Best Trail-Camera Setups for the Pre-Rut Based on Deer Biology

September 6, 2023 By: Matt Ross

Let’s continue a series aimed at helping you place your trail-cameras in the best locations to capture deer based on unique deer behavior and biology by time of year. Earlier this year we talked about summer trail-camera strategies. It’s time to move into a more exciting phase of deer season: the pre-rut! 

Pre-Rut Food

During the months of September through October, although most vegetation appears lush and green to us, something is happening inside plant cell walls making a deer’s typical summer foods less attractive, especially annual forbs which tend to be the most desirable. As most broad-leaved foliage matures and prepares for winter it becomes more lignified, resulting in a drastic decrease of digestibility. At the same time, new foods are arriving on the scene almost weekly. Acorns are beginning to drop and soft fruits like apple, persimmons and others are falling as well. Commercial crops like corn are also ripening. Conditions can change in a flash, as new preferred forage options appear relatively quickly. 

On top of that, deer are programmed to prepare for winter, too. They need to gain as much weight as possible while food abundance is high, and they’ve evolved to gorge on the temporary but carbohydrate- and energy-rich food items hitting the ground so they enter the rut and cold months ahead with a thick layer of fat. In any given location and time, pre-rut food sources are in constant flux as deer seek and concentrate on the best foods available right now. The trail-camera photo above was taken by Kurtis Hulett on September 8 and shows a Wisconsin buck packing in fruit beneath a persimmon tree.

Because all these changes are occurring, when you scout for possible trail-camera locations based on what deer are eating, you need to identify the absolute freshest sign. Fortunately, because of the way a deer’s mouth is designed, the majority of both hard and soft mast won’t be consumed in one bite. Deer routinely leave bits and pieces behind. Since rodents, raccoons and opossums will pick up what’s left, if you find partially eaten nuts or fruit you could be in a spot deer were feeding within the last couple of days. Browse is still a significant component of their diet, so also continue to look for the greatest and most recent amount of browsing evidence described in part 1 of this series. Finally, always be on the watch for signs of recent feeding activity such as fresh tracks and scat. All of these can guide exact trail-camera placement. 

You can identify these potential feeding spots from aerial mapping apps like onX Hunt, which has an incredible tree species and habitat layer that delineates likely areas of acorn-producing oaks, thermal cover and browse areas. Regardless of the resources you use, be prepared to burn a lot of boot leather this time of year to key in on where deer are at the very moment you hang your camera, because it can change in a flash.

You may be wondering, “What about bait?” That’s an option for some hunters, and it certainly works to get deer on camera. However, 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.

Pre-Rut Cover

No matter the time of year, quality bedding areas provide deer with a sense of security from any combination of the following: dense vertical and/or horizontal structure, a visual or wind advantage to quickly identify incoming danger, easy escape routes, and a general lack of human presence. And, as we described in part 1, they are also typically positioned not far from where deer are feeding. 

However, because their preferred foods are constantly changing during the pre-rut, that means their bedding areas are shifting, too. That also means most deer are likely using a number of different areas to bed down between bouts of feeding during September and October. Moreover, because daily movement is beginning to increase during the pre-rut (more on that below), it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where deer are regularly bedding and thus where to focus your trail-camera placement.  

Bedding cover this time of year may include drainages, early successional cover, cutovers or forest stands with an impenetrable understory, hedgerows and field edges, swamps (of all kinds), and general terrain features within upland hardwood systems, like topographic benches that don’t get a lot of human disturbance.

Look for places that provide the secure cover listed above within a few hundred yards of the most desirable energy-based food sources (mast or crops) in the area. Then look for fresh scat, tracks or deer beds, which are simply shallow depressions in the leaf litter. You may even jump a deer when going to investigate! Take that as a sign and hang your camera; however, be prepared to move it, if necessary, once that spot goes cold.

Pre-Rut Water

Deer water consumption fluctuates throughout the year, but the biological influences discussed in part 1 are at a low point during the pre-rut, and thus their water requirements due to life stage are significantly reduced compared to the summer months. However, the types of foods that deer consume this time of year are highly variable in water content; so, the need to drink surface water is going to be highly dependent on what they’re eating, and whether or not those foods provide water in other ways.

For example, if the majority of their diet in a given week comes from a newly discovered supply of white oak acorns that just started falling, they’ll be getting much less preformed water (water found within the hard mast) compared to the soft fruits they were eating the week before, and therefore may be more vulnerable to capture on camera at a nearby water source. 

Regardless, most deer will grab a drink when water is available, and finding sources that deer use in pre-rut could be another potential spot for your trail-camera. Focus on locations with a lot of deer tracks around them, at natural crossings and smaller pools of fresh water near desirable foods. 

Scrape use begins to peak before the peak of the rut (breeding), so scrapes and rubs will become productive locations for cameras in the late pre-rut period. (Study by the University Georgia)

Pre-Rut Home Range and Movement

Deer are really only driven by two motivations during their time on Earth: the need to feed and the need to breed. While one of those influences is beginning to increase during the pre-rut, the primary influence driving their daily movements at this time of year is still food. And it’s in hyperdrive. They have to put on pounds, and some individuals will gain as much as 25 to 30% of their body weight in two short months. It’s an evolutionary adaptation of survival, and both bucks and does are on the move to find the best food, covering greater distances within their home range as well as beginning to expand its boundary, constantly shifting where they spend their time. 

However even with this increased movement, similar to my advice in part 1, focus on terrain features such as creek crossings, pinch points, where multiple trails cross, as well as evidence of active, heavy trail use, all near where deer are currently feeding; the spots with the most and freshest sign need a camera. 

Of course bucks are also starting to test the waters of the impending breeding season during the pre-rut, leaving plenty of scrapes and rubs behind as a signpost of their increasing testosterone and willingness to breed. These markings are meant to advertise a buck’s presence, as well as provide a cue for other deer to visit and leave their scent as well.  In fact, depending on the freshness and density of the sign, these general locations could be a great place for a camera to see who’s leaving it.

You could even create a mock scrape and place your camera on it! However, be aware that rubs and scrapes peak at different times, and their visitation may vary, so their utility for a camera location may vary, too. Generally speaking, clusters of dozens of rubs are good spots, but I’ve personally had best luck placing cameras on scrapes, and their use really doesn’t peak until the rut – more on that in the next installment of this series. However, the later in the pre-rut it is, the more valuable placing a camera on scrapes becomes, as well as the more likely you’ll get photos of bucks in the area that you may see while hunting. 

Bucks and Does

The separation of sexes observed in summer may begin to break down during the pre-rut, depending on the availability of pre-rut food sources. For example, since both sexes must capitalize on quality forage, there will be more intermingling in the pre-rut when those sources are limited. On the flip side, when it’s a bumper crop, they’ll be more spread out; and as veteran hunters know, those are years it’s not only difficult to get a photo of a deer on your trail-camera, it can be difficult to observe them while hunting, too!

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.