Trail cameras have changed bear hunting in ways we never could have dreamed. Here’s now to make the most of them.
By Bernie Barringer
My, how things have changed. It wasn’t that long ago that bear hunters climbed into a stand at a bear bait with little to no idea what bears were visiting the bait or at what times. Hunters used some interesting tricks to get information about the visitors. I know guys who carried five-gallon pails of fine sand to the bait and spread it nicely around in hopes of getting a decent track to analyze. Some would hang a bit of bait seven feet from the ground to see if a bear big enough to grab it was visiting. Others spread flour around, which would get on the bear’s feet and hopefully leave a white track on dark, hard soil. Still others examined surrounding trees hoping to find a hair that would give them a clue about the bear’s color.
In the 1990’s, string trackers became popular. That’s where I come in. I remember using string trackers at several trails around bait sites. When something pulled the string, it tripped a little digital clock, which stopped at that moment. Now you knew what time something was at the bait. You didn’t know it was a bear though. It could have been a coon, deer or any other critter that’s prone to a free meal.
My first trail cameras were the film models. They were big and bulky and required a 40-minute drive to the nearest Walmart 1-hour photo developer. After an hour’s wait I would go through all the prints and throw away everything with coons, squirrels, chipmunks, crows and ravens, and hopefully have a couple pictures of bears out of the roll of 36. Sometimes the cameras took 36 photos of other critters before the bears even arrived for the evening.
Now digital scouting cameras have made things so much easier. They have advanced to places most of us never dreamed. High-quality photos for reasonable prices are the norm. They will take literally thousands of photos and even HD videos between my visits the bear bait, which minimizes scent intrusion and lowers the risk of spooking bears.
And of course, we now have cameras that text or email photos to our smartphones immediately after they are taken. More on that amazing development later. Yes, cameras have changed bear hunting like nothing else ever had before them.
Scouting cameras have helped me learn so much more about bear behavior. They changed the way I baited and even more profound, changed the way I look at bait location. They helped me learn what I believe is the number one factor in choosing a bait location: pick a spot where the bears will feel comfortable in the daylight. Here’s how that happened.
Years ago, I noticed that some of my baits would be visited by bears mostly at night, and the few which came during the day wouldn’t hang around long. I’d get one or two photos of them grabbing a bite or two then they would move on. They would hang around a little longer in the dark, but I knew that I had to make some changes that would give the bears a higher comfort level so they would stay longer and increase my odds of getting a shot when I was on the scene.
That led to an in-depth analysis of my bear baits and locations. Over time I learned to pick spots near water and swamps, and most importantly I realized the importance of heavy cover around the bait. Big bears do not like to expose themselves in open areas during the daylight. Corridors of thick cover allowed them to approach the bait earlier in the evening. Rather than hanging up 100 yards away, even the mature bears would come in before last light if the location was one where they felt a high level of security. I was now getting photos of bears just lounging around, even in daylight.
Once I learned how to create a secure environment for the bears, another issue reared its ugly head. The bears started messing with my cameras. They would bite them and sometimes pull them off the tree. I realized that the bears felt comfortable enough that they were just hanging out around the bait site, and just like bored teenagers, they started getting into trouble.
I now have at least one camera on each bait and it’s in a steel lockbox. I’m loyal to Covert Scouting cameras because they have been so reliable for me and they offer cams with really good lens and sensor for the money. They are a bit more than the bargain brands, but well worth it. They have a steel box they call the Bear Safe and it protects the cameras perfectly. I’ve never had a camera destroyed by a bear or stolen by a human thief since I started using these. Still, I wipe my cameras down with Scent Killer wipes just in case I got any bear-attracting smells on them.
The correct settings on the camera leave room for some personal preference. I don’t really care to look through 400 photos a day, so I set the cameras on three or five minute intervals. I love the setting of the Covert Black Maverick series that allows the camera to take a photo then a video. I will set the cam to take one high-res photo then a 30 second video, then pause for five minutes. You’d be amazed at the things you see on the video that you would have totally missed in a single photo. Lots of interaction between bears often takes place on the video when I would have never even known there was more than one bear at the site based on just a photo. Plus, I love having lots of video for you YouTube channel. When hunting, I’ve even got the shot on trail camera video sometimes, which can be a big aid in tracking.
Just how far you want to take technology in your hunting is up to you. Cell phone scouting cameras offer some amazing opportunities. Some people make the case that these opportunities are bordering on unsportsmanlike. Take, for example, one instance in my hunting where I placed a camera down the trail a ways where a big bear was hanging up before committing to the bait. While I sat in the stand overlooking the bait, a cell camera placed at this “staging area” texted me photos when the bear arrived. I knew he was there even though I couldn’t see him. It allowed me to prepare for what I hoped was coming next. In this case, the wind switched and he left. I would have never known this without the cellular cam.
I’ve been using a couple Covert Blackhawk cell cameras which use Verizon wireless. They make one that uses AT&T as well. I like this brand and model because it offers the best service where I hunt and because Covert’s plan is very reasonable. Instead of having a cell phone plan for each camera like the earlier models and brands, Covert’s is only $12 per month with an additional $8 per month for each additional camera. And you just turn the plan off when you’re not using the camera so it’s a real bargain to gain this kind of information.
I know when bears are hitting my baits because I get a text with a photo of the bear in real time. I get a lot of usable information from that photo that will help me in the future. Of course there are drawbacks to this in a way. Like the time I was sitting on stand and I got a photo of a big bear on my bait. My other bait. Maybe sometimes we’re better off not knowing.
I’m convinced it’s just a matter of time before I get a photo of a person messing around my bait site. When I do, most likely I can get out there before they have time to get out of the woods. If they steal the camera, I’ll be waiting at their vehicle. At the very least, it may take an in-person visit to find out why they are at my bait.
Scouting cameras can be used for spot & stalk hunting as well. Putting cameras over clover-covered clearings, berry patches and open areas can offer clues to where you should be spending your time behind glass. That’s a topic I will be exploring more in the coming years as I do more western bear hunting.
Here’s one of the things I love about this sport: bear hunting can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Some people simply prefer to do it the old fashioned way; there’s something to be said for being surprised when a bear shows up at your bait and you’ve never laid eyes on it before. I’m not going to fault either extreme because it’s a personal preference and it should stay that way.