4 ways to follow the cameras Fool hunters

If you fill a buck’s home range with dozens of trail cameras, you get a good idea of ​​where he likes to sleep, feed, and chase women—and when he likes to engage in those activities. But let’s be honest. Even with hundreds of images, you’ll need as many personal encounters with that deer as possible, and maybe even some drone footage, to really complete the intel. Then, and I would argue, only then, would you be close to “knowing” a dollar.

Taking good pictures with a dollar camera is definitely cool, and they certainly tell us a lot more about that dollar than we knew before taking the pictures. But you should never make the mistake of thinking those photos are the big reveal for an individual deer. Of course they are a piece of the puzzle, but here are some things they may not be telling you.

1) Trail-cam photos only suggest periods of activity

A buck we called “Crab’s Claw” was the most vivid example of how trail camera pictures can lead you wrong when a deer is moving. While I had plenty of pictures of this long, narrow ten-pointer from late September to late October, every shot was at night. When I showed my dad the Crab Claw main reel one day, he came to the same conclusion that most of us would; “Big deer,” he said. “But he is night.” While I tend to run in eternal-optimist mode and wanted to believe the money was vulnerable, how could I disagree with Dad based on the photos?

Black and white trail camera photo of a white deer in the forest.
You may only have nighttime pictures of a buck, but that doesn’t mean he’s nocturnal. Scott Bestul

The problem was that most of my photos came from a pair of mock scratchers located near my house. When I put Dad in a stand overlooking a small food plot on a late October afternoon, that placement was ¾ of a mile from those scrapes. Dad saw a few of these and glanced earlier at a small buck and thought the action was over with an hour of daylight left. Then a buck confidently entered the plot, made a scratch, and walked ten yards from dad’s stand. Pops did well in shooting and we found the Crab Claw after short work. Shortly after sunset we were loading into my truck in what was supposed to be night.


Of course, there are bucks that restrict most of their movement after nightfall. But if all of your after-dark images of a buck come from one camera or multiple cameras in the same area, don’t fall into the trap of believing your buck is a vampire. Like the Crab Claw, it can appear in front of your cameras after dark, while it happily moves around during the day to a different part of its home range. Keep moving your cameras around or, if you can afford it, just get more of them to get a fuller picture.

Read more: 13 Pro Tips for Taking Better Camera Photos

2) You only get a glimpse of a buck’s home range with a trail camera

As with periods of activity, trail cameras can lead us to a buck’s favorite roosts. But unless you’ve spied a large area with cameras, you’re only seeing a snapshot of his territory. Plus, its appearance there may be the result of external factors; a fresh food source that comes into its own, a resident doe or two going into estrous, hunting pressure on adjacent properties, even a buck on a breeding excursion that takes him out of his home range for a few days.

Each of these factors can explain those before one and done; creatures you get a photo or two of, then they seemingly disappear. And then there’s this; a few bucks are just shy of cameras. I never believed that much, until I talked to one of my clothing friends. Ted had a camera at a favorite pond on one of his farms in Wisconsin. And although there were several photos of a giant deer, the buck seemed to disappear mid-season. “Then I had one of my hunters in a stand by that pond,” he said. “And one evening he saw that buck go up behind that camera, make just a short circle, drink from the pond, and walk away. I checked that card, and I never got a picture of that money. He was still using the area – and in broad daylight. He just got wise to the cameras somehow and avoided them.”


Of course, any photo of a buck is good news, and if you have a large number of them, you’re a big step closer to figuring out his favorite areas and when he uses them. But never be satisfied with present knowledge. Keep moving your cameras around and look for new information, more pieces of the puzzle where he lives. And if you suspect you’re dealing with a camera-shy customer, try a few tricks (like hanging cameras higher, camouflaging them better, and reducing human scent) in the same area where you grabbed the originals.

3) Single camera photos rarely reveal personality

One of the most common misconceptions hunters have about bucks is that they are “dominant” or fearful of other bucks in the area. Of course, this is sometimes true. In areas with little mature money, any 3-½ year old is likely to rule the roost. But in areas with a solid number of older males, the ones with the worst attitude can intimidate bucks with much larger racks, often appearing alone on stage. Trail camera photos usually do a poor job of detecting which bucks are bad and, in contrast, their fellow herd mates.

Why is this information important? Because knowing a buck’s personality can affect how you hunt him. For example, if I see a tall ten-point pass by my out-of-range rig, I’m likely to reach for a crack tube to lure it closer. And if he doesn’t respond, I’ll probably pull out all the stops and knock and/or snort. But if this is a sub-dominant buck that avoids fights and confrontations with other bucks, either of these tactics can be disastrous. If possible, I’d like to know where this guy fits in the pecking order before I get aggressive with him, especially if he’s in a natural movement pattern that I can adapt to on a later hunt.


I like to start judging early, often when the bucks are still on velvet and in groups of singles. Just the other day I was scanning some recent photos and noticed a nice 8-point strike on a similarly sized buck feeding together in a food plot. The current is likely to be a dominant buck, at least with the deer in that photo, but possibly with others. One way to mitigate this further is to switch the cameras to video mode. This gives me a short movie video of how money interacts with each other, and if the patterns repeat themselves, I can make a sound judgment about bullies and scammers.

Finally, when it’s time to switch trail cameras to mock and real scratches, I pay close attention to how a buck behaves in the country. While some dollar skirts are scratched at all, it is relatively rare. But my belief is that a sub-dominant buck might visit a scrape just to sniff around and see who’s been partying lately. Conversely, bad guys usually tear up a scraper, vigorously working the licking branch and scratching and urinating on the ground for several minutes. Once again, having cameras in video mode can be a big help here, but even if you’re into multi-shots, you’ll learn a lot about a buck’s herd status when you see how he behaves in a scratch.

Male white-tailed deer in the shade of a tree near a field of grass.
Pay attention to how a buck behaves in a scratch to gauge its personality. Scott Bestul

4) Cameras can shrink (or grow) horns

I rarely pat myself on the back when it comes to estimating the gross B&C score of a buck, but I have to admit that I used to feel pretty stubborn when it came to the 2-½ and 3-½ year old whitetails in my area. Having seen dozens of these deer over the years, I could usually look at a camera picture and come up with an estimated gross score within 5 inches or so of the actual one, something I would prove when I (or a friend) was able to actually kill the buck and put a tape on it.

Then came a pretty ten point few years ago. Our first pictures of him came from the lip of a beanfied, just after the buck had shed velvet. Although it had great build and strong threads, everything around the rack felt thin and rather immature. Two neighbors/hunting buddies and I often share photos, and when I called the buck “a 125-inch 2-year-old” I had no argument. Then one of those fellows killed a great ten point three weeks after opening the bow and when we stood over the buck we all realized it was the same deer… except much heavier and longer than we had anticipated. This buck earned a whisker of 155”, meaning my original estimate was close to 30 inches!

Things can go the other way too, and it did just last year. One of my target bucks was not so imaginatively named the “Big Ten” because it boasted (you guessed it) 10 hoops rising skyward from the main sweeper beams. I had many pictures of this buck over a three-year period, and when I shared photos of last year’s images with friends, I had no estimates under 160 inches. A friend—a B&C measurer who has hooked hundreds of really big whitetails—thought the Big Ten could get 170 inches if he didn’t break any tails. Well you guessed it. When the buck was killed during the late muzzleloader season, his gross score was in the high 150s. Even with a library of photos to scan, I was about a foot short, and I wasn’t alone.


Many factors—usually a combination of them—can make a buck’s antlers appear larger or smaller in photos than they actually are. In my experience, night images are the most ripe for marking errors; flash (including IR and no flash) really messes with our ability to measure the length and mass of the horn, probably because the combination of light and shadow fools us.

Camera position is another consideration. Downward-facing cameras will inevitably dwarf a buck’s rack, while ones slightly lower than the deer can make even a mediocre rack look like a skyscraper. And even when you have the camera perfectly positioned, the buck’s stance can transform a solid ten into a Booner and vice versa. Ideally, I have my camera set to multi-shot mode and will have multiple photos, taken from several angles (and hopefully several meetings) that will give a clearer picture of the true size of the antlers.

Read more: Best mobile trail cameras for deer hunting

Finally, pay attention to body size; The Big Ten rack looked a lot bigger than him because he just wasn’t a big-bodied deer, and especially for the area. This is farm country, where most 5-½ year old bucks will wear well over 200 pounds. This buck was 20 pounds under that weight. In hindsight, I knew I was taking the buck’s age into account in my estimates and assigning him a typical body weight for his age class. In contrast, we have pictures of a buck we call “Bruce” a clean ten point with what looks like a classic 150 inch rack. But Bruce isn’t just 7 1/2 years old, he’s probably the biggest bodied buck I’ve ever seen in this country, with a bull neck and shoulders. I’ve given up on estimating his antlers, as any creature of his size and age is a once-in-a-lifetime deer here. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if that 150-inch rack is much larger.

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