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Picture perfect

5/30/2008

It's no secret trail cameras are a valuable tool before and during deer season. Pictures don't lie, and a well placed camera will tell a hunter when and where to hunt. The days of blindly guessing which stand to hunt have been replaced by a quick jpg upload in the field.

But as trail cameras become more sophisticated and user friendly, outdoorsmen are finding applications for them year-round. Some don't even require the user to wait for photos.

Smart Scouter makes a cellular surveillance system that sends photos instantaneously to the user's email via satellite. The applications of such a unit go well beyond deer scouting.

"If someone steals the unit, their photo will have already been sent to your email before they likely even get it off of the tree," said Steve Bailey, spokesperson for Smart Scouter.

Lots of landowners are using the Smart Scouter simply for remote security applications, he added.

The drawback — and there is a big one here — is that the unit is quite expensive to own and operate. Individual units sell for $650. There is also a mandatory $15 per month fee for the satellite service, and a four cent fee for every photo that is uploaded.

Though there is a way to limit the number of photos the camera takes, it could conceivably be quite expensive if placed over a winter feeder in places with lots of wildlife.

The makers of Smart Scouter argue the investment is worth the money, especially since it protects itself, but it's hard to compare its ongoing expense versus the one time cost of a standard trail camera.

The alternative is one of many digital trail cameras on the market. All have their merits, and all can reveal a lot during the off season.

Trail cams take shed hunting to a whole new level. Instead of indiscriminately barging into the woods once a week to try and find antler sheds before the squirrels do, hunters should let a strategically placed trail camera tell them precisely when to hunt.

A trail camera placed over a remote, but accessible feeder after deer season ends will document the precise day local bucks lose their headgear. Check the camera in the middle of the day and eventually the bucks that frequent the feeder will show up sans antlers. Photos are often close enough to even show bloody pedicles, alerting the owner that sheds are new and nearby.

It is important to place the feeder and camera well outside the bucks bedding area, however. If it is necessary to enter the bedding area to check the camera every day, the deer will leave the area, defeating the purpose.

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Trail cams are also a great tool to determine whether canine tracks are from coyotes or the neighbor's dog. It's tough to argue that a dog was inside a fence all night when photo evidence says otherwise.

Trappers already have a ton of junk to carry in and out of the field, but could increase their harvest if they include a couple trail cameras in their basket. When placed low to the ground along a ditch or creek runway, trail cameras help determine the size and number of furbearers in the area. And there is no better evidence of what or who is swiping bait from a set every night than a photograph.

Perhaps the best example of a non-hunting application of a trail camera occurred last year in Indiana. Two brothers were caught taking apart a ladder stand on their neighbor's property and hauling it away. They never saw the hidden camera, but seemingly posed for several nice shots of their faces with the stolen goods over their shoulders.

It was a case that likely would never have been solved, but for the landowners smart placement of a trail camera. Whether he meant for it to catch some crooks is unknown, but it's a safe bet he was as thrilled to capture a photo of the thieves as he would have been if the photos caught a big buck on the trail.

Turkey season is aided by the use of off season trail cameras as well. Though the birds are not dispersed in the winter, it's exciting to know what kind of gobblers will be in the offing in the spring. The image of a beard sweeping the ground in March is the best motivation to get out of bed in April.

Trail cameras are credited with lots of wilderness scenes we might never have seen. As they become easier to use and less expensive to purchase, we open up the previously unseen world of remote and nighttime wildlife activity.

Mangy bears in the East, mountain lions in the Midwest and wolves in newly expanded territory have all fallen prey to hunter's trail cameras in recent years. And if sasquatch exists, it's a good bet he'll eventually be caught on a trail camera, too.