April 16, 2014 – David Leer, Guest Blogger
Trail cameras – everyone knows a guy that posts awesome pictures on Facebook, Twitter, or an internet forum. Most sportsmen would love to use them, but that’s the problem…learning! Here are 10 great, easy, and practical tips to not only help you, an Oregon Outdoor Council supporter, learn how to successfully use trail cameras to your advantage but to get the best trail camera pictures possible!
Identifying the best place for a trail camera can be tricky and usually involves some trial and error. Possible locations for game-related trail cameras include major trails or trail junctions, food or water sources, natural clearings, old road beds, bait stations, treestand/ground blind sites, fence crossings, natural funnels, wallows, and even carcasses or gut piles. These same cameras can also be useful in more domestic applications such as determining who or what knocked over your garbage can every week for the past three months, who keeps helping themselves to your tomatoes before they’re ripe, or even who comes every Friday night to steal the gas out of your old ’72 Chevy. Any place you can legally and securely place a camera can lead to great footage as long as you consider a few things prior to placing a camera.
Small clearings can be great trail cam sites. Try to find clearings close to bedding cover with multiple trails entering and leaving.
Old road beds are also very good trail cam locations.
Here I placed a trail cam near my garbage can. I discovered that there were no less than 3 feral dogs frequenting our neighborhood at the time!
Wallows are one of my favorite places to locate a trail cam; you never know what will come in to a wallow during the summer months.
I prefer my cameras to be firmly mounted to something solid like a log, tree, or post. I usually do this using two small (1/4 x 2-3”) lag bolts which mount a security box, and ensure that once I get the camera pointed where I want it, nothing will move it for any reason. This is handy in bear country for sure, and a surprising amount in elk country too; both critters will really mess with your camera! One other benefit of this strategy is that I don’t have to spend time re-aiming every time I check a camera. IF you’re not using a security box, (You should be!) but if not I suggest using both a strap and a python lock. Doing so enables you to unlock and check your camera without it moving similar to the lag bolt/security box setup. At this point the camera is mounted, aimed, and ready to go – this is when I would suggest doing a little camouflage work. Camoflauging your camera takes just a few seconds and can definitely keep a lot of people from seeing it.
I usually like to use moss because it looks good even when dry and is easy to come by; I’ll also use sword fern fronds if moss is in limited supply because they take quite a while to turn brown.
With one or two small lag bolts this steel security box is fastened to the chosen tree. This ensures constant aiming, reduces the amount of time needed to check cameras and download cards, and makes the camera harder for vandals either two or four legged to affect the setup.
A good camo job will keep many people from seeing your camera, and it’s fun to do!
Mounting height depends on the species most likely to be encountered or the target species. For deer I hang my cameras 26-30” off the ground, elk 36-40”, small animals like turkeys usually 20” or less. The key is to get as much of the field of the camera at chest height of the target animal, which leads to much higher detection efficiency. On level ground this is easy: just put the camera at the desired height; level it up; and, voila, you’re done. On steep sloping ground be sure to angle the camera with the slope, or adjust your mounting height so that the camera is capturing as wide a field as possible at the desired height.
A well-aimed camera mounted at the proper height will help maximize the chance of capturing high quality photos, like this one of an early spring blacktail buck.
This camera was setup to get pictures of deer, when these elk showed up the camera was too low to the ground to capture any full body pictures.
Considering which species you’re likely to capture and setting the camera at the appropriate height is very important.
Cameras should be aimed in such a way that maximizes the time animals are in the camera’s detection zone. To do this, avoid setting cameras perpendicular to the direction of anticipated travel. I find that one of the most effective strategies is to place the camera so that it is pointed down a main trail with a major junction centered in the camera’s view. If no major junction exists then find a tree that allows you to point the camera down as long a straight run in the trail as possible.
This will help minimize the number of empty pics or videos, as well as limiting the number of “headless” critters captured by the camera’s lens. Similarly, if the camera is setup in an area with a specific focal point (salt block, bait station, gut pile, scent post, fence crossing, wallow, etc), be sure that the focal point is centered in the frame and 10-20 feet away from the camera.
This photo shows the basic shape of the detection zone of all trail cameras, specifics may vary slightly but keep this shape in mind when aiming your camera.
Security is an often overlooked part of the process that will literally make or break your experience in the trail cam woods. Very often when I run across trail cameras that are simply strapped onto a tree and turned on! Incredibly, some of these are even pointed at things like salt blocks or piles of one type of bait or another making them all the more visible. When I encounter cameras in the woods I usually stand in front of them, give a wave and go on my way. Of course, not everyone does that, which is why I wholeheartedly recommend spending the $30-50 for a good security box and python lock. Will this guarantee that none of your cameras will get stolen? Unfortunately no, but it will help deter the “casual” thief. Over the years I’ve had roughly a dozen people try to steal one of my cameras, but once their initial efforts were thwarted by a good box and lock they gave up. To date none of these people has returned with the necessary tools to complete the job, and they’ve given me some ‘interesting’ video footage in the process.
Video capture of the release aid of a would-be thief, thanks to security measures he soon gave up and left without my camera.
One of the most often asked questions I hear is, “how long do I need to let my camera soak before I check it?” The easy answer is, “as long as you want”, but really, what is reasonable? Some people say, “no more than once a month”; others proclaim, “I go every week and get pics/vids every time.” The answer is probably different for every place but in general I try to go no more than once every two weeks, and often times I’ll wait 3-6 weeks during the off season if I think the camera can last that long without batteries dying or SD cards filling up (this is rarely a problem given the size of SD card most cameras can handle these days). During hunting season, if I have a camera in an important location, in front of a tree stand for instance, I’ll check it every time I hunt that area just so that I can get an idea what’s been going on during my absence. Of course the goal in this situation is different because seasons have a limited time frame and I want to know what’s happening right then in order to maximize my opportunity for filling my tag. Whatever interval you choose remember that the more time you spend in an area where you have a camera the more likely it is that you’ll impact the movement patterns of the critters you’re trying to capture on film.
Check your cameras too often and you could cause critters like these to change their patterns, check them not often enough and you risk running batteries dead or filling sd cards. I prefer 3-4 week soaks providing batteries will last that long, shorter soaks during hunting seasons are often necessary to better inform hunting efforts.
Maybe the hardest thing to decide is when a spot just isn’t going to produce like you’d hoped and to move on to the next “hot spot”. Usually I’ll give a camera at least a month in one spot before I move it, maybe longer depending upon the target species and time of year. In winter when things get slow for bucks and bulls I’ll often put cameras in places where I shed hunt or maybe just on an old road somewhere. Old roads are traveled by pretty much everything, especially all of the predatory species, so hanging a camera on an old road for 2-3 months in the winter can be a great way to get some “bonus” footage. It also gives me a good reason to get out and do some hiking in the woods during the “off” season. Conversely, if I’m running cameras in preparation for hunting season and one goes a couple of weeks with little to no activity in an untested spot, I’ll move it somewhere else. It seems like I am never really lacking spots to put a camera, just cameras to put in those spots!
It can take quite a while to capture some of the more elusive animals like this bobcat, placing cameras in likely travel routes for predators can be a great way to keep running cameras during the winter months.
There are of course a few situations that arise which can cause problems. One of these is camera placement that causes photos and videos that have the sun directly behind the subject. While this can result in some really cool looking photos at times, it more often results in subjects that are completely obscured and in some instances A LOT of false triggers. In order to avoid this be sure that your camera doesn’t point E-SE or W-SW with a clear view of the horizon.
Another situation to avoid is placing cameras right on the edge of clear cuts or other openings during the warm summer and early fall months. Here in Western Oregon, clear cuts are the most popular feeding areas for many of the herbivores we hunt or look to capture on camera. Placing a camera on the edge between dark timber and open clear cut makes a lot of intuitive sense, but beware there are several problems that can arise from this.
One reason to avoid these areas is because the camera is quite visible and therefore subject to unwanted attention from other people. Other reasons I avoid edges of openings during the hot months are due to high temperatures resulting from long periods of direct sun beating down. What this does is two-fold: First, it creates a lot of wind which blows around vegetation causing cameras to repeatedly trigger for no reason; and second, the camera triggers because it is in the relatively cool shade. The temperature differential between the cool shade and the hot opening fool the camera causing false triggers. Often this will happen on the 10 hottest days of the summer or so, but in some cases it will happen every day that the sun shines, usually within the same two-to-three hour time period. If you don’t check your camera for 3 weeks that turns into a lot of false triggers to dig through, and sometimes it results in prematurely full sd cards causing you to miss critters.
For these reasons, if I happen to have cameras in openings or on edges, I move them in late May/Early June so that I don’t have to deal with these types of problems. The last thing I would advise paying attention to, at least here in western Oregon where most of the hunting and a lot of trail camming happens on private timberland, is that timber harvest happens. Not only does harvest happen, but it happens everywhere and at some point will happen to one of your spots (if it hasn’t already). In 2013, three of my camera/treestand spots were harvested; this year I know of two more that are going to be. Don’t assume that just because you’ve never seen activity in a certain stand of timber that it’s going to stay that way forever, it won’t. Therefore I try to visit all of my cameras at least once/month and I pay attention to flagging, pickup/truck/people traffic etc. If I think a certain parcel is going to be logged I either move my camera immediately, or do some digging to find out when the harvest is going to occur so I can get an idea of whether or not I want to stay in that location for a while or not.
Setups like this one can be great for much of the year, run this setup during the hot months and you’ll be digging through false triggered photos and videos for hours.
There are times that anyone who owns trail cameras should have them out. One of these is late spring into early summer when all of the babies are arriving. Bears with their young will be visible starting sometime in April, elk calves usually start showing up in late May, and deer fawns a little later into June. If you have cameras out starting in early April and run them through mid-July you’re almost guaranteed to capture some of the most entertaining pics and videos of the year. If you’re really trying to catch as many bears on camera as possible get your cameras out in mid-late March, be patient, and run them right up to or even through the early bow season. This is the half of the year when the bears are most active during the daylight. I prefer old/closed roads, small clearings, and elk wallows to target for bears. If you put a camera on a wallow during the summer you’ll see bears, at least that’s been the case for me. A word of caution, don’t target bears without having your camera in a security box. If you do it is likely your camera will get eaten the first or second time a bear comes by. The final time period I wouldn’t miss is the deer rut. Having cameras out during the deer rut guarantees you the chance to get a look at some really big bucks. In blacktail country I’m convinced that many of the big mature bucks are only visible for a short time in the summer when they are growing antlers, and again during the rut. The rest of the time it’s like they don’t even exist.
Spring is a great time to have cameras out; sights like this are common if you have the right setup.
Finding an elk wallow is a great way to get daylight footage of bears.
Like big bucks? Target the peak of the deer rut to get a glimpse of those bucks that are almost impossible to see the rest of the year.
Most of us have heard this saying at least once in our lives: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Ethics is an often discussed topic among hunters; in the case of trail cams I feel like the answer is pretty simple. If you find a camera in the woods, go ahead and pose for a couple of pics then go about your business. If the camera happens to be in “your” spot, assuming it’s on publicly accessible land, don’t pitch a fit ranting on and on, and don’t do anything you wouldn’t want someone to do to your setup. If you find yourself about to do something nefarious—steal a camera, destroy a bait station, leave a big pile of “human scent” at the spot, or something more or less creative— just remember that those of us running trail cameras are often hunters too. We work for our dollars and choose to spend some of them on trail cam setups, we don’t mind the occasional picture of your hairy backside but we’d be pretty happy if you would respect our property and right to spend time in the woods the same way we respect yours.
About the Author: David Leer began hunting in central Oregon 28 years ago with his father. When not hunting, fishing, or checking trail cameras he enjoys outdoor photography and videography, home brewing and serving on the board of his local bow club. David has worked at Oregon State University as a fish biologist conducting research on headwater streams in western Oregon for the past 14 years.
P.S. The Oregon Outdoor Council is hosting a symposium titled, How Predators and Current Predator Management Are Impacting Your Hunting Opportunity! Click here to get the full details! The Oregon Outdoor Council board (Stan Steele, Dominic Aiello, Duane Bernard, Wayne Endicott, Asha Aiello, Wendell Locke, Mike Vallery, and Norm McLarren) have put together a great event. Make sure you check it out!