Best Trail Camera Setups for Summer Based on Deer Biology

May 30, 2023 By: Matt Ross

Scouting for deer with a trail-camera leads to quality intel that can ultimately increase your hunting success. However, whitetails drastically change their behavior over the seasons based on fluctuations in habitat needs and resource availability, like food or cover, which can complicate trail-camera scouting. Where are the best places to put your cameras in each season? This series will use deer biology to answer that question, starting with summer.

Deer habitat includes four components – food, cover, water, and space. Let’s break down each area to reveal several potential summer trail-camera locations.

First, What About Bait?

Perhaps the surest method to get deer images on your camera in any season is to use an attractant or bait, which is even a fundamental part of implementing a scientific trail-camera survey. However, what if you can’t legally use bait where you hunt or don’t want to? 

The ability to read sign, predict activity and set up to ambush a deer is the same with a trail-camera as it is with a bow or gun. Using deer behavior to get them on camera without bait can help you develop skills that will help with actual hunting. And since research shows bait sites do not necessarily attract all deer or provide good hunting locations for certain deer, knowing how to get deer on camera without bait is a skill every hunter should develop.

Summer Food: What Are Deer Eating?

During the warm months of June through August, deer eat mostly forbs, or herbaceous, non-woody plants, and the newest growth off small trees and shrubs. The vast majority of those diet items will be comprised of the youngest leaves, buds and shoots available. Of course, they also go to food plots and feed on commercial agricultural plantings like soybeans and alfalfa, which by definition are also forbs, as well as any early-producing soft fruits. Check out this article to learn more about a deer’s diet throughout the year.

Summer soft mast, like these wild Chickasaw plums, make good camera locations in early summer. Other summer fruits include mulberries and blackberries.

Because most feeding occurs at ground level and abundant offerings of younger plant growth within a deer’s reach isn’t typically widespread across a property, being able to identify specific sites where a lot of deer browsing is potentially happening can be done initially from a distance. 

Key in on areas that have undergone some sort of ground disturbance within the past two years, as well as areas that receive a lot of sunlight, like field edges, brushy or fallow areas, or forested openings bigger than an acre. You can identify these spots from aerial mapping apps like onX Hunt, or because they are so visible this time of year simply observing deer feeding from afar when they are most active will clue you into what’s attractive that week. 

Ultimately, you’ll want to place your trail camera where the greatest volume of feeding sign is happening. Fortunately, because plants are actively growing right now, intense browsing should be obvious to most observers where plant ends or parts are missing compared to the surrounding vegetation. Look for frayed stem tips, missing leaves, and a general “flat-top” appearance to plant structure. The sheer amount of this type of evidence, as well as added signs of recent feeding activity such as fresh tracks and scat, can guide exact trail-camera placement. 

Summer Cover: Where Are Deer Bedding?

When it’s hot out, you’re drenched with sweat, and the sun is bearing down, you typically don’t just stand out in the open, exposed, if given a choice. Humans inherently seek shelter from such conditions, and one of the first things we look for is shade. Deer do the same. Think about it: it would be very odd to find a group of deer bedded in direct sunlight during the peak daytime hours of a hot July day. They seek out refuge from the heat, too. 

To get photos of deer within their summertime bedding areas, identify possible trail-camera locations that provide shade, consistent air movement and possibly even nearby water – all relatively close to the above food sources. These conditions come in a variety of forms, but deer travel the shortest distances in summer (more on that below) compared to any other time of year, so quality summer bedding may be found immediately adjacent to, or right in, where they’re feeding.

trail cameras
NDA’s Lindsay Thomas Jr. set a trail-camera beneath a vine-covered, overhanging shrub that provided a cave-like shelter from the summer sun but open breezes from the adjacent field. He got this photo and many others.

Bedding cover this time of year may include motts of small trees or shrubs within a brushy field, north- or west-facing slopes, closed canopied mature hardwoods or dense conifer stands, to name a few. The common things to look for are places that get very little sun and maintain an open understory so the wind can pass through easily. Then look for fresh scat and deer beds, which are simply shallow depressions in the soft grass or pine needles. You may even jump a deer when going to investigate! Take that as a sign and hang your camera.

Summer Water Sources: Where Are Deer Drinking?

Deer acquire water three different ways – two of which don’t involve drinking it. Their water consumption fluctuates throughout the year, but seasonal and biological influences, like gestation, lactation, and thermoregulation (keeping them cool), create a much-elevated need in late spring and summer. Luckily, this time of necessity coincides perfectly with a period when most of their preferred foods are full of water, which is actually how they satisfy most of their water needs. This is especially true in places with adequate precipitation. 

Regardless, most deer will grab a drink when water is available, and finding sources that deer use in summer could be another potential “hot spot” for your trail-camera. Focus on locations with a lot of deer tracks around them. 

Deer will drink from standing and flowing water sources, and to my knowledge there is no preference between the two. In fact, the most likely places deer will drink in summer are sources found near where they either bed or feed, or in between. 

trail cameras
Water sources, as well as water crossing points, can make good summer camera locations. NDA member Todd Reabe of Wisconsin got this photo, as well as the one at the top of this page, at a heavily traveled ditch crossing between bedding cover and an agricultural field.

Summer Home Range and Travel: Where Are Deer Going? 

As mentioned, a deer’s average home range, core area and overall daily travel are the smallest in summer when compared to other seasons. Resources abound this time of year, and they don’t have to go very far to satisfy their habitat needs. Why move and put yourself at risk when you have what you need, right? In addition, second to late winter behavior, their daily summer routine can be incredibly predictable. Put those two together and narrowing down places to deploy your camera on the most regularly used travel routes should take little effort. Find those and you’ll be consistently capturing summer photos of deer using the property. 

If you’ve located places that deer feed and bed in summer, simply methodically walk all existing trails that connect the two. Use terrain, creek crossings and evidence of past use to eliminate the least likely candidates. The spots with the most and freshest sign need a camera, and I would micro-focus on pinch points, where multiple trails cross, and locations that deer may pause just prior to exposing themselves in open areas, or the last 50 yards of cover on the most worn trails.

trail cameras
Look for pinch points with the most and freshest deer sign and heaviest used trails in summer. Photo by NDA member Todd Reabe of Wisconsin.

Bucks and Does

While these recommendations are based on seasonal changes in habitat and how deer have adapted their needs around those changes, be aware that deer are a sexually segregated species during most of the year. This means bucks and does spend time apart, with buck bachelor groups using different areas than doe groups. Because of that, the specific deer you see in summer may not be what you end up hunting that fall.

For tips on how to actually set up the camera once you’ve found your spots based on habitat clues, watch our video embedded below.

About Matt Ross:

Matt Ross of Saratoga Springs, New York, is a certified wildlife biologist and licensed forester and NDA's Director of Conservation. He received his bachelor's in wildlife conservation from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and his master's in wildlife management from the University of New Hampshire. Before joining the NDA staff, Matt worked for a natural resource consulting firm in southern New Hampshire, and he was an NDA volunteer and Branch officer. He and his wife Sadie have two daughters, Josephine and Sabrina.