Deer Hunting: Roll Call!

What Is A Survey?

No doubt about it, one of the most exciting times of the year is pulling trail cameras during late August.  Hardcore hunters know all about the importance of taking pre-season ‘roll call.’  Collecting a pre-season inventory of a deer herd is as simple as finding heavily used trails, food plots and/or using attractants (where legal), and placing a trail camera over the area.  Pre-season surveys give hunters a general idea of what deer are in the area and how they’re utilizing their home range, offering hunters a better idea of what to expect during the upcoming season.

Trail cameras are the best tool for finding out what bucks are still roaming around come late season.

Post-season surveys, although somewhat different than pre-season surveys, provide just as much information when they’re taken seriously.  Post-season surveying via trail cameras is the best way to find out what bucks survived another pressure packed deer season.  Knowing mature bucks could very well be completely nocturnal from human intrusion, glassing picked cornfields at dusk isn’t always going to offer superior results compared to conducting a trail camera survey.

Here’s how to find the bucks and start tallying them up for a way-too-early 2015 hit list:

When You Own The Food

When starting a post-season survey, it’s important to keep in mind exactly what it is that you want to accomplish.  The entire purpose for conducting post-season surveys is to find out who survived, no more, no less.  In order to get the best possible results you must know the land and how deer behave on it throughout the year.

Where I do most of my hunting, it seems every deer within miles will spend a significant amount of time near the best food source when temperatures get brutally cold.  If the property you hunt has the winter food, it’s essentially the grocery store, leaving it up to you to locate your customers, because believe me, they exist!

Conducting a survey on a trail leading to a food source is a great strategy.  Finding trails with the least resistance leading to food will most likely garner solid results.  However, if budget allows, purchasing a trail camera with time-lapse technology and placing it over a large food source is even better.  Using time-lapse mode will tell you where the deer are entering, feeding and sometimes exiting the field depending on if there is still sufficient daylight.

Using time lapse is ideal for scouting larger fields (above). I would choose this option over placing a camera on a trail leading to the food simply because we know that buck is going to the buffet, what we don’t know is which route he’ll take to get there.

When You Don’t Own The Food

Not every property has prime food sources December through March. If your property falls into this category, there is no need to panic.  You’re right, you might not collect hundreds of pictures like neighboring properties, but if you understand how deer travel and use cover to their advantage, a survey can still be successful. Hunters who don’t own food must place cameras in two critical areas – sunlight and cover.

Deer will often bed in areas where the sun can warm their body and low cover breaks the wind.

When deep snow piles up deer will be dogged and lazy, using the most convenient travel routes.  Convenience could be a logging road that has no obstructions or a ridge top runway.  Sunlight is oftentimes overlooked by late season hunters, including those attempting a survey.  Without question, using sunlight to your advantage will aid in your late season camera survey efforts.  Sunny, south-facing hillsides and trails will be the ticket for producing trail camera results when food is buried.  Much like a lazy housecat perched in a window cill basking in sunlight, whitetails behave similarly while buried in cover exposed to precious sunlight.  I can’t imagine too many things feeling better to a whitetail than warm sunlight on a frigid winter’s day.  Knowing deer enjoy the warmth of the sun you’d be wise to place a camera on trails exposed to sunlight.

Warmer temperatures, less wind and less snow are all favorable characteristics found in conifer stands.  These are great spots for trail cameras and shed hunting.

Placing a camera in a pine plantation is another prime wintering spot for deer.  Coniferous trees are the ultimate wind-blocker and areas with pines usually remain much warmer than barren hardwoods.

Camera surveys over bait (where legal) such as corn and various powder attractants probably works the best and receives the data you are looking for the fastest.  You will typically see lots of does and fawns gorging themselves for lengthy periods, and bigger bucks bouncing in and out.  An additional strategy hunters fail to think of is licking branches.  Although the rut is in the books for northern states, placing a camera over what was a prime early scrape will likely yield results.  Bucks will not paw the ground and show aggression at the branch, but they will scent check them year round.  Running cameras over scrapes is obviously an excellent tactic late October through the rut, but don’t count out scrapes and licking branches as a way of getting a census come post-season.

Length Of Survey

The length of your survey really depends on what the land has to offer.  Hunters who have food on their property or use bait can get away with having a shorter survey.  In contrast, those who don’t have food will have to be patient to get an accurate showing of a herd.  Take things very slow when doing a post-season survey.  If your hunting season is over, I advise you start your survey and have it run at least four weeks or until you’re positive the batteries are dead.   There really is no need to check cameras too often this time of year, unless your hunting season stretches weeks into the new-year.  The consequences of checking cameras too often are obvious – minimal pictures due to human intrusion.

What To Learn From A Survey

Lately, a lot of attention has been put on camera surveys and how they reflect deer ratios and herd balance.  There is much to be debated over this topic and opinions amongst professionals even vary greatly.  I am certainly not a biologist and I have no place in telling you what bucks to shoot or how many does you should have on your land, so I wont.  One thing is for sure, a well-placed camera will accumulate excellent late season photos of bucks to keep your morale and motivation sky-high heading into next year.

A quick word of caution, all hunters enjoy seeing a new boss around, but keep in mind, some (but not all) bucks will travel great distances to winter, only to return to their normal home ranges come green-up.  Keeping expectations and dreams in check is always smart.

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