If you’re like me, you may not have a lot of extra time to spend hiking and scouting for elk. If you’re hunting on public ground, you’ll be competing with fellow hunters and you’re going to need every advantage you can find to get an arrow in the bull you’ve been dreaming of for the past 11 months!
Trail cameras are a great way for the working hunter to get in some quality scouting without using up all your valuable vacation time before hunting season! Not to mention, it feels like Christmas morning when you pull a camera card and get to view the pictures for the first time!
Similar to regular, boots-on-the-ground scouting, when it comes to trail cameras, my opinion is more is better. By this, I mean having several different cameras running in several different places. I like to have at least 4 to 5 (or more) cameras up and running as soon as the snow allows me to get into the areas I hunt. If you’re like me, you’re itching to be in the woods anyways, so it works out great! There have been several archery seasons where we have been able to hunt strictly in areas where we had good trail camera pictures and footage of elk, and our success rates on those seasons has been outstanding. This isn’t to say that we wouldn’t have been successful in other areas, but knowing there are animals in a specific area will sure help you in the fight!
It’s important to try and capitalize on the terrain. Google Earth is very useful for looking over areas to place your cameras, and learning the potential routes the animal’s use, along with water sources and bedding and feeding areas plays a major factor on where and why I place a camera. This may require a little foot-work on your part, but once you figure it out, you should see great activity all spring and summer long, year after year. Personally, I like to focus on transition areas rather than bedding or feeding/watering areas. There are a couple reasons I focus on transition areas. First, I feel like my gear will be safer from potential vandals or thieves. Second, I get a good indication as to when the critters are moving. Knowing travel routes and timing of travel are invaluable piece of info to have when you hear a bugle at daybreak.
Once you find an area where you want to put your camera, you need to figure out a specific place to hang it. I always try to position the cameras with a backdrop. A backdrop helps reflect light back at the camera. This makes your photos come out with better lighting and details are much clearer. Always consider the sun. I’ve had many pictures ruined because of the sunrise or sunset. Set your camera up so it isn’t facing directly east or west. This will make sure you don’t have the sun shining directly into the camera during the best travel times of the day.
Another thing to think about when hanging your camera is obstacles that might activate the camera. Remove any low-hanging branches or anything within the trigger field of the camera that the wind could cause to move. I’ve had cards filled with great pictures of branches that were moved by nothing other than the wind. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but being proactive in minimizing it will surely help.
Once your camera is set, take a test photo to verify placement and picture quality. When I first set my cameras, I set them to take pictures at shorter intervals. This will give you a good idea as to what is coming in. Then, the next time you check in, you can consider changing the picture intervals from 60 seconds to 3 or even 5 minutes. Battery life on today’s cameras is great, and SD cards can hold tens of thousands of images, so there’s no real reason not to fire away.
Another thing to consider when placing trail cameras is security. Hunting public land can be great, but just like back in town, you have the chance of running into some unsavory people that will steal or vandalize your camera. Animals have also been known to mess with cameras. Bears are very curious and they can wreak havoc on a camera. Likewise, elk can cause some problems as well. We once came in to check on a camera and found it not in its spot. It turned out that a cow elk took an extreme interest in the camera and tore it off the tree. It then proceeded to pack the camera 20 yards away and threw it down the hill. Never trust an elk! You can protect your cameras by investing in security boxes. They’re cheap insurance for your cameras, and they give you piece of mind that they’ll be there the next time you come up to check them. Check with your camera manufacturer and find out if they or another company makes a box to fit your model.
To bait or not to bait? This is something that is left entirely up to you and your state regulations. In Oregon, it is legal to bait for any game animal other that bears and game birds. Using bait as an attractant is a great way to bring the animals in and keep them there for multiple pictures.
I personally use salt – water softener salt, as a matter of fact. It’s cheap – only $4-5 for 40lbs, and it’s about as pure of a salt that a person can buy. I like to put it on an old, rotten stump or log. The spring and summer rains dissolve the salt into the ground and the animals sure know it’s there! There are also many different products on the market for baiting whitetail deer, and I have buddies that successfully use the same products for elk.
I like to try and check my cameras every two or three weeks. When you hike in to check your cameras, it can be handy to bring extra batteries and SD cards. I’ve walked into two camera sites this year alone and had to make trips back to town to buy batteries. Most trail camera batteries will last the whole season, depending on activity and weather, but it’s always a good idea to be prepared.
Ultimately, trail cameras can be a great tool to assist you in your scouting for elk. In addition to the help they provide in finding great elk hunting areas, it can be a ton of fun to check the cameras….you never know what you’re going to find!