The Invaluable Trail Camera

Many years ago when I began bowhunting on my own, I immersed myself in learning more about the game I pursued. The goal of arrowing an unsuspected buck at 20 paces was lofty for sure. Knowing that deer normally travel on trails networks throughout their range, I used to smooth out muddy spots along game trails in order to see when an animal passed. I’d check these spots for tracks periodically and note the direction of travel, relative timeframe if known, and I’d study the prints in attempt to assess the size/sex of the animal. Based on my scouting data I’d hang stands or construct ground blinds accordingly. And I enjoyed some success as a result.

The original string Trail Timer

Later, in the early 90’s I used small single-event string timers to help determine when and where game animals traveled. These string timers are still available today. They are light, small, simple to set up, and best of all, inexpensive. Although these simple devices are handy they leave much to the imagination. Was it a bear, deer or coyote? A buck or doe – who knows?

Today I still practice my simple mud-smoothing tactic but I’ve moved from the simple string timers to modern-day trail cameras to provide rich detailed data.

In recent years the market has been flooded with a variety of commercially manufactured trail cameras aimed specifically for hunting purposes. I’m not going to get into a buyer’s guide here because that would be a huge undertaking. Instead, I will share some information, tips, and considerations that I’ve noted over the past several years while deploying several trail cameras year-round.

Choosing the Right Camera

This Moultrie D40 4.0 MP camera cost $78 and has been a solid performer for over two years now. I plan to add a couple more to my line up this summer.

Often you hear the word “addicting” associated with trail cameras, and for good reason. With each new set-up the waiting and anticipation can be maddening, especially when you’ve set up on a hot wallow, churned up trail, or a tucked away feed area. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there mumbling to myself as I secure a camera in place; my mind racing with visions of bucks, bulls, or bears lumbering into view of my camera lens. It’s exciting and for many hunters it’s a way to keep your head in the game all year long.

But before you run out and buy a trail or game camera, as they are commonly called, you need to decide what your budget is and what level of performance you’re after. For example, do you want five inexpensive cameras out there capturing low-resolution photos of game simply to inform your hunting strategies or do you want one camera that shoots high-resolution photos and video with exquisite clarity and detail? Do you have $100 or $500 to spend? Infrared or white flash? Answering these questions ahead of time will help you narrow the field of choices.

A great resource in researching the variety of makes and models is provided by Trailcampro.com. See the 2009 Trailcam Shootout. Trailcampro.com has tested a selection of cameras every year since 2006 for performance metrics of image quality, trigger speed, motion sensor detection, and other notable features. You can view the results for all previous years as well. It’s worth your time to review their data before purchasing any trail camera, new or used.

Commercial vs. Homebrew

As I mentioned above, I am not going to explore the myriad of commercial offerings here. I will say there are many great units available covering a wide range of price and performance preferences. Several companies offer systems that send photos directly to your cell phone as they are captured in the woods, such as the SmartScouter™ Cellular Surveillance System. Talk about instant gratification!

Sony P41 Homebrew

My Sony P41 Homebrew Trail Camera. This unit has captured thousands of high-quality photos in extreme weather conditions without a single issue.

In recent years there has been a surge in the number of people who are opting to get more involved in trail cameras by building their own. These home-made units are commonly called “Homebrew” trailcams and in my opinion, they are second to none in terms of cost, system quality, field performance, and image quality. Not to mention the personal satisfaction of creating your own custom camera rig. I purchased two used homebrew cams from experienced builders before I dove in headfirst to build one. It turned out better than I expected so I am building an exact copy of the first. In addition to these I have commercially manufactured cameras as well. I use them all but save my homebrew cams for special and/or very secure places.

There are dozens of web sites dedicated to the design and construction of homebrew trail camera, and several sites offering turnkey circuit boards, controller boards, and other specialized components ready for you to assemble. Most require that you purchase a digital camera but they do provide schematics and instructions on performing the wiring modifications needed for each camera supported by their circuit boards.

In short, if you are mechanically inclined and have a steady hand to perform minimal intricate soldering, you can build a high-quality 8.0 MP trail camera for around $150. If you’re interested to learn more or take on a new project, here are a few notable sites worth checking out:

White Flash vs. IR

3pt close up

I have photographed this buck hundreds of times over the past three years. In 2009 he was a 115" class 4x4. The white flash has had no measurable effect, even at point black range.

Many people claim that the bright white flash from a trailcam is enough to run a reclusive buck out of the area. So, they opt for an infrared (IR) unit instead. I have used both extensively and can say with 100% certainty based on my experience that the white flash has little to no effect on deer behavior, or any animal for that matter. I have discussed this topic with many veteran trailcam fanatics and they all report the same conclusion for whitetails, mule deer, and blacktails. When choosing a camera, rest assured that you can light up the eyeballs on a Booner buck repeatedly without worry of spooking him. Deer and elk rely largely on their sense of smell to determine danger, so while the bright flash may be annoying, it’s not viewed as a threat to their safety. I have thousands of photos of bears, deer, and elk at point blank range to back up my claim.

Setting Up Your Camera in the Field

Heading out into the woods with your trailcam is always fun and filled with anticipation. But before you simply strap your camera to a tree and walk away, there are some key considerations to address.

Security- The first and most important factor in where you set up is security. Never assume “nobody will go into this hole” because they will, and they do. And it’s quite possible that the next time you return to check your camera, it will be gone. It happens every day, and when it happened to me – on private land no less – I was ‘road-rage’ angry. It was my homebrew IR cam and it was full of bull elk photos – my photos! Not only did I lose my camera but I was robbed of all my scouting efforts which are much more valuable than the replacement cost of the trail camera itself.

I can’t stress enough the importance of hiding your cameras well and avoid easy view or physical access locations. They will be found and stolen. It’s sad, but it’s a fact you need to deal with.

This is how I hide my trail cameras, although in this case, there wasn't a larger tree nearby or I'd have used it instead. You can see the exposed black cable here where some moss had fallen down.

I always secure my cameras to trees with Master Python locks because they are simple to use and difficult to cut. I hang my cameras on large diameter trees only and cover with them moss or other vegetation to hide them well. There are after-market lock-boxes out there but most are made of thin-gauge sheetmetal that aren’t worth a hoot, in my opinion. I know a guy who is building some nice heavy-duty boxes for the Moultrie D40 and Game Spy 5.0 models. For around $50, they are a great buy.

The Sun – Bright sunlight can cause false triggers and fill up memory cards with white overexposed photos. It’s a real let down after a three week soak in the woods to find 365 white photos.

When choosing a tree to hang my camera I always look up to evaluate the sun’s trajectory across the sky and aim my camera north to northeast with plenty of shade trees around. Regardless of the time of year, you need to avoid prolonged periods of direct sunlight on your trail camera. If you do this, you’ll never get false triggers from the sun.

Weather– Extreme cold or heat can cause performance issues with some trail cameras. I have had my homebrews (Sony cameras) out in 15-30 degree weather for weeks and never experienced a performance issue. My commercial models don’t perform as well. My guess is the camera unit itself isn’t as high-quality as the Sony consumer-grade cameras I have in my homebrews.

So be aware of the weather forecasts and decide if you want your camera to tough it out or take a break until milder weather returns. I’ve never had an issue with rain with any of my cams. The homebrews are built from Pelican waterproof cases, and they are very dependable if you do your part to seal the modifications well.

Positioning– I try to hang my cameras between three and four feet from the ground and roughly 10’ from where I expect the camera to be triggered by an animal. I look closely at the angle of the camera as it’s cinched up against the tree trunk and shim it as needed with small sticks to ensure it’s aimed correctly. I also set up at 30-45 degree angle from the trail so the motion sensor picks up movement in time for the camera to snap the photo. My homebrew cameras have exceptional timing but I’ve found that setting up 90 degrees to a trail often results in tail or rump photos unless you set up further away. By setting up at an angle, you increase your odds for some great full frame photos.

Settings– Most all cameras have settings for multiple shots, delays, video or still photos, etc. Again, it all depends on what you want with your set up. If you’re set up on a feed area and you can’t check your camera for a full month or more, you’re better off setting your camera on a 3-5 minute delay so you don’t fill up your memory card with the same doe and fawns feeding along. However, if you are able to check your cameras weekly or even bi-weekly, you can be more liberal in your settings provided you have a large memory card. I typically use 512MB or 1GB in my 3.2 MP homebrew, 2GB in my 4.0MP cameras, and a 4GB in my 8.0 MP camera. With the cost of flash memory on the steady decline, you can pick up memory pretty inexpensively. I buy from Surplus Computers and have found their prices to be exceptionally low. Their customer service is great too.

 
 

Black bears are very curious and will spend considerable time harassing your trail camera if it has residual odors from handling. Latex or Nitrile gloves help immensely.

Bears – Yes, bears. A flash from a camera or the sound of a shutter is all it takes to divert a passing bear toward your camera. And bears love to taste-test things with the curiosity of a crow pecking at a shiny coin on the street. Bears can and will destroy your camera if it is not secure and scent free. Even at that, they will often give it a go. I ALWAYS wear Nitrile gloves (from Costco) since a bear nearly ate one of my cameras. The scent of lunch on my hands from earlier that day was a rookie mistake on my part. Since wearing gloves and keeping my cameras scent free, I’ve never had another issue with bears trying to eat my cameras.

GPS – It might seem trivial at the time to note the specific location of your set up, but it’s very important. I once lost a camera that I placed in a fairly familiar location. I got busy with work and before I knew it two weeks went by, then three, then four. It was springtime and by the time I got out to check it, the ferns had grown up 3 feet or more not to mention the surrounding vegetation. I looked for that camera for another five weeks before I found it. Had I logged a GPS location at the time I set it up, I’d have had no issues finding it.

 Storage (HDD) Considerations

Each and every time I return from checking my trail cameras, I enter the house with child-like excitement. I can’t wait to download my photos and sort through them. The problem came about quickly because I was doing this all year long with multiple cameras. In short order I amassed over 10,000 photos which put a pretty sizable dent in my Mac’s HDD. If you’re going to get serious about this trailcam business, you may want to invest in a large USB mobile HDD to store all your photos. This will keep your home PC free from the heavy storage burden of your new outdoor addiction.

On a related note, it may be difficult at first but keep only those photos that are good quality and meaningful. 87 photos of a doe feeding don’t really do you much good and only serve to fill up your hard drive. Keep a couple of the best photos and delete the rest. Trust me, over time you’ll be glad you did.

When you download your photos, create a logical label for them so you can go back and find what you’re looking for. For example, my labeling scheme is: CAMERA NAME/TYPE, LOCATION, DATE RANGE. For example: Sony P41 Homebrew – Upper Ridge – 3-10 to 4-1-10. This has proven to be a good method because I can quickly can and scan and sort all my photos.

Summer is upon us and the fall hunting seasons are fast-approaching. If you haven’t taken part in the use of trail cameras to augment your summer scouting, you might want to give it a try. It’s a fun family activity and a great way to see what’s on the menu this year. Good luck!

Here are a handful of photos from my collection of over 10,000 images:

I photographed this unique blacktail buck right up to the week before I killed him...over a mile from where my camera was set up where he was tending a doe.

The first and only bat I have photographed. I think he's a "book" bat given his size.

A nice collared bear that keyed in on the red light of my IR cam. Shortly after this photo was taken, he mouthed my camera and left it covered in slobber. Nice.

This is the buck I was after last fall. He pushed this doe past one of my 8.0MP homebrew Sony cams during the rut. He's my target buck for 2010 assuming he made it though. There was rain on the case glass causing some blurring but I still love this photo.

This stud has been driving me nuts for nearly three years. I have three shed antlers thus far and a couple dozen photos but have not laid eyes on him yet. He took a tine to the eye during a fight in '08. He was healthy and his antlers were identical in 2009. This buck lives on high-pressure public land but manages to survive year after year.

4x5 buck in 2008 with my Sony P32 IR cam. Note the tint from the IR filter.

4x4 in thicket

This scrappy 3x2 made that rub in the background. I have a 30+ photo sequence of him working those trees. Here he appears to be testing the waters with the dominant buck.

This is the 4x5 in 2009. I have spent literally hundreds of hours combing thorugh the salal, ferns, and reprod looking for his 2008 and 2009 sheds. I have one antler from 2006 and his match set from 2007, all found within 150 yards of this spot..

This hefty 3x3 gave me the slip in '08. I haven't seen him since.

I love the unique coloration of IR photographs.

I have over 200 photos of this buck toting that limb around.

© Tom Ryle 2010

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About the Author

Tom Ryle

Tom Ryle

Tom Ryle's passion for bowhunting has fueled adventures spanning the United States, Canada, and South Africa. He is an official measurer for the Pope and Young Club, NMLRA, NW Big Game Inc., and Oregon Shed Hunters.