What You Need To Know About Conducting a Trail Camera Survey
Over the last three decades, there have been numerous innovations with deer hunting, though the most significant is probably related to the trail camera invention. When it initially came out, it was seen more of a novelty. Now, though, it is seen as a valuable scouting tool thanks to all of the positive developments in technology and the accessibility of reasonably-priced options. For many bowhunters, trail cameras are actually a hobby.
The use of trail cameras today is more than just finding where to hunt big bucks throughout deer season. These types of cameras can also be used to gather intel regarding the deer population, such as sex ratios, deer density and age structure.
But how do you collect this type of data from a trail camera and analyze it? You can do it with none other than a trail camera survey, of course!
Planning the Survey
Prior to conducting your survey, you must decide when you will do it. The best time to perform the survey is when the bucks have fully-matured antlers and the deer patterns aren’t effected by hunting pressure. In other words, you should do it immediately before after deer season. Each of these times has its benefits and drawbacks.
In regard to preseason, you will get a great idea of what types of bucks are scavenging your property. It is also a great way to detect fawns. At the same time, though, bait use can be limited due to the large amount of native food and agricultural crops (soybeans, corn, etc.), which can lead to an adverse impact on the survey. Another drawback with the preseason is the fact that bucks often shift patterns in the late summer, which leads to them being on your survey and not there when deer season rolls around.
During the post-season, you will find that it is easier to interest deer to your camera sites since you will have limited natural sources of food to deal with. You will also get good shots of the deer that survived the regular season, so you’ll know what you can keep an eye out for next year. However, you have to deal with that fawns may be more problematic to differentiate and that bucks could drop a couple antlers before finalizing your survey.
You can get solid data from either survey. Ultimately, it all boils down to which one you prefer. In the end, if you want and have the time, you could always choose to do a preseason and a post-season survey.
Equipment You’ll Need
When it comes to equipment to perform a trail camera survey, you ultimately need one trail camera for every 100 acres. This is to get the most accurate results. If you have a significantly large property, up to 160 acres, you can use one camera and still maintain acceptable results.
Aside from cameras, you will also need whole-kernel corn – and enough of it that will ensure that your sites are baited for as long as three weeks. Some states do not allow bait to be used if deer season is not in session. If this is the case in your state, then it will be a bit more difficult to conduct an effective and accurate survey. It can, of course, be done, but the survey’s effectiveness and the data’s accuracy will suffer. There is currently a study in progress looking at how to conduct a non-baited survey with trail cameras, but the study has not been completed at this time.
Performing the Survey
Your first step is to determine where you should place the bait and the cameras. You should first grid your property into 100- or 160-acre blocks. Within each of the blocks, you need to determine a particular area where deer seem to navigate frequently – preferably near the center – and remove all vegetation. Make sure that you do this within a 10-foot radius.
For a week before the survey begins, use about 50 to 60 pounds of corn and pre-bait the area. This will give the deer plenty of time to locate the bait and get used to feeding there. It is okay to get your cameras in place. This gives you time to ensure that they are working correctly and capturing quality photos. Just remember that these photos are not going to be used in your survey calculations.
After this week, you will want to add fresh corn to the bait site and begin the official survey. You should aim your cameras roughly 20 to 30 inches directly above the bait. This will help to eliminate any unnecessary photos of small animals, such as raccoons. In addition, the cameras should be set with a five-minute time delay to help eliminate numerous snapshots of the same exact feeding gathering.
If you have more than one bait station, you may want to consider adding a small sign with a number in the image so that you can keep up with which area the photos are from. Depending on the model of trail camera that you have, you may be able to assign names for the cameras that will appear in the pictures. If your cameras allow this, then you won’t need the signs.
Once your bait and cameras are taken care of, you will want to leave them for one to two weeks. Make sure to check your sites every several days and add bait whenever necessary.
Sorting Through Your Photos
After the one to two weeks, it is time to collect your SD cards so that you can begin going through the pictures that were captured. You will want to count the number of does, bucks, and fawns. Write down the total figure for each of the groups, and leave out the deer that you are unable to 100 percent positively classify.
Once you are finished, you will want to go back through your photos and find the ones with the bucks. Pay close attention to these photos and look for unique, individual bucks that were photographed several times. This is harder than it looks, so you must take this slow and carefully examine the photographs.
Do the Math
Once all of your photographs have been sorted and you have accounted all of your identifiable bucks, you need to get a piece of paper, a pencil and a calculator. On one side of the piece of paper, you want to write down the following:
On the other side of the paper, you want to right down the numbers that correspond to each of the categories you just wrote down. To determine the population factor, you will need to divide the number of unique bucks by the number of bucks. You should then multiply this number by the number of does, and then by the number of fawns. You should then have a basic estimate of the number of individual does and fawns photographed on your property. Now, you can total the number of unique does, bucks, and fawns, which will be your property population estimate. This link may make this a bit simpler for you.
Keep in mind that the number that you end up with is just an estimate, which may be high or low, depending on how well the deer are attracted to your bait stations. Also, your property deer population can change on a daily basis, especially if your property is fenced off. The trail camera survey simply provides you with data that can be used with field observations, harvest data and future surveys to make educated decisions in terms of where your hunt for deer.