Out of Bounds

Trail Cams: Hunting’s Latest High-Tech Drama

Trail camera bans seem to be picking up steam across the West

By Rob Breeding

Years ago on an Arizona quail hunt I had an idea. As we prepared to drive to another spot I remembered I’d recently saved the classic Gambel’s quail call, “chi-ca-go,” as my ringtone.

There were still quail on the catclaw-covered hillside we’d just hunted. I wondered if those birds would respond to my phone.

I turned the volume to 11, held my Blackberry over my head and gave it a try.

The response was immediate. Multiple birds called back, “chi-ca-go, chi-ca-go.” They were scattered in the catclaw, a hardy desert shrub covered with thorns that for obvious reasons is a favorite quail hiding place.

Now we knew where they hid.

Hunting up those singles would have required picking our way through the catclaw, also known as wait-a-minute bush because you repeatedly say that to your companions while unsnagging yourself, to avoid shredded skin and clothing.

Sometimes that’s how you hunt Gambel’s. You work the quail-reassuring, hunter-shredding cover to find birds. If it had been my intention to hunt the hillside again, that job now would have been a bit easier.

Hunting the hillside after my ringtone experiment also would have been a game violation. And it surely would have violated the fair-chase hunting ethic. If I had deceived those quail into revealing themselves blowing through a wooden call, however, they would have been fair game.

I was reminded of these sometimes fine distinctions with the news that Arizona has banned the use of trail cameras for hunting game, a law that went into effect at the start of the year. Montana has a similar regulation. Trail camera bans seem to be picking up steam across the West.

The venerable Boone and Crockett Club disqualifies from its record book game killed by hunters who used trail cameras, but only those that transmit still or live images from the field back to the hunter. Cameras that require hunters to retrieve data via SD cards or other technology are still allowed.

These Boone and Crockett rules are guided by the desire to prevent technology from displacing hunter skill and create an unfair advantage over game.

I don’t think blowing a call gives me an unfair advantage; nor does unleashing the scent receptors of my dog’s powerful nose. But using an electronically amplified assembly call on a covey I recently disassembled crosses a line. That day, once I broadcast my ringtone, I was done hunting anywhere within earshot.

These ethical, fair-chase distinctions may be best sorted using the wisdom of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. As he wrestled with a fair definition for pornography, he famously wrote, “I know it when I see it.”

For me, so long as someone isn’t watching a live feed of their favorite watering hole on their office computer, then driving to the spot attempting to immediately fill a tag, I’m not too worried about what they see. I can imagine scenarios where traditional trail cameras might give hunters an advantage, but that advantage isn’t so certain as some think.

Still, I’m fine with prohibiting their use during hunting season. Appearances matter.

Trail cameras no doubt save hunters and guides from having to scout out spots for intel. That will buy guides some time, but for the average hunter, turning over scouting is turning over one of the most rewarding parts of hunting, to a camera.

There’s another Stewart quote that provides greater insight as we consider advancing technology and its impact on fair-chase hunting.

“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do,” the justice said.

That’s insight we should all embrace, hunters and non-hunters alike. 

Rob Breeding’s website is www.mthookandbullet.com.