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First look: 'Spies in the Deer Woods'

Photo courtesy of Stackpole Books

In the recently released "Spies in the Deer Woods," Walt Larsen and Dick Scorzafava have written the first book dealing exclusively with scouting cameras. A hundred full-color photos accompany the authors' look into the use and utilization of scouting cameras for activities as diverse as hunting, wildlife management and entertainment.

ESPNOutdoors.com spoke with the authors independently to catch a glimpse into the past, present and future of the product, and to get a better idea of how the experts use their scouting cameras.

Is this really the first book of its kind?

Dick Scorzafava: It's the first book out there on scouting cameras. In depth, especially. If you look at the contents, you can actually do a [population] survey of your property — a formal survey and an advanced formal survey. I'm not the one that developed that. McKinley did at the University of Mississippi.

And, actually, it's the most accurate way to survey deer on a property, today. There's no other method that will give you a more accurate count.

Why is that?

DS: A lot of times what they've done is aerial surveys and harvest surveys and they've kind of combined the data together to come up with the population of an area.

Well, [McKinley and Jacobson] proved, with collared deer on some 10,000-acre properties in Mississippi, that, over a 15-day period, if you strategically locate your cameras in 100-acre plots, you will actually photograph 98 percent of the deer on the property.

Is that what most people use the cameras for?

DS: No, they're using them for scouting and hunting, because you can scout 365 days a year 24/7 without even being there.

And you're not disturbing the woods, and especially with the new technology they have today, with the new capture IR (infra-red) that Cuddeback has, I've used that extensively, testing that last year and this year. You put four Duracell D-cell batteries in it, and a 1-gig SD card, and you can walk away for six weeks and get 2,000 pictures.

And I've heard that the cameras can send the pictures back to your computer?

DS: It's very, very expensive to do that at this point in time.

The best thing and the cheapest thing that you can do is: Cuddeback's got a viewer that you can take right with you in the field, that sits right in your pocket and you hook it right into the camera and it'll read all the pictures and you can view all the pictures there on a 4" x 6" screen. Delete what you don't want and leave what you want on and decide if you want to move the camera. Rather than taking it home and putting it on the computer, you can view everything right there, which is time saving, of course.

The difference between the Cuddeback's and the other cameras on the market is: most of the other manufacturers use a cheap digital camera in their unit. Cuddeback has designed a camera for scouting cameras and that's why the trigger speeds on them are so fast. I've literally run by the camera as fast as I could and it caught me every time. I mean, a lot of the other cameras, if a deer's walking through or walking quickly, by the time the shutter clicks on it, the deer's out of the image. So, what you get is a blank picture — you get a picture of the woods, without a deer in it.

Do you think Cuddeback is the highest quality on the market?

DS: I think it's the highest quality and it's the best one out there. I've tested a lot of the others over time and consistently, it's just a better camera. I mean his new capture is kind of what I call idiot-proof. Anybody can use it and it's cheaper. The price has come down considerably [to $199]. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles, but you don't need the bells and whistles.

And the infra-red captures the body heat from whatever animal's setting the camera off?

DS: Right, right. Black and white pictures at night.

So, who did you tailor the book to?

DS: Well, hunters, or anybody who wants to take pictures of wildlife. I mean, they want to find out what's in their back yard or put it in the woods in the back of the playground and get pictures of raccoons and stuff and show the kids in the classroom what's behind the school. I mean, it's a great way to get kids involved in the outdoors. Setting these up, taking pictures, going home and looking at all the pictures or looking at them right there in the viewer. And it's a game, I mean you can have a lot of fun with it. And not just for deer hunters — I mean, bear hunters, small game hunters, any hunter can use it if it's positioned right.

Actually, I took one to Africa with me and put it on three different waterholes and you wouldn't believe the different pictures I got.

What's the most outrageous or funniest use of the cameras that you heard about while putting this book together?

DS: Well, I've had several guys use them for surveillance in their hunting area and find guys shooting deer out of their stands or caught guys literally red-handed stealing their stands. They've got pictures of them, and they actually set up two cameras, one in the parking area and they got a picture of the vehicle, the truck with the license plate on it and they got a picture of the guy taking the tree stand down. I betcha he was surprised, huh?

I've seen some pretty funny pictures of animals checking out the camera, too.

DS: Oh yeah. We've got pictures of bears with their mouth wide open, about 6 inches from the camera before they tried to bite it.

What kind of housings are the cameras in?

DS: Well, anytime we're in bear country, we put them in what we call a bear safe. Otherwise, they'd eat the camera — literally. They'll just chew it up. But they can't chew it up in the bear safe. I'm serious, we've had them try and they can't.

Where do you see the camera technology going in the future?

DS: I don't really know where it's going to end, to be honest with you. Walt's the guy to ask about that. He's the technology guru guy; I'm the meat and potatoes guy.


ESPNOutdoors.com: So, Mr. Scorzafava called you alternately a marketing genius and a technology guru, could you shed some light on what that means, exactly?

Walt Larsen: (Laughing) I run an advertising agency and the marketing genius thing may be arguable, but the technology guru, I'm definitely not.

I was hired as a marketing strategist and after doing that for a few years, I started gathering clients of my own that I handled who were in the outdoor industry, and one by one, I gathered clients that made hunting and fishing products. I preferred dealing with entrepreneurs and was involved or instrumental in some of the pretty significant successes in the outdoor industry in the last two decades.

One of those successes was in the scouting camera market and initially that was Camtracker — they became the No. 1 scouting camera and eventually we parted ways and I started working with Deercam — made them the number one scouting camera — and when the digital camera thing happened, convinced Mark Cuddeback that it shouldn't be Deercam, but it should be something else and so we named that next brand of his Cuddeback and now they're the number one digital scouting camera.

Were the originals film cameras? How did they work for users?

WL: Absolutely. They worked fine. There were obviously limitations and drawbacks. You were limited to the number of images available on a roll of film — 24 or 36 images, so you tended to go back to your camera far more often than you do now, which is not a good thing, obviously. Part of the idea of a scouting camera is to put it out there and leave it alone and not alert the deer that you're coming in and out.

People, rather than just put their camera on a trail or put it on the edge of a field, they wanted more pictures, so they'd put food or bait down or they'd put it in front of a feeder. Well, that's fine until the raccoons or squirrels come to the feeder and spend the next three hours there and burn up an entire roll of film. That gets expensive. And then you have to take the roll of film out of the camera and you'd have to drive — and none of us are patient enough to wait overnight, so we'd have to do the one hour deal — to town and wait for an hour and get the film developed and find 24 or 36 pictures of squirrels, and it gets expensive and frustrating. So, the digital world is way better. There's no comparison.

Now I don't care if I get 150 pictures of a squirrel — doesn't cost me anything. The world of digital scouting cameras has opened it up, too. People beyond just the hardcores use scouting cameras now. It's an entertainment tool and the recreational hunter, the weekend warrior, certainly can have a scouting camera and not be frustrated by it.

What do you mean by the scouting cameras being "beneficial"?

WL: What it did for me, first and foremost, was identify what deer are out there. I enjoy hunting big deer, and the first step in hunting a big deer is finding a big deer.

Now, he may just pass through once and I never get another picture of him and he may be 10 miles away. If I get multiple pictures, then, all of a sudden, I know this deer is frequenting this area, and now it's up to me to figure out where he might be during daylight hours. It's a tool, it's an aid. And, quite frankly, as much as anything, I can sit in a tree all fall long and if I never see a big deer, become frustrated, and not know whether any deer is in the area or will ever show up. But, if I have a picture or two of him, I know there is a chance and I absolutely guarantee you I spend more time on stand and I cut fewer corners if I know there's a big deer around.

Is baiting the areas around cameras a pretty common practice?

WL: It is. Again, it's just a means to get the deer to come to where you want them to come to get their picture taken. It is useful to use bait to get the picture of the big deer. I personally don't do it.

I tend to, in the areas where I put my cameras out or in the areas where I've hunted a lot, I know where the pinch points are. I know where the bedding areas are. I know where I can successfully get a picture of a big deer. My favorite place is over a scrape. I put my camera on them and by the time I get down to that area to hunt, in early November before the rut or at the beginning of the rut, I expect I'll have some pictures of some pretty nice deer that have been working those scrapes.

One thing that's unique about scouting cameras, unlike a lot of other products on the market: you can't have just one. It's like that old potato chip commercial: nobody can eat just one. At this point right now out on the property I hunt in Iowa, I've got 11 cameras out. And that's 320 acres.

So, about every 30 acres or so?

WL: Is there a magic number of how many cameras per acre? No, there isn't. I find various spots that I put cameras that work and every year I get good photos there. And, of course, every year I find one or two new spots that I'd like to try, so there's a couple more cameras.

Doesn't that get expensive?

WL: It's cheaper than it used to be. When I had four or five film cameras and kept running through the film and the processing, that got expensive. This way, I buy that camera, and I've got it for good and I use the same flash card or memory card and just download it and put it back in there.

So, yeah, I mean, a couple hundred bucks a camera, yeah, it gets expensive, but it's not like I'm going out and buying a dozen cameras in one fell swoop.

What do people use the cameras for mostly?

WL: The average guy wants to find a big deer or wants to find a good spot. If you have a hunting spot and you have three stands up on that spot and tonight you go out hunting and you pick stand A and you don't see anything. Isn't the first thing you wonder, "Golly, what happens if I was at stand B? Did I make the right decision?" Well, there's an easy way to find out. You put a camera at all three stand spots.

I'll tell you a story: the first time I went to Iowa, I don't know what year it was, couple three or four years ago. The year before, I didn't have a tag but my brothers did and there was a spot on that property, a wooded ridge that was just magic. They shot deer off that and saw lots of nice bucks. So that's where I was going. I had cameras out there. So the first day down, the first thing I did, I got there at lunch time. I walked up on that ridge and pulled the cards and checked them — and the cameras had been there for months — did not have one decent buck on any of the cameras on that ridge. It didn't make any sense, and I didn't even believe it, so that first weekend I spent my time on that ridge, I finally concluded that the cameras didn't lie. The deer were not using that ridge for whatever reason. Well, as I started analyzing it, I realized that on the back side of that ridge, where there had historically been corn, no longer was there corn. It finally occurred to me that must have an impact. But that spot was horrible that year. And all the years following, there was corn again. And, guess what? The deer were there again.

I wouldn't have had to waste a weekend — I should have just believed the camera.

And the next years, I got pictures of three out of four shooter bucks that I saw, and I knew them — I knew where they liked to hang out. So, that's how I use the cameras.

So, would you say that using the camera and noticing things about the habitat, like the corn on the ridge, or about the deer's behavior patterns, would you say that that generally makes you a better or a smarter or a more observant hunter even when you're not using the cameras?

WL: It gives you more information. And, more information allows you to make better decisions, and obviously, you have to analyze that information correctly, but absolutely.

What kind of range do the cameras have?

WL: It depends on a lot of things. Basically, they're catching heat in motion, and it depends on the ambient temperature outside. Typically, the camera will catch the deer walking by farther than the flash can take the picture. So, I'm going to say maybe an average of 60 feet.

Again, what it's doing is measuring the difference in temperatures, so if it's a real warm day, it may not have as easy a time picking up a change in temperature, whereas if it's 10 below and you've got a deer walking by, it's going to notice it.

What are the craziest or funniest pictures that you've seen?

WL: My mother had a hummingbird feeder up and it was empty literally every day. There's no way that hummingbirds can drink that much liquid. I put up a camera because I had my suspicions. And she thought that was the neatest thing and, sure enough, a couple days later, I checked it, and there was a family of raccoons standing on the planter up there drinking the sugar water. And that wasn't my suspicion, but a family of raccoons came every night to have their sugar water treat.

Anyway, there's gobs of stories of people getting photos — whether it's a mountain lion somewhere that nobody's ever seen before or some cool pics of big bucks fighting.

"Spies in the Deer Woods" is a softcover book, available at most national bookstore chains for $21.95. Or, you can get a copy, autographed by the authors, by visiting its Web site, www.spiesinthedeerwoods.com.