras Make Us More Efficient
I’m a much more efficient scouter and hunter since the arrival of trail cameras. I spend less time in sensitive areas, which applies less pressure to the target bucks I’m after. This makes me a more efficient and effective hunter.

24. Trail Cameras Don’t Degrade Fair Chase
Anti-trail-camera people never back up their statement that trail cameras oppose fair chase. It just isn’t true. Trail cameras — even cellular models — don’t guarantee the killing of deer. It doesn’t make it easier to kill. It just makes an animal easier to find. But even if you know it’s in the area, it doesn’t ensure a kill. Furthermore, the use of trail cameras helps reveal the largest bucks on the landscape, effectively encouraging users to pass younger deer. This is a good thing for the herd, and more deer survive because of it.

25. Year-Round Trail Camera Use Is a Must
One of the greatest and most underutilized benefits of a trail camera is year-round use. These aren’t just for fall and winter. Trail cameras have capacities for 12-month returns. Use these to scout whitetails all year long. Use them to scout turkeys. Keep an eye on properties. Cameras are good before, during, and after deer season.

Article and photos by Josh Honeycutt/Honeycutt Creative 

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