Employ a year-round trail camera strategy
Call this time of year Phase 4.
Mike Stroff, the host of Savage Outdoors TV, is also a professional outfitter. He manages properties in Texas, South Dakota and Illinois.
Combined, those lands account for nearly 90,000 acres.
He monitors the whitetails on all of them using trail cameras. Hundreds of them, no less. The man buys batteries a thousand at a time.
So when he lays out his camera strategy, it pays to listen.
He operates them year-round, including right now, in mid-winter, weeks after the last hunting seasons closed. At this time of year, it’s all about inventory.
Winter surveillance tells him a lot about how “his” deer herd came through the season and what other whitetails, including any “new” bucks in particular, moved into the area.
“I’m watching to see who the new deer are and where those bucks finished the year before they drop their antlers,” Stroff said.
There’s one winter location better for capturing deer on camera than any other: around food.
Whitetails get a lot of credit for being smart, Stroff said. Sometimes too much.
“Really, they’re just trying to survive,” he said.
At this time of year, long after breeding is done and with spring still months away, deer are in maintenance mode, trying to consume as many calories as they can while burning as few as necessary. So, Stroff said, focusing cameras on food pays dividends.
He leaves his cameras in such locations until about spring turkey season.
Then, he starts the surveillance year over again.
He employs what you might call Phases 1, 2 and 3.
Phase 1, or early-season monitoring, is done in summer. He focuses on food sources again to check what made it through winter.
“I’m trying to locate what bucks are there, what bucks are mature, what I’ve got to hunt,” he said.
Mineral licks are another spot to target in summer.
“It seems like the bucks will dominate those mineral spots,” Stroff said.
Phase 2 begins around Sept. 1, right before the earliest deer seasons. He moves his cameras then, once “those bucks start rubbing out, when you see those first rubs popping up.”
Then, he looks for “pinch points” between bedding areas and food. Those are places where deer traveling between the two have to go.
“Travel corridors are important,” Stroff said. “Because once the bucks break up, and they’re not in their bachelor groups anymore, a lot of times they’re not so easy to get pictures of. So you’ve got to get a little bit creative on where to get those photos.”
Phase 3 of his year-long surveillance strategy starts mid-season, with the approach of the rut. Then, he puts his cameras on scrapes.
“If you’re not already doing it, this is when you want to be looking at your scrapes because you can get really good images of the bucks there and you can monitor what they’re doing,” Stroff said.
He doesn’t keep his cameras on scrapes terribly long. Once he identifies a quality buck, “I don’t need 50 more pictures” of him.
“What I’m trying to do is figure out how to hunt that buck, how to kill that buck,” Stroff said.
That means using his cameras to figure out where that bucks is coming from on his way to the scrapes.
No matter the season, he tries to minimize his presence when checking cameras.
What that means varies, though.
His Illinois, property, he said, is large open fields pock-marked with small timber blocks. He puts his cameras in those woods, then checks them after dark, when the deer are all in the fields feeding.
“I bump very few deer that way,” he said.
Elsewhere, he said, it might make sense to drive out to check cameras on field edges when farmers are running equipment. Deer used to that commotion see it as less threatening than a person on foot, he said.
He doesn’t spray any of his cameras with scent killer, he said, though he might on heavily pressured public ground.
After all, no matter the location, the idea is to be stealthy. You want to collect intelligence without making the resident whitetails nervous, he said.
“At the end of the day, cameras aren’t a whole lot different that tree stands. If your approaches are wrong, and you’re spending too much time going in and out and putting unnecessary pressure on the deer, you’re spooking them all the time” he said. “It’s just making it harder to kill them.”
That’s hard enough as it is.
So he runs trail cameras year-round, even in winter, gathering as much intelligence as possible with as little disturbance as necessary.
“Where you place your cameras matters,” Stroff said. “No matter if you have 500 acres to hunt or 100 acres, or if you’ve only got a couple of cameras to use, you’ve got to put them in the right places to get the inventory. So thinking about how to use your cameras and where to place them is real important.”