I shot a trophy buck, hundreds of Canada geese, a few bald eagles and a flock of turkeys in the past week.
But before you call the game warden, I have to tell you that my best shots were taken with a camera, not a gun.
This is the time of the year — right after most of the hunting seasons end — where I put up my firearms and head for the woods and water with my photography equipment.
I’m still hunting in a sense, wearing drab clothing or camouflage, concealing myself in a blind, relying on stealth, getting out early, etc. But I’m not looking for game for the table. I’m searching for that trophy with my camera.
Before I go any further, I want you to know that I’m a writer by trade, a photographer by hobby. I take most of my wildlife photography to illustrate my stories.
But if I have learned one thing, it’s that you don’t need the most expensive camera and largest telephoto lenses to get good shots. Over the years, I have found that it is far more important to learn the behavior of the wildlife world than it is to have the best camera equipment.
In other words, I have used the tricks of the wild world to get me closer to the wildlife I am shooting rather than letting a telephoto do the work for me.
I’ll give you an example. During our most recent cold spell, the geese kept a hole open just beyond the marina on our ice-covered subdivision lake in a Kansas City suburb. I dressed in camouflage and knelt behind some boats in stalls and did my best to blend in to my surroundings.
Using my 400-millimeter telephoto lens, I was able to capture the geese coming and going and the bald eagles that were keeping a close eye on their activity. Later, I caught a flock of turkeys walking along a treeline in the snow. And a day later, I returned to a spot where I had seen deer activity in the past and got some good shots of does feeding in a clearing.
Luck? Maybe a little. But I don’t think I would have gotten those photos if I didn’t approach my photo shoot the same way as I scout before hunting. I dressed in drab clothing. I remained concealed once I got to a spot the wildlife was using. I was patient, sitting in the cold and waiting for some time before the wildlife arrived, and I shot many photos so that I would have a good selection from which to choose.
Here are a few tips to help you get some great shots of wildlife:
• Don’t get out and just wander. Wildlife can detect movement; their eyesight is much better than ours. Just stay put.
• Where? That’s where scouting comes in. Learn the wildlife’s routines — which parts of fields deer and turkeys have been feeding in, where ducks and geese have been gathering, etc.
• When? Get out early. That’s when wildlife is most active. Deer get out and forage early in the day and again at dusk. Turkeys fly down from their roost trees at first light and start feeding, ducks and geese start stirring early in the day.
• Avoid midday. Light is often too harsh, and shadows are too prevalent.
• Try to hit the “golden hour” — the first or last hour of daylight. That period often provides the most rich shooting light.
• Generally, you need a camera with at least a 300-millimeter zoom lens and preferably a 400. The best cameras for shooting wildlife allow for fast shutter speeds and adaptable ISO settings. If you’re trying to capture a bird in flight or a deer running across a field, it’s not unusual for photographers to use a shutter speed of 1,000 to stop action.
So where do you go to find wildlife? In the winter, I love to search Missouri state parks or national wildlife refuges. With little human activity during the cold months, the wildlife relaxes and isn’t as wary as at some times of the year.
In late fall, I got some great shots of deer bedded down in marked campsites at Lake of the Ozarks — places that were bustling with activity only a month earlier.
One of my favorite places in the world for wildlife photography is the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge (formerly known as Squaw Creek) in northwest Missouri. The 10-mile driving loop puts you close to wildlife, eagles, deer, even pheasants.
Sometimes, though, wildlife is no farther away than your backyard, especially when birds are looking to “fuel up” and ward off the cold. My wife and I have set up four feeders close to our back deck, and they get constant use on cold days. I often sit in a lawn chair behind a folded umbrella, and the birds will practically land on me. Yeah, I get some strange looks from neighbors, but that’s OK. Once I tell them I am filming birds, not spying on them, we’re fine.
So instead of staying inside by the fire this winter, grab your camera and get out. And take plenty of photos. One well-known photographer once said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Good advice.
Brent Frazee is an outdoors columnist writing twice monthly in the Globe. Contact him at email@example.com.