Of Mice and Men: Game cameras and the things that go bump in the night

The Wild Life #6

You know the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words” right? Well sometimes, it might also be worth putting a trophy five point mulie rack on your wall…or something as simple as getting a good night’s sleep in camp. I bought my first (and so far only) game camera about five years ago. It’s a basic, no-frills Bushnell Trophy Cam. It takes color stills during daylight with its 8 Megapixel camera, black and white stills in pitch darkness using its infrared flash, digital clips with its movie camera function. Which by now has been technologically surpassed, I’m sure, by the plethora of newer, High-Tec models that can now do everything from calling you on your cell phone to let you know it’s currently taking pictures of a trophy elk, to giving you it’s GPS coordinates as some ne’er do-well woods rat is loading it into his pickup and driving away on a logging road, headed for the Interstate. But I got mine really because I was curious to see if I really could capture a few shots of wild animals on it, and because I also had some demented idea that I might be able to catch my wife on it, getting ready to take her shower. Four years later, my curiosity has been fully satisfied, and I have taken several nice pictures of wild game and other critters with it. However, none of them was of the wife stepping into the shower. After about a year of suffering from the extreme paranoia that someone was going to steal my game camera if I left it out overnight, which forced me to set it up only after dark, and retrieve it at 4 or 5 am in the morning before the sun came up, I decided that the $180.00 I had paid for it wasn’t worth losing that much sleep over, and I relaxed a little, and started experimenting with it. My first subjects were our dogs, inside the house. I tried my damnedest to catch the little buggers tearing something up while I was away at work, or maybe taking an illicit poop on the carpet, but it never happened. At least not on film. I learned that dogs really don’t do a whole hell of a lot while you are away, except snooze. At least not our dogs. Besides, with only one camera set up, if they had wanted to do any dirty deeds, they had to but get up out of their doggie beds, stretch, and move a few feet to another room.

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My luck changed, though, when I captured some really awesome pictures of a fox that started visiting my deer camp in the Idaho Sawtooth’s in October of 2013, after I threw some chicken bones from dinner out near a log on the ground about twenty yards behind my tent. After that first night, when I’d heard some rustling and scratching in the woods just before I turned in, and with flashlight and Glock pistol in hand, went to investigate, and found the chicken bones gone, out came the game camera. I affixed the Bushnell to a small sapling fifteen feet away from the log, using the web straps that came with it, and waited. Or rather, the camera waited. And the very next night, at almost the same time, and with Ribeye steak bones on the menu, Mr. Fox came to dinner again and I got it all on film! This all started during the last week of the hunt, and that fox showed up for his photo shoot nearly every night after that until I finally had to break camp and return home.

Live fox shots on camera were great (although the foxy wife would have been better, hehe) but I craved capturing a big buck on my game cam, and I kicked myself all the way home on the long drive back to Oregon, wondering why in the hell I had never put the Bushnell out on those high country Idaho trails where I had just spent an entire month? Oh, yeah, that again. I was afraid someone would steal my camera. I resolved then and there, that I would not let another hunt go to waste…game camera wise. On my next major hunt, I vowed to put the Trophy Cam out in the field, and I would let it stay in place for several days. Fast forward nearly one year, to September 2014, a mule deer archery hunt in Oregon’s Silver Lake Unit. I had the campground all to myself, and the woods all to myself, the entire week I was there. Just the way I like it. And although it was unbearably hot by midday, usually 90, to 95 degrees, the mornings were cool, almost frosty, and the woods were full of mule deer bucks running around in bachelor herds.

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I had seen seven very nice bucks the first day I was there, and one was a MONSTER five point. I wanted that deer so bad, I could taste him. He and his buddies were watering at a small creek just before dawn, and again at dusk, which ran directly behind my tent, and I found their tracks less than three hundred yards from my camp. I surveyed the area, took some GPS coordinates, and strapped the Bushnell to a stout cedar tree. On the second night, I caught a small spike buck staring at the camera with glowing alien eyes at 3:32 in the morning. Things were going just swimmingly until the next day, when I finally ran into another bow hunter and his wife, who asked me if “that was my little green tent” down by the creek? I said that it was. They said, they had just seen what they thought was a huge black steer roaming around my campsite (this is open cattle range) but upon closer inspection, with binoculars, they had observed what was actually a 400 pound black bear. I ran to my Polaris Sportsman parked in the shade of the trees, and like Roy Rogers leaping onto Trigger’s back, I jumped on the seat, fired the engine, and sped down the Forest Service road toward my camp a mile and a half away. Because of the extreme fire danger that fall, no fires were allowed in the unit, so there had been no regular campfire smoke scent permeating the site to dissuade predators like bears. Instead, I had been cooking my bacon and eggs on my propane stove. And pouring the liquefied bacon grease all over the ground…not too far from my tiny nylon Coleman dome tent, which I had nicknamed “the death bowl” because of how claustrophobic I felt once I had managed to burrow my way inside it like some hibernating animal.  I expected to find my camp in shambles. My cooler overturned, with my precious bottle of Jack Daniels broken, and bleeding out all over the ground. My tent rended with long, jagged claw marks, and my sleeping bag inside turned into confetti. But everything was cool. No damage, nothing out of place and no bear tracks. But that didn’t mean he hadn’t been there, or that he wouldn’t be back after dark. I went and got the Trophy Cam, and set it up in camp, determined to either record the demise of the bear later that night, or possibly even my own.

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When a manufacturer advertises a tent as a “4 man”, they actually mean “2 man” and if they say it’s a “2 man”, they actually mean it’s basically a coffin. In any event, “2 man” doesn’t mean two American men; it means two Chinese men, and small Chinese men at that. As I lie awake that night inside “the death bowl” fondling my Glock .40, and lightly fingering the ON/OFF switch of my green lens Buckmasters headlamp, which I was wearing, I was engaged in a deep inner psychological and philosophical battle. Should I just unload my Explorer and sleep in there tonight? Or would that be demonstrating blatant cowardice in the face of the enemy? I was a squatting duck in this so-called “tent” which used to be perfect for sleeping out in the backyard with the kids fifteen years before, or the occasional overnight fly-fishing trip to the Hoh River. But a guy wants a fighting chance, some room to maneuver, if he’s going to possibly be fighting for his life, and I was dead meat if that bear sauntered into my camp, pushed a hoary, claw-filled paw through the paper thin nylon side, and drag me out into the night. I was pondering this, and thinking seriously of getting up and going out to the ice chest for a glass of Jack to help the decision making process along, when I heard the first, faint scratching. Something was out there on the picnic table. I heard the Coleman stove rattle, like something had bumped against its metal grill. Then the coffee pot rolled off the table, and clanged loudly onto the ground. My trembling fingers fumbled for the headlamp switch, and then the zipper of the tent door, while all the while shouting at the top of my lungs, “GET OUT OF HERE BEAR! GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!” I charged out of “the death bowl” duck walking on my knees, then staggered to my feet, and swept the muzzle of the Glock back and forth across the camp, now eerily bathed in the light of my green LED headlamp. Nothing. Crickets. Just the pounding of my heart, the silent whisper of moonlight filtering down through the pines, and the soft gurgling of the creek. What the hell had just happened? I picked up the coffee pot, and put it back on the picnic table. Where, I noticed, my partially used bar of soap seemed to now be missing from, as well as my toothbrush, which I had left out to dry right next to the stove. I pulled the SD memory card from the Bushnell, and popped it into my Canon digital camera, and within seconds I had my answer. A 4 oz. Deer mouse had attacked the camp, and had stolen both my soap, and my toothbrush. But, it was BIG Deer mouse and it just as easily could have been a bear!

DEER Mouse Fixed

Anyhow, I managed to survive the rest of the trip, and even though I returned home deerless (as usual) I had a bunch of great memories in the form of photos I’d taken of the hunt. And of course, my favorite was, and still is, the game camera picture of the Deer mouse right after he had pushed my coffee pot from the picnic table. I still own my Bushnell Trophy Cam, and it’s still running strong on the original set of Eveready Lithium batteries I put in it years ago right after I bought it. I doubt that I will ever invest in a fleet of game cams, and run a twenty-mile trap line of them in the woods like some guys do. And I know I’m never going to stream game cam pictures from the field to the computer in my writing room at home, as tempting as that sometimes seems, because that’s just a little too NSAish for me. That seems to me, to be way beyond the pale of “fair chase” and I know I don’t appreciate the asshole government snoops and all of the spying they do on us today…I doubt the deer appreciate us hunters spying on them to that degree, either. However, I think every hunter should own at least one game camera to add to his repertoire of camp gear, if for no other reason to watch their camp when they have to be away for extended periods of time. I put my Trophy Cam high in a tree, camouflaged with branches, the next morning when I had to go in search of a town to buy a new toothbrush, which turned out to be a 75 mile round trip. When I hunt the Sawtooth Mountains for mule deer in Idaho, it is a nearly all day, 120 mile round trip just to get four-wheeler gas, and a loaf of fresh bread. So it’s nice to know that if anyone does come into my camp to steal anything, including my six-thousand dollar ATV, I will at least have the bastards on film. If you don’t own a game camera right now, you should consider buying one. Who knows? You might just get lucky, and catch the wife getting into the shower on it.

An update: My little Bushnell is still going strong, and still operating on its original set of lithium batteries. Here’s a little 2 point buck I recently caught on it, feeding on a wild plum tree right across the street from our house.

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