Trail cameras offer information, so long as they are used wisely
Imagine a little kid at Christmas.
He rushes down the stairs, wide-eyed and crazy with anticipation. And why? He knows there’s something under the tree for him. What exactly it might be is a mystery, but he expects it to be good.
That’s what it’s like with trail cameras.
Hunters — and general wildlife watchers — put them out and then can’t wait to get a peak at what wanders by.
“It’s pretty exciting to have a trail camera and see what’s out there. Many people are interested in knowing what’s on their property, what’s walking through their neighborhood,” said Hal Korber, photo and video specialist for Pennsylvania Game Commission.
“It’s pretty addictive.”
Getting good pictures — and from a hunting perspective, useful ones — requires thought, however.
“Here’s the thing. When you get a camera, you have to determine what is your goal?” said Erich Long, owner of Drumming Log Wildlife Management, a wildlife consulting firm.
If it is to survey the deer on a property, now is the time.
C.J. Winand, a wildlife biologist and author in Maryland, runs his cameras in August, when deer families are together. Long prefers to do his mid-September.
Both agree it takes one camera for every 50 to 100 acres. It’s critical to leave them there for a long time, too.
“Run your cameras for 10 days, you have a 70 to 90 percent accuracy rate on determining the total number of deer in your area. Bucks, does and fawns,” Winand said.
“Do it for two weeks and it’s 90 to 95 percent.”
There is another reason why time is beneficial. Deer will change behavior if humans spend too much of it in an area, Long said. Checking trail cameras too frequently is a mistake hunters often make.
“Us being on a property, that creates stress for the deer. Create too much and you could really be negatively dictating a lot of those deer’s movements,” he said. “The best thing is to get in and get out.”
Korber never moves a camera unless he’s taking it out of the area permanently. Otherwise, he uses two SD cards. When he visits a camera, he takes one card out, replaces it with the other, then leaves.
“That leaves less scent and there’s less disturbance,” he said.
As for where to place cameras, that is tricky in Pennsylvania.
Winand prefers to set up cameras over some type of granular bait. That concentrates deer, he said.
Feeding deer is illegal inside the confines of disease management areas here, though, and discouraged everywhere else, said Brian Singer, law enforcement supervisor in the Game Commission’s southwest region office.
Pennsylvania regulations further say a hunter who puts out bait for a trail-camera survey or another purpose has to remove it at least 30 days prior to the start of any hunting season. The earliest of those are fast approaching. Archery season opens Sept. 17 in wildlife management units 2B — which surrounds Pittsburgh — and 5C and 5D in the southeast, and statewide Oct. 1.
What qualifies as having “removed” bait is open to interpretation, too.
It’s not as simple as just removing a salt block, for example, Singer said. Minerals can leach into the ground, with deer returning to eat that soil.
How much has to be dug up and taken away before hunting the spot?
“You don’t really know. And that’s part of the problem,” Singer said.
To avoid problems, Long said hunters should place trail cameras in areas where they might hang a tree stand.
“It’s just like deer scouting. If you can find a place where there are two runs coming together, a creek crossing, any kind of high-traffic area, you set up your cameras there,” he said.
Water sources are another good site, Korber said. He also likes fence rows and other travel corridors.
Long offers more advice. Deer and other wildlife invariably will learn of a camera’s presence.
“From my experience, they do see something. The animals know something is there and they’re always investigating,” Korber said.
How they react varies. Long said some deer, on some properties, will ignore cameras. The results of a study he did said others react differently.
“Does, once they saw the camera, they would have a negative reaction. They would stop. They would walk away. They would never run, but they were very uneasy,” Long said.
“The bucks, it was like someone slapped them on the butt with a 2-by-4. They bugged out.”
Some, he said, never return.
The only way to know how deer in a particular location react is first set to a camera to video, he said. If that reveals a camera doesn’t bother them, he leaves it as is. If it makes deer uneasy, he will set it up high and angled down to minimize responses.
Despite obstacles, though, there is a lot of good to be gained from using cameras, Long said.
“They’re just one of the greatest management tools we have at our fingertips. They help out with stand locations. They help in figuring out who’s on the property, buck-wise,” Long said.
“They can do so much anymore. They’re good to use, so long as you use them wisely.”