How to Pattern Deer with Trail Cameras

How to Pattern Deer with Trail Cameras

Posted 2019-06-25T02:00:00Z  by  Bill Winke

A story of a buck named Loppy, and what we learned from him

We started hunting Loppy back in 2009. He was not high on the hit list because he didn't have much for antlers, but he was mature and showed up a lot near one stand location. He was just one of several bucks we would have been happy to shoot.

After a few narrow escapes that season, our history with the buck grew and my friends and I started to view Loppy differently. When he showed back up on trail cameras the following September, he became a top prize. His range had moved about a quarter mile to the west. And while he had been quite visible during daylight in 2009, now he only showed up on the cameras after dark. We had other bucks with some daylight behavior to hunt, so we stopped tracking Loppy in late October.

Bill Winke with Loppy. (Midwest Whitetail photo)

Then in 2011, Loppy resurfaced - another quarter-mile to the west. His core area continued to move. Based on the photos we got from three weeks of surveillance, he still possessed the same nocturnal habits. So again, we chose not to hunt him. Without some daylight activity, it seemed a lost cause.

The story repeated itself again in 2012. His core had moved another quarter-mile farther west and his early season behavior remained nocturnal. Again, he went to the bottom of the hit list. We started to write Loppy off as unkillable. He had been fully mature back in 2009 when we first started seeing him. He could easily have been 8½ years old, but without question, he was an old bugger.

Trail cameras were integral in the hunt for Loppy. (Midwest Whitetail photo)

The breakthrough came in early December. I had put out my cameras again after the rut, hoping to find some prospects for the late season. There was Loppy. Only now, he was showing a bit of daylight activity - just a few photos that didn't require the infrared flash. But it was something; it was a glimmer of hope.

I stayed clear of the area until conditions were right. The day after a cold front came through, December 21, I decided the timing was perfect. Deer tend to move very well during a snowstorm here in the Midwest. They also move very well the day after a hard cold front comes through without much snow. I have seen this pattern hold up throughout the years.

Every buck in that area came out onto the small food plot before sunset. There were probably six or seven of them, but the one that came out toward the end of the line had my undivided attention. It was Loppy. This was the first time I'd seen Loppy in daylight since November of 2009 - more than three years.

Loppy fed for 30 long minutes before working his way closer. As he passed between windows of my Redneck ground blind, I drew my bow. When he entered the next window, I stopped him for a 25-yard shot. It was true.

I have killed much bigger deer in my life, but few that I was prouder of than Loppy. He was an old veteran on the farm and worthy of my complete respect.

Use scouting methods to pinpoint target bucks. (Midwest Whitetail photo)

The Patterning Process Defined

Trail cameras played a key role in the hunt for Loppy. The photos told tell me when it was worth hunting the buck. It is no fun to hunt nocturnal deer, no matter how big they are or how much history you have with them. I always look for daylight photos before focusing on a buck to hunt.

Some years, I have bucks on the farm that I really want to kill. I will keep monitoring them throughout late summer and fall, hoping for any changes in behavior that might make them easier to pursue. However, it is very rare for me to stick with a buck that long. Usually, I start running my trail cameras in mid-September, after the bucks break up their bachelor groups and disperse into their fall ranges. I keep the cameras active until the end of October - shortly after I start hunting more. I don't like messing with cameras at this time.

With five to six weeks of surveillance, I can generally find at least one daylight-active buck and figure out a plan for targeting him.

Sometimes a buck will tip his hand early. For example, I had one giant that became daylight-active in late September. I started planning an early season strategy for him and nearly got him on October 5. Occasionally that happens, but often it is the last week of October before bucks ramp up their daylight activity.

What to Look For

Look very closely at the first photo you get in an evening series. Often, the buck approaches the camera from the general direction of his bedding area. The first photo will give you some insight into where that might be. The direction his back-end is pointing in that first photo offers a few clues.

Of course, you should also look for time of day and frequency. Make sure the date and time settings are correct on the camera because that is important information. If a buck is showing up often, even if only at night, you know he is probably spending most of his time in that area. That tells me he is more of a homebody (a buck that's generally easier to kill).

I am more inclined to keep monitoring a homebody buck than one that shows up less frequently. When the homebody eventually changes over to daylight activity, he will be much easier to kill than the roamer.

Knowing where to locate trail cameras is a critical skill. (Midwest Whitetail photo)

Best Camera Locations

I focus on two areas: feeding areas and major funnels. Further, I focus on spots I can get to and from without alerting deer. In feeding areas, I use bait in front of my cameras (legal here) in order to concentrate the deer for a quick inventory. I want to learn what is around as quickly and efficiently as possible. It takes about a week to 10 days for me to gain a reasonable inventory in one area before I either find what I am after and start fine-tuning my patterning methods, or move on.

I don't normally use bait when the camera is over a funnel. I want the deer to tell me what they are doing rather than me pulling them to areas they might not otherwise go.

Once I Find One

After finding a buck I want to hunt, I will shift gears and stop using bait. I bring in a couple more cameras and fine-tune the pattern so I can get a better feel for the buck's range. I rely increasingly on cameras over funnels and scrapes. Use "field scan" or "time-lapse" modes on food plots.

Many of today's cameras have a mode that permits us to rig the camera to take a photo at a given interval at set times of the day. After finding a buck near a food plot, I place two cameras at opposite corners of the plot and set them to "field scan" mode. I want a photo of the plot every minute for the first hour and the last two hours of each day. I just slip in there every couple of days at noon to see if the buck is showing daylight activity, and if so, the direction of his approach. It may take weeks before I see an opportunity. But when it happens, it happens.

There are many moving parts to any patterning strategy. I could easily write a book about the process and the trade-offs involved in each decision, but I am equally sure that you are smart enough to figure this out on your own given this basic starting point. It is a lot of fun and it really does make success more attainable. At the very least, it helps you hunt killable bucks. And that is a big part of having an enjoyable season.

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