Call it Candid Camera for wildlife.

For a growing number of Minnesota deer hunters, remote trail cameras are becoming as ubiquitous as blaze orange hunting caps.

They are everywhere.

"Their use has exploded -- everyone I know has one or two," said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

This fall, for the first time, I encountered two trail cameras strapped to trees while hunting ruffed grouse on public forests in northern Minnesota.

No one knows how many of the motion-triggered cameras are out in the woods. But as prices have fallen and technology has improved -- high-quality digital cameras range from less than $100 to around $500 -- their use seems to have proliferated.

That raises two key questions: Do they help hunters shoot deer? And if so, does it give hunters an unfair advantage, violating the "fair chase" doctrine?

Brian Peterson of Burnsville is an avid deer hunter and Star Tribune photographer who has hunted deer at his camp in northern Minnesota for 30 years. He has used trail cameras the past half-dozen years.

While he's captured some dandy bucks on the camera, inevitably those deer haven't shown up when Peterson and his four fellow hunters are on their deer stands.

"Three of the five of us were skunked last year, and we had bucks on the cameras," Peterson said.

One big whitetail showed up on his camera every summer for four years. "But we never got a glimpse of him in the spring and we never found his sheds," he said.

"Then he'd appear again in December [after hunting season].

Peterson said he believes it is virtually impossible to target a specific deer with a trail camera, at least in the woods he hunts.

"The biggest deer I've ever gotten was a buck that never showed up on our cameras," he said.

For Peterson's group, the cameras are simply fun. "It's become almost a hobby in itself," he said. "It's neat to see what's out there."

Besides deer, his remote cameras have photographed bears, moose, bobcat, wolves and other critters.

Bill Marchel is another professional photographer and diehard deer hunter who uses trail cameras. Marchel, who writes an outdoors column for the Star Tribune, has eight cameras placed in the woods near Brainerd, but says they haven't helped him shoot big bucks.

"I've never shot a deer that's been on my trail camera," he said. Why not? "There are too many variables." A doe could divert a buck's normal travel route, as could another hunter, a coyote or any number of things.

Both Marchel and Peterson said seeing nice bucks on the cameras has given them perhaps one advantage: The incentive to stay on their stands longer. The downside to using cameras: Not seeing any deer. "That's disheartening," Marchel said.

Like Peterson, Marchel said the cameras are fun and add another dimension to enjoying wildlife.

"They offer you a portal to nature," he said.

Not everyone is convinced trail cameras are innocuous. In Montana, the use of the cameras or other electronic devices are illegal during the hunting season, because they are considered an aid to hunting.

"We take game the old-fashioned way; we hunt it," said Mike Korn, assistant chief of law enforcement for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "We encourage people to scout before the season."

Korn is not a fan of the cameras, nor the trend toward more technology in hunting.

"At what point does the nature of hunting cease to be hunting?" he asked.

Continued technological advancements in electronic equipment are crossing the line of fair chase, said Rod Smith, enforcement operations manager with the state Department of Natural Resources.

Some new trail cameras can transmit photos directly to a computer; others alert owners when they have detected movement. Both are illegal to use in Minnesota for the taking of game during hunting season, Smith said.

Meanwhile, Peterson has photographed more nice bucks with his trail cameras this year than ever before.

"We're really excited," he said. "It's encouraging to know they are there."

But whether those bucks show up this fall while Peterson and his hunting partners are on their stands is another thing.

Doug Smith •