What My Trail Cameras Taught Me This Fall

Trail cams fascinate me, mainly because they show me how much I don't know about whitetails. This fall's pics have been one reminder after another of how many whitetails are duping me. It's been downright humbling to know what's out there compared to what I'm actually seeing. But as always, the annual trail-cam season has provided some valuable lessons, too.

Here are the highlights from 2014:

Deer on a Trail Camera

Deer on a Trail Camera

Deer on a Trail CameraEditors

Lesson 1: Summer pics are mostly eye candy. This was easily the best summer I've ever had for capturing big bucks in velvet. By mid-August, I had photos of at least five bucks I'd happily shoot. After velvet shed, I could positively ID only one of those bucks in my fall photos. Clearly, the breakup of bachelor groups and the transition to fall home ranges shakes things up more than I thought. Note to self: Scout and glass more in that early-fall period to learn where bucks go after they leave their buddies.

Deer on a Trail Camera at Night

Deer on a Trail Camera at Night

Deer on a Trail Camera at NightEditors

Lesson 2: Scrapes start early. I take most of my summer pics over mineral licks (legal here in MN), but as fall progresses I switch to scrapes (mock, real, or a combination of the two). My trail camera pics show that bucks readily hit those scrapes as soon as they shed velvet, and that activity builds until the late pre-rut. If you're not getting cameras on scrapes by October 1, you're missing a big boat. Peak scrape activity this year, according to my pics: October 10-24.

Big Buck on a Trail Camera at Night

Big Buck on a Trail Camera at Night

Big Buck on a Trail Camera at NightEditors

Lesson 3: Unfamiliar big bucks hit your scrapes during peak rut. As the rut spikes, scrape visits drop sharply, but I leave the cameras out. My biggest trail-cam buck of the year—a tall, heavy 10-point Booner that I'd never seen or photographed before—showed up on November 11. This is a pattern that's repeated itself over the last three seasons; fewer bucks show up at scrapes but the ones that do are big and often moving in the daylight. My read is that these mature bucks have already been with a doe (or two) and are seeking hard—perhaps out of their home range—to find the next. You need to get on them fast.

What did your trail-cams show you this year?