Getting decent trail-camera photos of whitetail bucks isn’t all that hard these days. Cameras have improved a ton, and we know way more about how to get deer to pose in front of them now than we did when the technology was new. As a result, we can assemble “hit lists” and “shoot/don’t-shoot” guides based on our trail-cam photos. And when we do succeed, the stories we tell these days usually come with a rundown of the buck’s full history, complete with trail-cam photo support.
So, yeah, we’ve gotten pretty good at it. But you can always get better, right? If getting more photos of higher quality with less effort and hassle sounds good to you, follow the hacks below to take your trail-cam game from good-enough to “Oh, my goodness!” in the months leading up to the fall hunting season.
1. Run From the Sun
My friend and Red Dog Outfitters owner Tim Clark is adamant about directional positioning of cameras. “Never face a camera directly east or west unless you’re willing to completely sacrifice morning (east-facing) or evening (west-facing) pics, at least in daylight,” he says. “And now we’ve got the solstice, so the sun will be dropping farther south by the day. Any time I can cheat a camera to the north side of a setup I’m taking it. Nothing drives me crazier than getting a washed-out pic of a big-bodied deer, and I can’t get a look at the rack because the sun has blown out the pic.” Avoiding the sun will also reduce those blank shots, where the camera was simply triggered by heat.
2. Buff Up Your Battery Contacts
If your cams are more than a year old, they’ve spent some time in the weather, enduring heat, cold, moisture, etc. All that exposure can oxidize the battery contacts and result in a poor connection that will compromise camera performance. Before I deploy my veteran cameras for another season, I use a small section of Scotch-Brite pad and lightly buff the battery contacts inside each cam.
3. Keep the Bugs Out
If you’ve never had ants colonize your camera, you’re missing one of Nature’s great wonders. How these tiny critters can infiltrate nearly water-tight seals, crawl into every crevice by the scores and lay eggs in places that defy description is truly impressive. Sadly, this invasion can also fry your circuit board and render a marvelous piece of technology basically worthless. On a happy note, you can prevent this by simply adding a dryer sheet to the inside of your camera. If space is tight you don’t need the whole sheet, just trim a small section off with a scissor and cram it in a corner. The smellier the sheet the better (I prefer “Bounce Outdoor Fresh” for its heady bouquet) and, if you’re worried about deer spooking from the scent, dont. I have plenty of pics of nanny does sticking their nose right up to a lens, apparently inhaling the odors from my dryer sheet.
4. Wipe Your Camera’s Eyes
If you’re an eyeglass wearer you likely clean your lenses at least once, if not several times, each day. Nothing is more irritating than trying to see through streaks, smears, and water spots, right? Well it only makes sense to treat your trail-cam lens similarly. After all, it’s out there getting hammered by rain and blasted by dust on a 24/7 basis. I not only give my cam lenses—and sensors and flash unit–a thorough wipe-down at the beginning of season, but I carry lens wipes with me as I make visits to check my cameras. Clean cams are not only more sensitive, they simply take better pics.
5. Spit On a Stick (Gross, Yes, But It Works)
In a world where mineral licks and bait piles are increasingly taboo, trail-cam users have to get creative, and I can always count on my friend and whitetail expert Ted Marum to do just that. One of Ted’s favorite tricks is to simply jam a stick in a logging road, or at the junction of several deer trails, and train a camera on it. Before he walks off, Ted spits on his palm, and rubs it up and down the stick. “Every buck that walks down that road or trail is gonna stop and smell that stick,” he says. “I’ve got tons of pics of them not only sniffing that stick, but licking it themselves and returning to do so whenever they’re on that trail.”
6. Hang ’Em High
Many deer, including some old, massive bucks, are pretty mellow around trail cameras, but let’s face it; we’ve all had those one-and-done bucks who freaked out when a flash (even an IR) went off. This typically happens at a site where deer linger (a mineral lick, bait pile, or mock scrape), since the flash isn’t a one-time event, and the continued exposure finally makes the deer goosey. You can largely eliminate this by hanging your cameras 5 to 6 feet high and pointing them down at the focus spot (which you can accomplish by simply leaving a little slack in the camera’s strap and jamming a stick behind it). While the buck may still see the flash, it’s definitely not as bothersome. My working theory here is that deer see light sources above their head fairly frequently (lightning bugs, aircraft, stars, etc.) but a flashing light a few feet from their nose? Not so much.
7. Charge Up With Lithium
Sure, gas prices are ridiculous and grocery bills make us groan, but this is no time to start skimping on trail-cam batteries. It’s true that you can save a few dollars by buying cheapie alkaline batteries, but trust me, it’s not worth it. Cough up a bit extra for lithium batteries like Energizer Ultimate Lithium, which will simply last longer and power your cameras better and more efficiently. Save the cheap stuff for your kid’s most annoying toys!
8. Make Your Cam Visits More Predictable.
While it’s generally a good idea to keep cams away from sensitive spots like bedding areas, it’s not always possible, especially when bucks are bedding close to food sources (common in the summer). The trick here is to drive as close as possible with your truck or ATV at the same time midday, on a regular schedule. These predictable visits condition bucks to your presence and quickly become routine for them, especially in farm country where vehicles are a normal part of everyday life for deer. Tim Clark takes things a step further, as he can use bait and other attractants at his summer sites. “I study the pics, and any time I see a buck that hits the site following my visit, I know he’s associating them with something positive,” he says. “So I make it a point to come at exactly the same time and frequency and keep him happy in that area.”
9. Make a Cam Kit
Most anyone who knows me well can attest to my disorganized nature, and I spent a long time cussing myself when I forgot the tools needed to do a good job running trail cams. I overcame all that by assembling a trail-cam kit that goes in my truck at the start of the summer and never leaves. I stuff a plastic tote with extra batteries, SD cards, zip ties, deer scent, clippers, a zip-loc baggie with dryer sheets, and as many prepped-and-ready fresh cameras as I can fit. Now when I visit my cams, I’m ready to replace or tend to existing cams, as well as slap up a new unit in a spot where I’ve spotted a good buck.
10. Branch Out for More Pics
Mock scrapes are some of my favorite cam sites, and I make a lot of them. But sometimes I simply don’t have the time to create a complete scrape, or I might want to check the edges of a soybean or alfalfa field but not want to damage plants by creating a scrape. The quick and easy fix here is to simply zip-tie a chunk of grape vine (lacking a vine, a chunk of frayed rope will do) to a branch that overhangs the field edge. While there might be several existing branches, the bucks will spend more time at my viney one than all the others. I don’t know what magical elixir grows within a vine, but bucks absolutely adore it. Hang your cam pointing at the vine, and you’ll get the best bucks in the neighborhood. And hey, if they start a scrape there and wreck some hay or beans, it’s the buck’s fault, not yours.
11. Use Desiccant to Fight the Dew
Moisture can also compromise camera performance, and while the seal on most cams will keep out dew and driving rain, some locations (or cameras) just seem more prone to moisture problems. Fight this by slipping in a desiccant pack (those annoying packets you find in jerky and many other things these days) into your camera. (You can tape it to the door if you don’t want it rattling around in there). These packets can absorb up to 40 percent of their weight in moisture and help keep your camera humming along nicely in damp conditions.
12. Leave the Trees
Strapping cams to trees is Trail Cam 101. Trouble is, there isn’t always a tree where you want to hang a camera. Most models have a threaded mount on the underside, however, and there are lots of commercial rods made specifically for cameras that can be driven in the ground at any location. Being cheap, I had a welding buddy attach appropriately-sized bolts on metal rods I already had, for a fraction of the cost. I’ve also used camera tripods and fence posts for camera mounting, but my masterpiece was making a “tree” by gathering three stalks of standing corn together and wrapping the camera strap around them. No corn plants were harmed in the process, and I got some nice pics of a buck I’d have never gotten pics of from the tree line.
13. Stock Up on SD Cards
The folks in electronics at my local superstore know me well. Every time I swing through I ask them to unlock the SD card rack so I can buy a couple more. I don’t have an accurate count, but I easily have three times as many cards as I do cameras. Not only does having an arsenal of SD’s allow me to swap them out frequently on my visits, but I’ve learned the hard way that some cameras simply don’t like certain cards. I’m not enough of an electronics geek to explain this; all I know is that if I get an error message when I power up a camera, usually the quick, easy fix is to feed it another card. That’s a far better solution than taking the camera home, calling customer support, and having them troubleshoot—until they tell me to “try inserting a different SD card.” Oh and, weirdness alert: The same card rejected by one camera will often work just fine in another.