When I first started to hunt deer, the experts of the day said I should focus on deer sign. Things like primary scrapes, boundary scrapes, hub scrapes, territorial rubs, rub lines, licking branches and signpost rubs dominated their language. As a result, I walked through the woods dazed and confused. I tried hard to figure it all out and even harder to apply it where I hunted, but the pieces never fit. I was always guessing more than seemed wise. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle where half the pieces were blank, or worse, they were missing altogether.
Frustration set in after a few years of bumbling and ultimately I gave it up and became a terrain and cover hunter. I determined that patterning deer using sign didn't work, so I started looking for something simpler. My search took me to the soil conservation office where I picked up my first aerial photos. Everything changed that day. Things suddenly made sense. Using the terrain and cover to suggest funnels and natural travel routes actually worked and it became the foundation for all my hunting. From then on, I didn't (and still don't) spend much time looking at sign. That's when I began to shoot some nice bucks.
Along Came Trail Cameras
I soon found that while sign forces you to guess, a trail camera tells you everything you need to know: what, where, when. For me, the cameras didn't diminish the art of the hunt; they did, however, make it easier to figure out where to focus. Basically, if you are hunting logical stands in a part of your hunting area with the most nice bucks, you are more likely to shoot one than if you are hunting logical stands elsewhere. The cameras just give you another tool for playing the odds.
Trail cameras, however, are a double-edged sword: They sometimes teach things we can use to kill a certain buck and they sometimes tell us that nothing of any size is living on the farm. In the past, ignorance was bliss and we would hunt with great expectation and care because we hoped Mr. Big was lurking nearby. When we don't find Mr. Big in our photos, however, it is easy to become sloppy. Be careful not to fall into that trap because the camera doesn't tell you everything. Never assume that because you don't have photos of a nice buck that none are in their vicinity.
I killed three bucks last season and I had photos of all three of them. Two were regular visitors to the camera while the third only showed once at a distance. I didn't even know it was the buck I shot until I took a closer look later. He could just as easily have passed 10 yards farther away and the camera never would have picked him up at all.
I killed those two during the high-activity days of the early rut. So, patterning is a relative term. The cameras didn't make it easy, they served only to help me narrow down to the best general areas that year. It paid off once, which is definitely enough. I felt like I was playing the odds by hunting closer to the home of that buck rather than randomly bouncing around.
There are times, outside the rut, when it is much easier to pattern bucks. During the early and late season, it is certainly possible to narrow down the patterns to the actual trails the deer are using, because at these times careful use of the cameras can put you in the right tree rather than just the right area; as a result, you can afford to put more stock in what the photos tell you when the bucks are staying at home.
I know many bowhunters who run their cameras all summer. Sure, that is fun and you get to look at many nice velvet deer, but many of those deer will move to a new range once the bachelor groups break up and the food sources change. Summer photos are much less valuable than photos you get after the bucks shed their velvet, break up and settle into their fall ranges.
As a last word of caution, I don't like to educate and alarm deer just to get their pictures. So I am reluctant to run a lot of cameras, and especially reluctant to go deep into the timber. I try to set my cameras where I can drive right up to them. Where legal, consider a pile of corn to put the deer in front of the camera. Where this practice is not legal, set up near trails and field edges where you can catch the deer coming and going, where you have easy undetected access.