How to Run a Trail-Camera Survey


A trail-camera survey – put simply – is the most powerful herd monitoring tool you can use that doesn’t require the assistance of a professional wildlife biologist. On your own, you can estimate deer density, sex ratio, buck age structure, fawn recruitment and more – tons of information that will guide you in achieving Quality Deer Management success where you hunt.

A trail-camera survey involves operating one camera per 100 acres over evenly spaced, baited sites for 14 days. The accuracy of your results depends on how well you run the survey. I compiled the following step-by-step guide for use in Quality Whitetails magazine based on the original research conducted in 1997 by Drs. Harry Jacobson and James Kroll, and I fine-tuned the guide with input from other wildlife biologists who conduct surveys. Even with this guide, you will still have a lot of questions as you work your way through your first trail-camera survey. To answer those questions, QDMA published a book, Deer Cameras: The Science of Scouting, which includes four chapters devoted to helping the reader run successful trail-camera surveys. If you are serious about improving the local deer population through QDM, we strongly encourage you to incorporate trail-camera surveys into your herd monitoring plan.

Of course, some hunters are prevented from conducting baited trail-camera surveys because local or state regulations prohibit the use of bait, such as corn. QDMA’s book goes into detail on different approaches these hunters can use to monitor their local deer population.

Now, for the step-by-step guide.

• Conduct trail-camera surveys in pre-season (after antlers are completely grown but before acorns begin to fall) or post-season (start as soon as hunting season ends but before antler casting begins).

• Avoid timing a survey when natural food sources, such as a heavy acorn crop, will compete with your bait. In general, shelled corn is the best bait to use.

• If you hunt in an area with a traditionally late rut peak (late December into January), wait until October for pre-season surveys so that fawns are old enough to be mobile and appear in survey photos.

• Follow all baiting and feeding regulations in your state.

• Determine the number of cameras needed. On properties smaller than 1,000 acres, use one camera per 100 or fewer acres. On larger properties, use one camera per 160 or fewer acres. NOTE: If you can’t afford or borrow enough cameras, rotate the cameras you have across the survey sites until each site has been monitored 10 to 14 days. If you do this, be sure to start the cameras at the same sites at the same time each year and rotate to new sites in the same order each year to keep survey results comparable across years.

• Using a map or aerial photo of your property, mark off a grid that divides the tract into one block per camera needed. Select a camera site close to the center of each block based on ease of access and deer activity. (deer travel routes, woods roads, etc.). Identify each grid with a number or letter (placing a numbered or lettered sign at each site so that it will appear in the photos will help you later to organize images and data by location. See the photo above as an example).

• Clear ground-level debris at each camera site to allow for clean images of deer. Orient the camera facing north to avoid backlighting caused by sunrise or sunset.

• Locate the camera approximately 12 to 20 feet from the bait, with the bait pile in the center of the image. Precise set-up varies with camera model.

• With digital cameras, set the delay for no less than 5 minutes to keep the number of images manageable.

• Once each site is ready, “pre-bait” for 7 to 10 days. Turn cameras on during this phase and monitor photos to ensure cameras are working and camera setup is good (for example, deer are not too close or too far from the camera).

• After 7 to 10 days, if deer are responding to your bait and traffic at each site is strong, begin the active survey phase (photos from this phase should be kept separate from older photos and saved for later analysis).

• Maintain the survey phase for 10 to 14 days (In research, 14 days captured 90 percent of all unique deer; 10 days captured 85 percent of unique deer, which is adequate for the survey if expenses must be minimized).

• Refresh memory cards, batteries and bait as needed, but otherwise keep human activity to a minimum. Wear rubber boots and gloves and practice scent-control measures whenever you visit the sites.
Collect cameras and compile images. Count the total number of bucks, does and fawns. “Fawns” are all deer under 1-year old, including button bucks. “Total” counts include known repeats of individual deer. Do not count deer you cannot identify as a buck, doe or fawn.

• Study photos closely to count unique bucks based on recognizable antler and/or body characteristics (ask for second opinions from friends or a consultant if any photos present tough calls). For example, you may have 100 total buck images but only 10 unique bucks in all. Your ratio of unique bucks to total bucks is therefore 1:10, or 10 percent (0.10).

Note: QDMA has created a free computation form that makes the next few steps very simple.

• Multiply your ratio of unique-to-total bucks by the total does and fawns to come up with an estimate of unique does and fawns. For example, if you have 200 total images of does and multiply it by your 0.10 ratio, you get an estimate of 20 unique does.

• Apply a correction factor to your estimates. If you ran the survey phase for the full 14 days, multiply each of your buck, doe and fawn estimates by 1.11 to adjust for deer you may not have photographed. If you ran the survey phase for 10 days, multiply by a correction factor of 1.18. The results are your adjusted estimates.

• You now have an estimate of the deer population separated by bucks, does and fawns. Use this data to produce estimated deer density, buck:doe ratio and fawn:doe ratio. Sort unique bucks by estimated age to evaluate age structure. If you need help interpreting results to guide future management decisions, talk to a local wildlife biologist or private wildlife consultant.

• Repeat the survey annually or as regularly as possible, using the same method, timing and camera sites, so that you can monitor trends in herd characteristics.

This may sound more difficult than it really is, but it’s important to think through the details before you launch a trail-camera survey, or else your results may be compromised. The truth is, trail-camera surveys are fun, and they can produce valuable information even for your hunting strategies.

Good luck with your survey, and if you have questions, post them below in the comment section.

  • Matt Young

    I have a question about woods vs pasture. I lease a 5000 acre piece of land in Florida that is about half pasture- some large. I assume I only want to survey in non-pasture areas. Do I count pasture land in the acres? Here is an aerial of about half the land.

  • Roberto Garelli

    I have a question about ranch size and counting areas. The land is greater than 1500 acres so I have divided it into 160 acre areas and plan to do counts of 14 days: The 1.11 correction factor is the same for areas of 100 and 160 acres?

  • Roberto Garelli

    I have a question about ranch size and counting areas. The land is greater than 1500 acres so I have divided it into 10th 160 acre areas and plan to do counts of 14 days: The 1.11 correction factor is the same for areas of 100 and 160 acres?

    • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

      Roberto, the correction factor is based on the fact that, in the initial research that verified this method, a 14-day survey captured 90% of the deer population on camera. So, this correction factor takes you up to a 100% estimate. But it is based on survey TIME, not on acres-per-camera. If you inflate your acres-per-camera to 160, there’s no doubt you are introducing some error into your calculations because you will be capturing fewer deer on camera. But how much fewer has not been established in research, so there’s no known correction factor.
      If you’re dealing with a limited number of cameras (sounds like you only have 10), rather than inflate your acres-per-camera, here’s what I suggest: 1) Survey the core 1,000 acres using 10 cameras at a camera per 100 acres, then assume that the resulting population estimates for the core 1,000 acres is representative of the population on all 1,500 acres. Or 2) Survey 1,000 acres for 14 days using your 10 cameras, then rotate 5 of the cameras onto the remaining 500 acres for an additional 14 days. Compile all photos from all 15 camera sites and calculate based on a total of 1,500 acres. Hope this helps!

  • Matthew Copeland

    Would it be alright to run these over corn feeder sites with heavy corn output or should we turn them off and try new locations? I’m afraid of pouring out a bag of corn at a site and pigs wiping it out in one night. Any suggestions?

    • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

      Matthew, feeders are okay if they meet a couple of conditions. First, your camera survey sites need to be evenly distributed around the property being surveyed at a rate of about 1 camera per 100 acres. If any feeder sites fit into this evenly distributed plan, then they can work. Second, the main problem with feeders is when the structure of the feeder itself blocks a good view of deer in the images, making it more difficult for you to identify deer and “unique” the bucks. If the buck’s head is hidden by the feeder, identifying him is going to be tough, and this is a critical part of the survey math.
      As for HOGS, that is a whole other problem! If you’ve got enough of a hog problem that they usually eat corn at new camera sites before deer can show up, then you’re going to have a hard time conducting a trail-camera survey. Unfortunately, there’s just no other good way around this. But, if you can usually get deer photos even at feeder sites being used by hogs, then it may work out. Give it a try. Just know that the hogs are not only going to affect your bait supply, they are also suppressing deer activity at those sites, which may affect your sampling ability and ultimately the accuracy of your herd estimates.
      Good luck, and thanks for reading!

  • dannyb278

    Glad to see there are still responses to questions on this article. Here’s mine. If I can only check the bait site once a week and we have medium to high deer number for southern Minnesota how many pounds of bait should I put out? Can I get an accurate reading just checking once a week?

    • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

      Danny, that’s a good question, and not easy to answer. You definitely want to avoid running out of bait for any length of time during the survey. If it’s going to be a week in between checkup visits, and you have moderate to high density, I’d probably put at least half a bag to a full bag (40 or 50 lbs depending on what’s available) at each camera site and see if that lasts a week. You could also run a “warm-up” week before actually starting your survey to test and see if that amount lasts through your refill visit. If not, supply more at each bait site. Hope this helps!

  • Mark Vick

    When counting total buck images, if your camera is set for 5 minutes, if the same buck comes in for a feeding for 15 minutes , do you count that as 3 total bucks? What if same buck comes back twice in an evening? How do you count those in your total images? Say, at 730pm, then again at 4am the next morning.

    • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

      Count every buck photo, including known repeats. If a buck stands there and is photographed 5 times, add 5 to your total buck photos count. If he comes back twice in an evening, count him twice. It is the ratio of unique bucks to total buck photos that’s key to the math. This is essentially the “mark-recapture” method used by scientists, except you can’t capture or band or mark deer. Instead you’re using unique antlered bucks as your marked/tagged group and using their ratio of unique-to-total to estimate doe numbers, and thus the total population. Good luck, Mark!

  • Matthew Copeland

    My family just purchased 375 acres in north central Texas. I have been named the wildlife manager for the farm so I figured this was a good place to join and gain knowledge. Would a survey at this point be of any use? I would like to get a feel for what we should harvest in our first year. The farm is 65% wooded and 35% coastal and winter wheat. Plenty of water all around the place. Any suggestions on where I should start?

    • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

      Matthew, congrats on the new gig! The two best times to do a trail-camera survey are just before and just after the hunting season. If hunting season has already started (and deer are being harvested), you might want to wait. Also, if acorns are a factor in that region, and they are already falling, you’ll also want to wait (the acorns will compete with the corn and reduce your ability to get deer in front of cameras). Just hold off and do a post-season survey as soon as hunting season ends but before antlers start to drop. Thanks for reading, and good luck!

  • ___

    What should one do if there is a deer that is visible and you can tell it is a buck, but it is not a good enough quality picture to tell if it is unique or not?

    • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

      If the photo quality is so low that you can’t confidently determine if the buck is 1) a buck you have seen in other photos already or 2) definitely a new, unique buck… then do not count that photo at all in your total tally of “bucks.” Just disregard that photo, as you would with any other photo where the deer can’t be confidently sorted into the “doe”, “buck” or “fawn” groups. Good luck!

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of QDMA, and he is QDMA's Director of Communications. He has been a member of the QDMA staff since 2003. Prior to joining the staff of QDMA, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.