Skip to main content

Trail Cameras On Public Land

Trail Cameras On Public Land

Running trail cameras in the West can be as effective for big game such as elk and mule deer as it is for our eastern whitetail brethren, but since so much of the western hunting grounds are public property, it is a much different game than using them on private property.

Trail cameras are frequently stolen or tampered with by unethical folks, and even hunters with higher moral fiber (but protective of a hunting spot) will sometimes take a look at the images on your camera card and delete images of particularly interesting animals in hopes that you'll go elsewhere.

Trail-Cameras-on-public-land

Also, stringing a set of cameras across a big tract of public land is a lot of work. In many cases, the use of ATVs is prohibited, so those cameras must be hung and tended on foot — sometimes for miles.


Here's how to place your trail cameras for the best pictures, minimize chance of theft, keep nosy but honest folks out, and glean the most information from the info the camera gathers.


Feed, Water, and Cover

When hunting areas are measured in square miles rather than in acres, picking the right spots for your cameras is critical to success. And you can't really plant a food plot to play the crowd, either. Although cameras are fantastic scouting tools, you've got to pay the scouting piper and wear out some boot soles finding high-traffic game areas before your cameras can give you the feedback you want.

We're pretty much talking elk and mule deer here, and spring, summer, and early fall scouting because bucks and bulls get a lot less predictable and a lot more nomadic as soon as they shed their velvet in mid to late August. During those preseason months, males of both species tend to like secluded areas that provide feed, water, and cover all close together, minimizing the effort they have to put in and the exposure they encounter while accessing them.

Get off the beaten path and wander the country, looking for hidden, hard-to-access spots with those three elements. Stalk through looking for bucks and bulls summering. It will take time, but eventually you'll find big deer or bulls standing from their beds in surprise, staring at you before fading into a nearby thicket. Deer don't smell much, but an area loved by summering bachelor bulls will reek with the rich aroma of elk.




Glassing can help you find those bedroom areas, too. Get up high and glass the early morning and late evenings, finding where bucks and bulls feed along the meadow fringes and where they disappear into thickets to bed. Once you stumble into a spot that combines all of these desirable attributes, spend a quiet hour wandering around it, looking for trails, water crossings, and beds. If you can hang a trail camera within 50 yards of all three, the photographic rewards will be rich.

The Hanging Tree

Once you find the magic spot(s), take the time to find the right tree to hang your trail camera on. Ideally, face the camera north, which minimizes the sun hitting the lens and causing flares in your photos. Failing that, hang it facing south, where the flares will be during times of low game movement. Avoid hanging a camera facing east or west, where the morning or evening sun will pretty well ruin your chances of getting good photos half the day.


I used to hang cameras between waist and chest height. Recently, I've begun hanging them higher, with a slight downward tilt, to avoid more sky/horizon. The result is more evenly exposed images with less blown-out areas of light sky. As when hanging a camera anywhere, get it tightly strapped into place and use a wedge or twig to tweak the angle to perfection.

Once you've got the camera hung, it's time to people-proof it as much as possible. In reality, if someone wants to steal your camera badly enough, they're going to get it done. But wiring or cabling the camera to the tree makes it a lot harder to steal, and as my buddy Wes Hogan puts it, putting a small padlock on the camera door "keeps the honest folks out." These are the guys who will look at — and sometimes delete — your photos but would never think of actually stealing the camera.

Public-Land-Trail-Cameras

I carry a roll of high-tensile-strength wire and a stout Leatherman tool as standard-issue trail-cam gear, and I wire every camera tightly to the tree, then cut off the wire ends to make it impossible to untwist by hand. Hogan goes one better. Using quarter-inch cable with loops crimped into each end, he screws the cameras to the tree with a compact cordless drill and odd-head screws that can't be removed without the correct, specialized bit.

Homemade or commercial camera cages provide the best protection of all from theft and from bears, which like to mess with trail cameras. However, cages are expensive and heavy. If you're stringing a dozen cameras deep into wilderness country and tending them on foot, cable or wire is more feasible.

Before leaving your camera, run it for a minute or two and ensure that the photos encompass the area you want and that the camera is straight. Put the card back in, turn it on, double-check that it's on (few things are more heartbreaking than a camera left "off" for several critical weeks after all the work you put in to placing it), and put a small padlock on the camera door if possible.

With your camera hung, it's well worth putting out, where legal, an attractant, such as Trophy Rock or one of the other proven buck and bull lures. In reality, packing all that in on your back is one of the more punishing sides of setting and maintaining trail cameras on public land.

Sleuthing The Photos

If you read between the lines, trail-cam photos will provide a lot of information beyond just the size of the local bucks or bulls. You can pick out and study certain individuals, so as to know them at a glance should you jump them during hunting season and have to decide in a fleeting second whether to shoot. Watching the date stamp on the photos, you can learn when animals begin stripping the velvet from their antlers and then predict the behavioral change sure to follow.

When predictable individuals disappear and new ones appear, you'll know that testosterone is beginning to flow and the rut is imminent. A helpful tip to elk hunters: This is the time to begin shifting cameras to nearby elk wallows, because they're about to quit hitting your attractant.

Public-Land-Elk-Trail-Camera

It's difficult to know whether you'll feasibly be able to hunt a mule deer or elk you've gotten to know over the summer. Some will stay in the area, particularly during early archery seasons, but others will wander far. Perhaps you'll find them on other trail cameras strung across the area, perhaps you'll never see them again.

Whether you end up shooting an animal you've trail-cammed through the summer, being in the woods and seeing the photos you achieve is reward enough in itself.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

New for 2021: Browning X-Bolt Pro McMillan & Recoil Hawg

New for 2021: Browning X-Bolt Pro McMillan & Recoil Hawg

Browning's X-Bolt Pro family has grown in 2021 with the addition of the Pro McMillan. An innovative muzzle break — the Recoil Hawg — also joins the line.

Best Whitetail Shot Placement with a Rifle

Best Whitetail Shot Placement with a Rifle

Craig Boddington breaks down where hunters should aim on a whitetail that provides the best possible margin for error.

Stuffed Elk Backstrap Recipe

Stuffed Elk Backstrap Recipe

Take your venison loin to a whole new level with this delicious reverse-seared stuffed elk backstrap. Smoking the backstrap on a Camp Chef Woodwind pellet grill first, then finishing it on a blazing-hot skillet or flattop, creates a perfectly cooked, medium-rare steak with a crispy, seared exterior. The filling of diced mushrooms and creamy Boursin cheese adds a whole new level of amazing flavors to an otherwise classic smoked venison loin.

New for 2021: Burris Oracle X Range-Finding Crossbow Scope

New for 2021: Burris Oracle X Range-Finding Crossbow Scope

The Burris Oracle X is the first and most advanced range-finding crossbow scope on the market, building on the company's long successes with range-finding optics like the Eliminator riflescope.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Mossberg's accurate Patriot Predator is the most affordable way to harness the power of the 6.5 PRC.Mossberg Patriot Predator 6.5 PRC: Rifle Review Guns

Mossberg Patriot Predator 6.5 PRC: Rifle Review

Brad Fitzpatrick - June 26, 2020

Mossberg's accurate Patriot Predator is the most affordable way to harness the power of the...

If you're spending time in the outdoors where you might encounter bears, carry one of these guns.Which Firearm Is Best for Bear Defense? Survival

Which Firearm Is Best for Bear Defense?

Larry Case - July 11, 2018

If you're spending time in the outdoors where you might encounter bears, carry one of these...

Perfection takes practice, a little skill and the understanding that not all steaks are created equal. How to Properly Grill Venison Steak Recipes

How to Properly Grill Venison Steak

Hank Shaw

Perfection takes practice, a little skill and the understanding that not all steaks are...

Here's how to toughen up the weakest link in your shooting system.How to Mount a Rifle Scope for Maximum Accuracy Optics

How to Mount a Rifle Scope for Maximum Accuracy

Joseph von Benedikt

Here's how to toughen up the weakest link in your shooting system.

See More Trending Articles

More How-To

Is it ethical, and should you even try it?Should You Shoot Running Game? How-To

Should You Shoot Running Game?

Craig Boddington

Is it ethical, and should you even try it?

We give hunters an edge on hunting public land close to home.Public Land Hunter Magazine Now on Sale

Public Land Hunter Magazine Now on Sale

Game & Fish Staff - July 21, 2020

We give hunters an edge on hunting public land close to home.

Trail cameras can provide some valuable intel, but don't rely on them too much.Are You Relying Too Much on Trail Cameras? Whitetail

Are You Relying Too Much on Trail Cameras?

Jeff Johnston

Trail cameras can provide some valuable intel, but don't rely on them too much.

See More How-To

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save.

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Petersen's Hunting App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Petersen's Hunting subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now