The bucks are dropping their headgear and are starting to again tolerate each other, presumably pardoning all the hard feelings stirred up during the rut. It’s time to yank the trail-cameras and stuff them into hibernation until next year. Well, not so fast!
July through January is all about figuring out what the deer are doing so you can implement management and hunting plans. Setting up cams for deer can be entertaining, but it’s also work. Playing around with trail-cameras in the off-season, on the other hand, is all about fun.
When the antlers have been shed, it’s time to experiment, learn your property better, hone your craft, and photograph some different critters. Give the deer a break. Below are a few ideas that should keep both you and your cameras from growing mold during the off-season.
Try a Turkey Shoot
Obviously, spring mating season is the best time to photograph strutting gobblers. You can get plenty of turkey photos using bait, but capturing turkeys doing what they naturally do without the use of bait is far more interesting. This non-baited arrangement is a hit or miss proposition but well worth the effort.
Set up a cam over a gobbler strutting zone. You may have witnessed gobblers strutting there, or you may see the strut marks. A gobbler strut mark usually consists of three lines on both sides of gobbler tracks. They are made when gobblers drag their primary feathers on the ground while swaggering for the ladies.
Dusting areas can also make for an entertaining shoot. Turkeys bathe in dust to rid themselves of parasites, creating round dirt depressions in the ground. You may also find feathers strewn about during the dusting ritual.
If your camera has a video option, strutting and dusting make for some spellbinding TV. The audio alone can get your blood pumping. The rustling of dusting, a spine-tingling gobble, or the murmur of a drumming Tom will surely get you hooked on the turkey video shoot.
Since you will usually get only a few chances to capture turkeys without the use of bait, set your camera to take as many photos or videos as quickly as possible. If your camera gives you the option, set your ISO (film speed) to its lowest setting, preferably 100. This lower film speed produces crisper images in daylight. Obviously, since turkeys snooze in the trees at night, you won’t need to worry about night shots.
The lower film speed will also reduce blurry photos associated with the herky-jerky turkey. For dramatic footage, affix your camera only about a foot off the ground but tilted slightly upward. It will make Tom Turkey appear gargantuan.
You can also use the off-season to survey your land’s predator population. Comparing data from year to year is a great way to survey whether the coyotes are gaining or losing ground. But even if you aren’t interested in the predator numbers, these curious critters are riveting to film. Pursuing bobcats, foxes and yotes will make you a better woodsman because predators are cunning and often difficult to pattern.
Your knowledge of deer may help you with predators because they share comparable travel routes. Bottlenecks, gaps in fences, and brushy creek bottoms are all excellent predator travel corridors. Intersections of roads, trails, and fence lines are also fine camera locations, as well as borders between different cover or forest types.
Whole baits in the form of raw meat and fish are your best options to attract and keep predators in front of the camera. You can ask your deer processor to fill a bucket with cull venison cuts or toss a cast net for shad or minnows. Even if there are no fish on your land, predators will covet the seafood treats.
Keep the animals in frame by cutting whole bait into small pieces (to keep them coming back for more photos) or by tethering bigger morsels (like a deer gut pile) in front of the camera. Otherwise, animals will just drag the bait away. If you set your bait out in the open, scavengers like turkey vultures will usually pick it off almost immediately.
Other excellent predator magnets are lures and blended baits. These include glands, secretions, urines, oils, and bait mixes that are concocted to entice specific animals. They are less messy, and your sets last longer because critters can’t carry the scent away like they can with bait. In fact, many animals will add to the scent by marking it themselves. You can see a few shots I’ve gotten using glands in the Gallery below. Notice how the gray fox and bobcat are reacting to a scent-based lure!
Because different regions and seasons require different lures, you should do a little homework before choosing the specific lure for your needs. Acknowledged as accomplished woodsmen, trappers are an excellent resource. If you can’t find a local trapper, call on a reputable trapline product store for advice.
We’ve only scratched the surface, but the point is to get off the couch and try a novel approach. Whether birds or beavers, predators or prairie dogs, there are a host of diverse species you can photograph in the deer off-season.
Seek out parts of your property you’ve never before considered. Try interesting set-ups like natural corridors such as a beaver dam that traverses a river or a log that crosses a steep ravine. Consider putting a camera in the middle of a water source facing the bank or placing a cam overlooking a decoy. Set a camera over a fox den or a turkey hen nest.
The possibilities are endless, and unlike your camera sets during deer season, there’s no pressure to be perfect. The only way to fail is for you and your game camera to go into hibernation during the off-season.
About the Author: Gil Lackey is a QDMA member and freelance outdoor writer from Nashville, Tennessee. He contributed a special section on trail-camera predator monitoring to QDMA’s book, Deer Cameras: The Science of Scouting.