By Jeff Stirland
Trail cameras are an asset in the modern hunting community, and they are one of the most effective means of scouting for big game in many circumstances. Trail cams are easy to use, relatively cheap to buy, and provide valuable information to even the most casual hunters. But what about the hunters who want to learn about the patterns of their deer herd throughout the season on a macroscopic level from year to year? For the person who is willing to go above and beyond in regards to trail cameras, nothing is more important than being able to effectively organize the data you receive.
The Fundamentals of Trail Cam Patterning
In order to utilize trail cameras in their entirety, you must first understand the basics of why we use trail cameras. Although it is nice to get pictures of big bucks and mature game of all species, ultimately the picture itself is not what we are after. The goal of using a trail camera is to ultimately allow hunters to understand the patterns and movements of animals in their natural habitat at all times. That’s it. Without this technology, hunters would have to rely solely on first hand encounters and physical sign to figure out the habits of their target animals. Trail cameras are best used in a way that allows hunters to limit the amount of human intrusion that the game are experiencing in their core areas. Now that we have a basis of the true function of trail cameras, lets talk about the best way to sort through and organize this information.
From Field to Folder
Pulling trail cam cards can make you feel like a kid on Christmas, but make sure to stay focused on the task at hand. If you check your pictures on a mobile device, keep your pictures on the SD card until you are able to access your primary computer. After all of the excitement subsides from the recent card pull, be ready to organize the photos for good scouting information for years to come.
1.) Separate Pictures Based on Location
First and foremost, make a folder for each property you are receiving trail camera pictures from. This basic step will allow you to access the pictures from a specific property quickly and easily. Then, create a folder for every trail camera location that you have used on a given property. When naming these camera sites, try using nearby landmarks, terrain features, property boundaries, habitat changes, or other names that will make the area stand out when looking through your trail camera archives.
2.) Organize Pictures Based on Time
After you have your trail camera locations separated, then focus your efforts on creating folders based on the year that the picture was taken. These folders should be placed directly in each trail camera location folder. The next sub-folder will then outline the months in which the trail camera pictures were taken. If you really want to get detailed, you can even include a folder for each week inside of the month folders.
In this system of organization, the location of the picture is prioritized over the specific time frame of the picture. Since the first folders that you will see when navigating your files are the property and the camera site folders, these factors will be presented as the most important detail when scouting. This system will increase overall scouting efficiency, and will also remind you as to what areas consistently produce high levels of activity year after year.
3.) Separate Pictures by Species, Sex, and Age
It is not uncommon when pulling a card to get pictures of multiple species, especially in areas with an abundance of big game species or small game animals. In my instance, my primary target animal is the whitetail deer, but I often get pictures of fox, turkey, bear, raccoon, and many other game species.
Start organizing by creating a separate folder for each species. This step is simple, but will allow you to focus primarily on what animal you are going to be hunting. Then, if possible, try to separate the images into folders based on sex and age. For my main target species, whitetail deer, I have three folders to organize my trail camera pictures of them. One folder is for all antlerless deer, one is for young bucks, and one is for mature bucks.
The antlerless deer folder contains both does and fawns, and this information is particularly useful when trying to determine feeding and bedding patterns of does throughout the season. The areas that does are frequenting the most are areas that bucks will frequent throughout the rut, so these pictures are used indirectly to determine buck travel patterns.
The young buck folder is compiled of all bucks that are younger than 3 years old, but this age restriction may vary depending on your goals, location, and local hunting pressure.
The mature buck folder holds the information that is the most revered in the hunting community, and often provides the most valuable insights as well. Mature buck pictures taken during the hunting season are especially important, as analyzing travel habits of these bucks can lead to a deeper understanding of the ways that mature deer use the property year in and year out.
When viewing mature buck pictures taken during the season, take careful notice of any daytime pictures. Take note of the movement direction, the buck’s body language, and the weather conditions at this time. Hypothesize why this buck would have been moving at this time and in this location, and always ask questions about the picture that may lead to insightful answers in the future. Mature buck pictures are undoubtedly the most exciting outcomes of running trail cameras, and can also greatly aid in the harvest of these animals.
Taking the actions to organize your trail cam pictures now may be tedious, but in the long run will pay off. The ability to quickly and effectively scout and adapt to dynamic circumstances will often determine if a hunt is successful. The changing preferred food sources from row crops to hard mast, the changing hormones of bucks and the receptiveness of does, and the changing weather conditions all impact the way deer use a property.
Rigorous trail camera scouting will ensure that you see deer throughout the season, and will increase your odds of connecting with a mature buck. Meticulous organization of trail camera files is vital to effectively scouting for and bowhunting mature deer. I’m serious, try it.