One August day Iowa hunter Jay Gregory glassed a giant buck in one of his soybean fields. He snuck into a thick marsh a half-mile from where he spotted the deer and set up some trail cameras. Over the next 7 weeks he got 5 photos of the buck–not a lot, but enough. The image time-stamped 9:00 a.m. on October 24 was gold–it showed the hard-antlered monster at the waterhole in broad daylight. Jay moved in with a tree stand and arrowed the beast a few days later—it gross-scored 198.
After spotting a big buck in an ag field or food plot, sneak in and set a couple of cameras on well-used trails near the closest river, creek or marsh. As summer deepens, mature deer spend a lot of time hanging out near water in low-lying areas. If you get lucky and set your cams in the right spot, you can find out where a giant is bedding. Then plan your ambush on a trail between the bed and the feed.
Another great spot for cams in the early season: small clearings in the timber 50 to 100 yards off a crop field or clover plot where deer feed on September evenings. Mature bucks often hang up in these staging areas in late afternoon before moving out to a field at or after dark. Find a staging area and set a cam on a fresh trail, or near an oak tree where acorns are falling. If you photograph a good buck, slip into the staging area, hang a stand and try to shoot him if the wind and access in the area let you do it.
In the book Deer Cameras: The Science of Scouting Wisconsin bowhunter and QDMA member Todd Reabe reveals where he gets amazing daytime photos of monster bucks. And day images are what you want, because that shows when and where you might arrow a whopper when he’s on his feet in shooting light. Todd stays away from field edges and instead aims his cameras into pockets and strips of security cover. “Small funnels and bottlenecks of thick cover between feeding and bedding areas are the best spots for my cams,” he says. Look for these secret cam hotspots on aerial photos and then go in and ground scout.
Dr. Mickey Hellickson, one of the top whitetail biologists in America, has taken camera surveys for more than 10 years on his Iowa hunting property with the sole intent of finding terrains and covers where mature bucks routinely travel. “The spot where we’ve gotten the most mature buck photos is where 2 or more drainages or fingers of timber come together,” he says. Mick notes that these funnels may be large or small, but one constant is that “there is thick security cover nearby.” Hang cameras near these bottlenecks and you will find big deer. Then cross-reference the photos with aerial maps, consider fresh sign on the ground and hang tree stands for ambushes.
Hellickson’s surveys have revealed a second great place to set your cameras, especially later in the fall when the leaves blow down and the days get colder. “Our photos show mature bucks regularly use small blocks of timber with evergreen trees because the conifers provide increased security cover late in the year,” he says. Copses or wind rows of pines or cedars also break the wind and provide a warmer climate for deer on cold, north-wind days. Beginning in late November, set a couple of cameras in these habitats and be ready to move in with a stand when a bomber buck shows up.
Another top deer biologist, Dr. Grant Woods from Missouri, has analyzed hundreds of thousands of cam photos taken in all imaginable types of habitat from September through January. He says the best place to get buck shots bar none is at scrapes during the rut. Look for big, active scrapes deep in the timber and “monitor them throughout the rut, not just for two weeks during the peak,” he says. He explains that different bucks of all age classes show up at different scrapes at different times of the season—some come early in the pre-rut, some at peak, others don’t show until the post-rut phase. “Monitor the best scrapes for four to six weeks and you’ll see almost every buck big and small in the area,” says Woods. “You’ll get images of the local bucks on your land, and many of the transient bucks that work through too.”
Midwestern bowhunter and TV personality Terry Drury loves to hang cameras near “fence jumps.” “It might be a low, drooping spot in a wire fence, a hole in a ditch below a fence, an open gap gate, or a spot where a tree has fallen across a fence and knocked it down,” he says. “Any point where deer funnel to and cross a fence every day.” Second only to scrapes in the rut, fence crossings are where Terry captures some of his best buck images every season. “Whether you have 2, 6 or 20 fences crisscrossing your property, bucks are going to cross them in funnel spots all season long,” he says. “If you watch those spots enough with cameras you’re going to find some big deer.”
Minnesota hunter Ron Bice often hides a camera in cover where he thinks or knows a good buck is bedding. “In dense cover deep in the timber, deer get up and move around a lot in daylight hours to browse or just stretch,” he says. “You never know what kind of buck you’ll catch in there.” It’s risky business because you have to sneak in there at least twice—once to set a camera and again to check the memory card–but it can pay off. “Get a picture of a big deer in his bedroom, and you’ve got a huge advantage,” notes Bice. “You get an idea where that buck is moving out of cover at dusk, and where he’s heading back at first light the next morning.” Then hang a tree stand along a nearby trail or funnel for a high-odds ambush.