The whitetail off-season is in full swing and by now many of us have been out shed hunting, scouting, and beginning to plan for next season’s hunts. Although spring is here, we’ve recently endured our fourth Nor’easter here in Pennsylvania, which brought many of my off-season activities to a halt. As a result, much of my scouting has been moved indoors as I use e-scouting to view new properties and revisit trail camera pictures from past seasons.
I’m a firm believer that past behavior is a strong indicator of future behavior. Said more plainly, if a person is a subpar employee today, chances are they’ll be a subpar employee in the future. Applying that philosophy, it stands to reason that a buck’s past behavior would indicate his future behavior, too. This is exactly why I often review the previous year’s trail camera inventory to formulate this year’s plan when I’m patterning a specific buck. The current images are used to confirm the buck I’m patterning is using his same core areas throughout the hunting season, and to target any new bucks for the following year. The more historical data you have on a buck, the better your odds will be of harvesting him. You’ll usually get only one opportunity to do so, therefore the more you know about him the better. Here’s how I approach building a plan based on previous years’ trail camera pictures.
Many hunters run inventory cameras during spring and summer to get a sense of the deer herd and the buck inventory on a property they plan to hunt. I do the same. However, I keep a handful of Exodus trail cameras out all year round to monitor food sources, so I know which bucks have made it through hunting season and which will be potential targets for the following year. For monitoring purposes, I’d recommend leaving cameras out at least until antlers drop in late winter/early spring.
Building Data & Aging
After I have an idea of which bucks have made it through the season, I’ll file away the images of those I consider potential targets for the next year. I’ll then compare the most recent buck images to images of bucks from years past to see if there is any recorded history. The goal is to try to identify these new target bucks with unique antler or body features (bend in a brow tine, a unique marking, etc). My goal is to not only identify and aggregate my data for a particular buck, but also accurately age the buck so I know if it’s a buck that should be hunted the following year. In Pennsylvania, I typically target 3-year-olds on family farms, as this age would be considered a mature deer in the areas I hunt. If all of this sounds a little overwhelming, know that there are cloud-based software tools that you can use to assist in organizing your data and trail camera images. I’ve used DeerLab in the past and it has worked well.
Laying The Groundwork
Now that I’ve identified a target buck and analyzed the top level trail camera data, I begin to look at the trail camera pictures with a more critical eye. I search for clues related to travel direction, wind direction, day or nighttime movement, and how his core areas shift as hunting season progresses. Often these clues are cause for more investigating, but that’s to be expected. As I collect and analyze this data though, I think about the still lingering questions in relationship to the property I hunt and how the information weaves a story. For example, if a buck is consistently traveling from the north an hour or two before dark toward a food source, chances are his daytime bedding is north of the camera location. Less eloquently stated, his bedding is likely in the direction his ass in pointed in the trail camera picture. This then leads me to search my OnXhunt app for topography and overhead imagery that would narrow down areas that look like good travel corridors in relationship to where he’s bedding and where he’s feeding. At this point, I have the information I need to make a move. I’ll choose a day with good weather and an “almost right” wind for him to use a particular travel corridor, and hope my planning pays off.
Putting it All Together
This year I worked this plan to near perfection. I had watched a deer for two years as he aged and reached the prime age of 4. Through the previous two years of trail camera images and three live sightings, I had aged this buck, identified his unique body and antler characteristics, narrowed down his daylight movement to only evening, and determined where he was bedding. Using Exodus trail cameras on video mode, I identified his consistent travel direction and corridor, and ultimately, the particular pinch point where he’d be killable. I had an encounter on opening day with this buck at 30 yards, only to be blown by the younger sidekick he was traveling with that day. He avoided my arrow yet again however, he fell to my buddy’s bullet during rifle season. UtIlizing the previous year’s trail camera data has changed the way I hunt. Even if I don’t fill my tag, I know I’ve put myself in a better position to season my tag soup with some great encounters.