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Ken Perrotte’s Outdoors Column: A fun way to play ‘I Spy’ in wilderness

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn.—Hunters are increasingly turning to game cameras to electronically monitor wildlife movements and populations in promising location spots around the clock.

Some of us are old enough to recall when the most sophisticated game-monitoring tool available consisted of a small plastic compartment containing a clock that stopped when a trip string strung across a trail or attached to a bait pile was tugged. All you knew was something had been around at a specific time.

I recall it being useful in trying to figure out when bears may have visited.

The revolution began when somebody figured out how to rig a camera to remotely take a photo of the unknown visitor. The drawback was cost. Cameras shot expensive rolls of film, often featuring nothing but photos of the same blue jays or raccoons.

Digital photography changed the game. Now, you can collect thousands of images with reusable digital media cards. Quality set-ups can be had for $100 to $200. Like most things electronic, the trend is toward smaller, faster and, often, cheaper. Most game cameras today are at least two-thirds smaller than the standards of just a few years ago.

Today, email inboxes and social media accounts routinely see game-camera owners sharing images taken by unmanned surrogates.

For many users (including me), game cameras are a utilitarian, albeit technological means, of trying to spot and figure out the patterns of a largely nocturnal big buck.

I attended a seminar by Gil Lackey at the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association’s annual conference here.

Lackey, who lives in the countryside west of Nashville, is an avid hunter. Capturing big bucks on game cameras isn’t his primary goal; he focuses on making bucks (as in dollars) by recording “niche” animals (especially predators) in action. His trail camera galleries are featured in many papers throughout the Southeast and beyond.

CREATE A SCENE

Lackey, largely through trial and error (mostly error, he says with a laugh) learned ways to help facilitate great images of wild critters.

For example, he will position a camera not far from a fallen tree, using the angles of the tree to give his photos interesting perspectives. He occasionally will move fallen trees or place other natural objects in the scene to make the eventual photo more appealing.

He cuts up and tethers bait, often pieces of freezer-burned deer or “cull” cuts from the local wild game butcher, to attract foxes, coyotes and bobcats.

Attractant scents such as beaver castor are placed on fallen trees or several feet up a tree’s trunk if Lackey wants to get an image of a coyote on its hind legs with its front paws leaning on the tree as it looks up.

A female coyote living close to Lackey’s home is a regular in his photo sequences. He even named her Paris Hilton because, he said, “She’s never met a camera she didn’t like.”

He got one red fox used to snatching pieces of meat close to a camera and then placed the meat directly atop the camera. The resulting extreme close-up of the fox eyeing the snack and licking its chops is wonderful.

Another technique is to set the camera low and slightly angle the shot upward. I used to call such perspective a “John Wayne” because it makes the subject appear larger than life. Lackey showed just how big a strutting gobbler turkey can look when the image is taken at the height of the bird’s spurs.

While he doesn’t concentrate on photographing whitetails, he has several suggestions to improve

opportunities for interesting deer photos. He’ll place a dab of tarsal gland lure on a branch over a scrape to get a photo of a buck flaring its nostrils for a big whiff.

Manufacturers of $12-an-ounce bottles of estrus doe urine might not like it, but Lackey says a free product available by the pint also attracts mature bucks to a location. He calls it “Me-Pee.” He said both mature bucks and coyotes will readily check out male human urine, with coyotes sometimes rolling in it. (Female urine doesn’t seem to have the same effect, he added.)

He also recommends setting up in edge cover. Don’t just face a pasture or field unless you want photos of the same doe group over and over. “The big buck hangs out in that edge cover,” he said.

TECH TIPS

Lackey prefers home-built game cameras because he likes higher-quality electronics than that found in many commercial cameras. He likes a white flash best because it has the best range and takes the best photos for publication. Infrared flash is the commercial trend of recent years, but he said the cameras with the LEDs that flash red “scare the heck out of animals.”

The latest innovation is infrared “black flash.” Lackey said these units are good for game photography or surveillance because neither people nor animals detect the camera. But, he added, they don’t take the best pictures, especially at night.

Other tips include watching the sun direction to avoid backlighting the animals, cleaning the lens frequently and, because some of the best images can happen in the rain, create rain hoods made from cut, painted Tupperware pieces.

Minimize human scent on and near the camera. If using bait, place it in some cover unless you want dozens of images of crows and vultures.

Finally, some cameras have extremely sensitive motion-activated sensors. The shutter trips whenever movement is detected. Trim small branches, grass or anything else that may blow in the wind and activate the camera. Similarly, attach the camera to a stout tree to avoid it swaying in any wind.

To see some of Lackey’s images, check out chattanoogan.com/2011/3/28/197639/Cool-Trail-Cam-Pictures.aspx.I

Ken Perrotte can be reached at The Free Lance–Star, 616 Amelia Street, Fredericksburg, Va. 22401, by fax at 373-8455 or e–mail at outdoors@freelancestar.com.

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