The right terrain makes using trail cameras much more effective.
Trail cameras have revolutionized hunting and reached levels many never thought possible. Technology is advancing quickly and is allowing hunters to be connected to a whitetail’s daily pattern. To take advantage of progressing technology, and to utilize the information for hunting purposes, cameras should be located throughout various terrain to better understand their movements, especially in daylight. If you live in an area where you cannot supplemental feed, using terrain to your advantage throughout the hunting season will capture natural movement of white-tailed deer.
Thermals and Terrain
Understanding thermals and how they rise and fall throughout hilly terrain can make or break a quiet, cold November hunt. Thermals are the very slight breeze you may notice early in the morning or near dusk. Placing a trail camera located on heavy trailers on the "military" crest of ridges will capture plenty of cruising bucks during the morning hours. Rising (warming) morning thermals allow a buck to walk high-elevation areas and scent danger, or does, that might be below. Placing a trail camera on a ridgetop bedding area during the rut is sure to see action and give you information to plan your hunts.
Falling (cooling) thermals can be a bit harder to utilize for archery hunting. Walk down off the top of a large ridge after dark and you will understand how pockets of air collect and fall at certain areas. Low fields and ditch heads collect lots of cool air and can be hotspots for trail camera pictures. Unlike rising thermals, falling air collects on the landscape whereas morning thermals rise into the air and become a non-factor and do not bounce off the landscape like cooling air. Hunting bottom fields and ditch areas can be tricky with falling thermals as they tend to swirl.
Morning Bedding areas
If you want to capture that classic trail camera picture of a monster just after sunrise, it will likely be on a travel corridor near a known bedding area during the rut. In my experience, the most daylight action I receive on my cameras throughout the season is during the morning hours on forced travel routes, especially during the rut. It could be that my property sets up well for hunting or that I position them geared more for morning hours. Placing a trail camera high on a ridge on a logging road or on thick trails on the edge of bedding are sure bets for daylight pictures.
Where I hunt in Wisconsin’s driftless region, steep hills and rock outcroppings limit where deer can travel. Finding forced travel routes near bedding can be dynamite for good trail camera intel. If you want to really delve into details, look at historical weather data and match up low-temperature, high-barometric-pressure days and observe the prevailing wind. Place your trail cameras on the downwind side of a bedding area. Placing multiple cameras around this will give you critical intel of when you should plan your hunts.
Evening Fields and Food Plots
There is perhaps no better way to catch the most number of mature bucks than on an evening food source or agricultural crop field such as soybeans. Although many of these pictures will occur during darkness, fields provide a great area to relocate bucks during the early season after velvet shed. Deer are social animals and could still be grouped up early in the season, allowing you to get photos of multiple mature bucks in one evening. Fields also provide excellent opportunities to survey your deer without baiting and figure out what mature bucks may wander your way in daylight during the rut. Placing trail cameras on trails near a field can give you excellent intel as to where a buck could be spending its time.
Utilizing trails on hillsides that lead down to a crop field or food plot are great options, as these areas could be used heavily in daylight. I think there is a misconception that every deer moves hundreds and hundreds of yards from bedding to feeding locations. While many bucks probably do travel long distances to their feeding locations — which result in middle-of-the-night pictures — I believe some bucks simply take their time traveling from bed to food. Slow, lazy bucks could explain the buck who shows up on camera an hour after shooting light. After all, if they are bedding in a particular area, it is for a reason and most likely providing their browse and cover needs.
I believe one of the reasons bucks might show up slightly after shooting hours is in large part due to habitat near a food source. Take the head of a ditch for example. At the head of most ditches, there is usually a somewhat flat area sandwiched between two large ridges. This ditch head or flatter area typically has lots of deer sign and trails moving through it.
On my property, there happens to be lots of thick bedding cover and a few apple trees nearby as well. I capture many different bucks in this area throughout summer and into the season. As I mentioned before, cool air collects at these ditch heads and creates a nice reprieve for bucks during warmer weather. If great habitat and cover are nearby, these ditch areas can serve as a nice staging area for bucks before moving out into an opening. Rather than trying to capture pictures on a massive field, finding the concentrated movement at the head of a ditch could be a great strategy.
Few locations rival the popularity of a trail camera sitting over a natural or mock scrape. Thousands of trail camera users stamp their claim to mature bucks by first capturing photos of it over a scrape. However, not all scrapes are equal and not all are used regularly. I find the very best scrapes are in can’t-miss locations where deer regularly travel in the beginning phases of the pre-rut. I find pre-rut, rather than peak-rut, is the best time to capture photos or hunt over scrapes. As it relates to terrain, I believe that mostly flat areas are best, as it gives bucks an easy platform to move around and maneuver while working the scrape.
During most of the pre-rut — October 23 to October 31 in the North — most daylight action is still occurring during the evening. Knowing this, creating mock scrapes catered toward evening daylight usage will be prime. Areas inside timber located on the way to large ag fields and food plots could be great locations to capture mature buck photos. While much of the movement during pre-rut is tilted toward the evening, capturing photos of bucks using scrapes in the morning hours certainly still occurs. Trails or logging roads skirting ridgetop bedding areas are obvious places for natural or mock scrapes.
Wonderful Winter Sunshine
Whitetail’s are desperate animals come midwinter. Fighting to conserve as much energy as possible, the sun and terrain are critical components to late-season trail camera usage for those who cannot use bait. Understanding how the sun moves about the sky can help you relocate a buck on your property during the late-season. The winter sun does not reach very high and limits much of its radiant energy to south-facing hillsides. Bedding areas facing East or South will capture the most energy and have lots of deer activity during winter months. Even while temperatures are below freezing, the sun will still melt these slopes and open the forest floor to warm leaves. Trail cameras placed on obvious trails near or within south-facing bedding areas will be your best bet. Northern slopes hold snow much longer and do not stay as warm, but they could still be utilized by deer if those areas provide a windbreak or obvious path to a food source.
Being from the bluff country of southwestern Wisconsin, I work around and use terrain features to my advantage with each hunt and trail camera deployment. Understanding the time period you are in and what factors influence deer travel amongst the terrain is critical if you place cameras in areas with varying elevation. By simply using terrain, you can catch more natural movement patterns and predict where you ought to place cameras, or better yet, a treestand.