Whitetail Weekly, The Pros and Cons of Trail Cameras

If you go to any hunting forum online, watch a hunting show on TV, thumb through a hunting catalog or visit an outdoors store you are sure to see something having to do with trail cameras.  Trail cameras have become wildly popular over the last several years and the number of people using them shows no signs of declining anytime soon.

While there are some pretty obvious and significant benefits to using trail cameras there are also some equally noteworthy potential downsides.  It’s important to keep both sides of the coin in mind when running trail cameras and successfully balancing the risk against the reward will assure you get the most benefit possible from your trail cameras.

Let’s take a look at the biggest benefits of running trail cameras

1.  Extended Season – If you are reading this article you are likely a pretty big hunting fan and as such most of us will agree that the season seems to go by way too quickly.  I have found that running trail cameras allows me to “hunt” all summer long.  We run cameras nearly year round but do take a few months off in the middle of winter.  Putting the cameras back out in the spring is like starting a new hunting season all over again.  As we get into late June and early July the velvet bucks start showing off what they’ve got and the chase is on.  For a deer nut like me, checking the cameras during velvet buck season is nearly as exciting as actually hunting and really scratches the itch in the off season.

This camera location allowed us to monitor movement into and out of a bedding area but also allowed quick, clean entry and exit.

2.  Simplified Scouting – While I would love to spend countless summer evenings glassing our fields and driving the back roads glassing food sources the truth of the matter is: I can’t.  Our property is 200 miles from my house and while we are up there several times a summer it just isn’t often enough to truly scout and try to pattern deer, bucks in particular.  Having a trail camera (or several in our case) set up allows me to have “eyes” on our property 24/7 all summer long despite not being able to be there in person.  This is a huge advantage and has been a key to much of my success over the last several years.

3.  Realistic Expectations – Today many hunters are making strides to improve the herd structure in their area by passing on younger bucks and holding out for older, mature animals.  While this practice is good in theory it is important to know what caliber of animals are in your area.  In some areas if you decide to hold out for a 4.5 year old or older animal you may go several, several seasons without ever even laying eyes on a “shooter”.  Using trail camera’s will allow you to get a good feel for the age structure in your area and allow you to set goals that will help improve the herd but are also realistic at the same time.  If your camera shows several bucks in the 1.5 to 2.5 range with just a few older bucks than making a goal of 3.5yr old or better will allow you pass on the majority of bucks in your area but still have a realistic chance of harvesting an animal.

Trail cameras allow you to get a feel for the bucks in your area and help you set realistic goals for your season.

I think that the value of the 3 benefits I listed above is quite substantial and those benefits are why we run several trail cameras each and every year.  We have nearly as much fun pulling cards and checking cameras as we do while hunting and the information gained from our cameras has been huge in our process over the last few years.  We are only 5 years into the process of trying to improve our property and the cameras do a great job of showing us the results of our efforts as well as keeping our expectations in line with reality. 

Along with those benefits there are also some potentially harmful side-effects of running trail cameras.

1.  Temptation and Intrusion – Once your cameras are out in the woods it is very tempting to run out there and check them every few days if you have that type of access available.  During the summer months the deer herd is pretty relaxed and are nowhere near as skittish as they are in the fall.  You can get away with more intrusion in July or August than you can in November but there is still a line in the sand and once you cross that line the deer will inevitably react negatively to your repeated intrusion.  All the pictures in the world of that awesome buck won’t do you any good if you push him out of the area by repeatedly kicking him out of his bed while checking your cams once a week. 

Camera checks in the summer can be pretty casual events but as the season draws closer the attention to detail increases.

2.  Blind Faith – While trail cameras allow you to have a set of “eyes” scouting for you even when you aren’t there they also only cover a very small area.  Essentially they are only scouting a 50ft x 50ft area out of what is usually a several acre piece of land.  While it’s always reassuring to see a nice buck or a lot of deer on your trail camera don’t allow a bad card pull to dampen your spirits too much.  Just because your camera isn’t showing a good buck doesn’t mean there isn’t one around.  The buck you’re looking for could easily be living on your land but managing to avoid your camera.  Not seeing what you’re looking for on your cameras may signal it’s time to move the cameras around but it doesn’t always mean your hopes for the season are shot.  Think of it this way, getting a good buck on camera certainly doesn’t guarantee you’ll kill him and not getting a buck on camera doesn’t guarantee he isn’t around.  Keep your head up and keep searching and scouting, don’t have blind faith that what you see on the camera is an accurate representation of what will happen while hunting. 

3.  Cost and Loss – Hunting isn’t exactly a cheap sport and it certainly doesn’t appear to be getting any cheaper any time soon.  Shelling out $150.00 or more for a trail camera is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you are going to strap that $150.00 to the side of a tree and hope it’s there when you come back.  It’s sad to think that the theft of things like tree stands and trail cameras has become as common as it has but unfortunately it’s a reality.  Depending on your situation and location it can be a risky proposition leaving a trail camera out in the woods.  The chances of coming back to check your pictures only to find your camera gone are way too high in many places and some people simply won’t risk their money to try and get pictures.  There are ways to mitigate some of the risk (buying cheaper model cameras, using lock boxes or cable locks) but every situation is different.  This is one situation that we all have to evaluate on our own based on our area and do what we are most comfortable with.

If you look at the risks listed above it’s pretty clear to see that they can all have some pretty substantial negative impacts but for two of the three listed it is also pretty easy to work around and possible negate their risk.

Knowing this 8pt was in the area made it much easier to pass on those borderline bucks that really needed that extra year.

Keeping cameras in easy to access areas and being patient enough to wait two to three weeks or more between card checks will all but eliminate the risk of intrusion.  Keeping a positive mind set and being proactive with your camera locations will allow you to work through those slow periods and find the deer you are looking for to avoid becoming disheartened with what the season may hold.  Unfortunately the price issue is something that there isn’t a real solution for and that is something that each person must address on their own.

While there are some inherent risks or possible side effects to running trail cameras I think in the end the value they provide and the level of enjoyment they provide will outweigh the risk that may be associated.  I know that personally I couldn’t imagine going all spring and summer without having the cameras out.  We have become so accustomed to them that going without them would be a bigger disappointment than any of the risks listed above.

As with most things in life there are a few risks involved with running trail cameras but in my experiences the benefits far outweigh the risks. 

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