Whitetail Scents & Sensibility
"Always hunt into the wind" - Sage words of wisdom, this is perhaps the single most important tip any neophyte hunter learns at the outset of their hunting career. Deer rely heavily on their sense of smell. So it stands to reason that if we're to avoid detection, we should use the wind in our favor. Combine this with the appropriate use of scents or scent-blockers, and you're off to the races!
We've all experienced them; foiled hunts in which the deer we were after maneuvered downwind. By positioning themselves in the path of moving air currents, they capitalized on their most keen sense. Suddenly alerted to impending danger, they made a quick exit before we could take the shot. It was as though they hit an invisible wall, not only deterring them from their intended course, but repelling them altogether.
As a whitetail guide and outfitter, I'm frequently asked if I use commercial scents. As a rule, I offer this qualified response.
"Yes, I believe some work. Whether by chance or circumstance, I've witnessed the magnetic attraction of estrus scents firsthand. I believe cover-up scents and scent-eliminators have some value as well. However, I think any scent or cover-up that is incorrectly used, either too frequently, infrequently, or at inappropriate times and places, can actually repel animals."
How's that for a diplomatic answer!
An Acute Sense of Smell
As the most acute of the whitetail's senses, scent dictates virtually all of their behavior. Scent reception, interpretation, and deposit are key elements of a deer's most important mode of communication, particularly during the various stages of their annual rut cycle. It's no secret that hunters are learning to capitalize on this in a big way. One need only consider a simple anatomy lesson to recognize the important role scent plays in the world of the whitetail. Their multiple glands and prominent nose are key anatomical features. They urinate in scrapes and deposit glandular secretions on rubs and licking branches to communicate dominance and breeding readiness.
A whitetailed deer's sense of smell is many times greater than that of a human. Deer are capable of detecting odors at long distances, even hundreds of yards away, that we humans can't even identify at close range. Case in point, some hunters suggest that their clothing doesn't have an odor. A bold statement made by those who meticulously clean and store their hunting garb in sealed boxes or bags. Despite our best efforts, humans smell. To a deer, we small bad! More to the point, I'm not just suggesting we have a unique aroma. No, in fact, to a deer, we literally stink. Translated, that stink means just one thing - danger! Acknowledging this fact is the first step to solving the problem.
Given that we smell, we've come full circle. We have two options: the first is to use wind and thermals to our advantage; and the second is to use commercial scent or scent blocking products to combat our foul odor.
Using the Thermals
Whenever possible, thermals can and should be used to the hunter's advantage. By learning how temperature, humidity, air currents, and topographic influences affect thermals, we can better understand how to work each variable in our favor.
Temperature and humidity are universal considerations regardless of where we hunt. I pay closer attention to scent issues when hunting in warm and humid weather. In cooler, dryer conditions, I'm admittedly less concerned about scent. If you've ever watched deer up close, you'll notice they frequently lick their nose to retain moisture. This moisture enhances their ability to detect scent molecules in the air. In less humid conditions, a deer's sinuses become dry, which means they're less likely to detect foreign odors.
Thermals, or the way that scent molecules are carried in the air, are influenced by hot and cold. Thermals shift and change throughout the day. For example, if you're hunting on a ridge overlooking a valley, air currents will typically flow from low to high in the morning? As the sun rises, it warms the earth. Ambient air temperature becomes warmer throughout the day peaking as the sun reaches its apex. Also consider that warm air rises. As the sun goes down temperature decreases causing thermals to travel downward.
With thermals in mind, it is therefore also critical to consider topographic variations. In a flat prairie environment for instance, thermals have little in the way of barriers. In foothills or mountainous environments, thermals can interfere with any unsuspecting hunter's attempt to close the gap between them and their quarry.
At times air currents are sporadic, shifting direction repeatedly. In these instances, little can be done. Just know that despite best laid plans, sometimes the wind shifts and reveals your position without warning.
One method we can use to outsmart a deer's sense of smell, regardless of the weather or thermals, is to use commercial scents.
We've all heard the hype and the skepticism surrounding commercial scent products. Manufacturers promise they are the answer to all of our problems. To some extent attractants, masking scents, scent eliminators, and other related products have undoubtedly revolutionized our approach to hunting. Some folks swear by them; others swear at them. But, each has their place and time.
The most popular today are attractants. Hunters in the twenty-first century have their pick of doe-in-estrus, dominant buck, glandular scents and more. And assuming that these products are what they say they are, they do work well; particularly when applied under the right conditions.
Attractants perform best when applied to and around scrapes and rubs. For my money, doe-in-estrus and dominant buck lures are the two best assets a hunter can have in his or her arsenal come the last week of October straight through to the early part of December. Keeping in mind that not all scent products are created equal, in my own experience, I've found those manufactured by Tinks, Scent Shield and Hunter's Specialties to produce good results time and again.
One strategy I employ each year is the creation of mock scrapes near traditional primary scrapes. By showing the dominant buck that I'm not afraid to move into his territory, I establish a challenge of sorts. Then, by anointing my mock scrape with doe-in-estrus urine, I compound that threat by suggesting that does are interested in my scrape. Sometimes I'll place dominant buck scent in existing scrapes to pose a challenge, but I much prefer the estrus scents. Year after year, I've had deer come by to investigate, and have harvested many great bucks as a result. The single biggest factor to consider during each stage of the rut is that bucks are focussing first on doe groups, all-the-while monitoring them for breeding readiness. By applying scent of this nature to the scrapes, you send a message that there's a doe nearby and she's ready to be bred. As the peak of the rut approaches, bucks travel more frequently to find ready does, and that's what you're hoping to capitalize on.
Manufacturers also offer alternative scent products to emulate natural smells and mask human odor. Earth and pine scents, red fox and raccoon urine are most common. Although not as popular, skunk and rabbit scents are also available. I'm not a big fan of these per se, but when it comes to odor elimination on the other hand, I'm considerably more optimistic.
Commercial Scent-Blockers and Eliminators
I've used a variety of scent-blocking products. In my experience most work well. From odor eliminating soaps and shampoos, to laundry detergent, most seem to do what they advertise - eliminate or block human odor. While various companies manufacture a range of these products, I'm partial to Scent Shield and Hunter's Specialties. H.S. Scent's "Scent-A-Way" non-scent detergent is a well-known and proven product. Another one I like Scent Shield's odor-eliminating "Bodyguard" spray. It's a handy product to use in the field and can be easily applied before stepping into the woods.
One of the most widely recognized new developments in scent blocking technology is the Scent-Lok suit or other garment made of Scent Blocker material. Made of a space-age fabric, scent absorbing carbon technology literally blocks human odor. Scent Shield too has a carbon-free suit that blocks human scent.
No Substitute for Common Sense
Acknowledging the impact of scent and how best to combat the negative effects of human odor, requires considerations both in and out of the field. Aside from the unmentionable taboo of smoking while on stand or still-hunting, a cardinal sin committed by many a sportsman is wearing their hunting clothes in their vehicle, at the gas station, in restaurants and many other places they might visit before or after hunting. For instance, when we stop at the pump to fuel up, chances are we might step in spilled fuel or worse yet, splash some on our clothing or hands. In some instances, we may stop at the coffee shop to grab some donuts prior to our early morning drive and we all know what kind of smells are found in these fine establishments! Bottom line - our clothing and skin takes on whatever odors we come in contact with. Those smells are then carried into the field, creating an alarm system for incoming deer.
Aside from these basics, there are other practical steps we can take to minimize odor. If you're not a believer in commercial detergents, try washing your clothes in baking soda; and whenever possible, air-dry your garments. Seems obvious, but many hunters fail to address the issue of deodorant. Again don't wear anything with a fragrance. When applying cover-up scents or scent neutralizers, be particularly careful to spray your waist, crotch and under-arms before stepping into the woods.
Regardless of your personal thoughts on the effectiveness of commercial scents or scent blockers, it's important to remember that hunting is an activity as old as time itself. These technologies have really only come into play in recent years. When it comes right down to it, there is no substitute for good old common sense - keep the wind in your face and your eyes on the horizon.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.