Since early man first picked up a rock and started out after a mammoth, we became aware of scent control and the abilities of our prey and predators to use their high-tech scent determining machines to detect us. That’s right, their noses. Today’s man is no longer on the menu, in most parts of the world, perhaps that is why we have lost our own keen sense of smell, but our most common adversary in the woods certainly has not.
But let’s first talk about the other two senses that keep us hunters up at night, trying to figure out why the buck of a lifetime hung-up at 60 yards when it seemed destined to march straight down the trail, by your awaiting bow, and turn broadside for a perfect 20 yard shot. At first glance, pun intended, a deer’s vision seems like it’s not too impressive. They have eyes suited well for the night but don’t see color very well and are limited in their long-range vision much like us. So stand still, don’t wear bright colors and you will be undetected right? It’s not that simple. What they lack in some areas, they more than make up for in their ability to detect movement. How many times have you been in a stand and got busted while reaching for or drawing your bow, despite waiting until his head was behind a tree? Of course it is impossible to sit completely still in a treestand. You have to turn your head to check all directions for approaching game, shift your position so you can feel your legs again, and use your hands to operate your equipment. A deer’s eyes are set forward and far apart giving it a wide, binocular view and excellent depth perception for picking off would be attackers.
How do we combat this? Our solution is one of the most lucrative niches in the hunting industry, camouflage. We have camo clothing, stickers for our trucks, guns, bows, you name it and we can slap some camo on it. We are well beyond the army surplus fatigues of years past. Today’s camouflage is a high-tech business with vivid 3-D imagery able to be applied to anything with amazing detail. But is it all really necessary to kill a deer? Necessary to kill a deer, no. But if you want to consistently have shot opportunities, yes. I personally believe in camouflage to help break up my outline and reassure a deer who may have spotted something, but isn’t sure what it was, just long enough to either settle him back down or take the shot. Rifle hunters have jumped at the chance to challenge me on this. But we know deer do not see blaze orange the same that we do and movements, outlines, etc. are more difficult to perceive at 300 yards than at 30. A good stand will offer you natural break up from branches, leaves, vines, etc. and will help to keep that deer from spotting something different in the world he knows like the back of his hoof, until it’s too late.
Second, a deer’s ears twitch and turn constantly like radar dishes searching for the best signal. A squeaky stand or bow cam can send a buck bolting for cover in the blink of an eye. Their hearing can be sensitive enough to hear you whisper from 100 yards away, but its their ability to discern the sound of a twig snapping under a hunter’s boot versus that of another deer’s hoof or a turkey’s foot that most impresses me. I have had deer ignore the dog barking from a farmhouse a few hundred yards away yet stomp off with the white flag waving behind when I made some rustling in the leaves from within my groundblind. The only thing we can do is be as cautious as possible getting to and from our stands. Walk slowly and stop often, so you’re not projecting a constant march through the dry leaves. Check all equipment and their moving parts, lubricate or pad and contact points, and be deliberate with your movements while in your blind or stand. Most often carelessness or loss of focus will result in some unnatural noise echoing among the tree trucks.
Finally, The whitetail deer has one of the keenest senses of smell in North America. It has receptors in its nose designated for certain aromas, pheromones, and odors that trigger the brain resulting in instinctual or perhaps learned behavior. For instance, acorns mean food while the scent of a dog or human could mean danger. There is some debate over whether or not suburban/urban deer become more tolerant of human scent from living within a closer proximity to humans and because there is the potential for more interaction. I have hunted Virginia whitetails under the urban archery season, and I can tell you from experience that they are no less wary than a “wild” deer. It is my belief that deer learn where certain scents, sounds, and sights belong. So long as we humans are spotted at the farmhouse, running a tractor, etc. then we are not seen as a threat. However, a man spotted in a tree, in the middle of the woods, wreaking of gasoline and cigarettes, immediately throws up a red flag.
The nose also plays a role in identifying other deer in the heard such as rival males or does that are coming into season. Without a doubt the deer’s nose is the key to their survival and deer hunters and gadget manufactures know this far too well. It is no secret that I am a big believer in the scent control systems using sprays, powders, shampoos, soaps, laundry detergents, etc. I take my freshly washed and dried “scent free” clothes from the dryer and store them in plastic bags inside of plastic tubs and I do not put them on until I am out of the truck and ready to head to the stand. For the full detail of my routine, check out Scent Control Works! I am a bit of a freak when it comes to scent control, but the numbers and quality of deer both seen and harvested has skyrocketed since beginning this regime.
Interesting enough, I do not use scents as attractants. I have tried estrus and dominant buck scents in the past and never had any success. In fact, I when I deployed the odoriferous concoctions, I was lucky to see a deer. This lead me to believe that he scent of a strange dominant buck was spooking the resident bucks and perhaps the estrus scent was also not as natural as advertised. So I set a trail camera up on two different scent locations; one with buck scent, and the other with estrus. After 3 weeks during Maryland’s November rut, when several bucks were spotted chasing does elsewhere on the property, I checked the cameras and found that both locations had a significant drop in the number of deer caught on camera for the first 2 weeks after deployment. The last week indicated deer numbers returning to “normal.” I could only assume it was only after the scents had deteriorated that the deer returned. This little experiment has turned me against using scents as an attractant, but it does not mean that they don’t work on other herds in other areas of the country.
Regardless of the technology and whether or not you believe in it and choose to dive into a bottle of fresh earth, the basics always begin with wind direction and keeping yourself downwind of your quarry. Ideally, you would never hunt a stand unless the wind was perfect. You hear this on every hunting show on tv and dvd. But the world is imperfect and for the rest of us hunting a 10 acre or 100 acre property, we could wait all season for the perfect wind and not get it. I for one am not going to miss out on hunting just because the wind is swirling. That being said, don’t get me wrong, multiple stand locations for different winds will definitely increases your chances for success. Hunting several locations will keep the pressure in one area to a minimum and the deer will be less likely to go nocturnal or avoid the area all together. Taking advantage of some of the products on the market may just save your hunt or your season by allowing you to reduce, I do not believe in complete elimination, your scent so that the deer do not perceive you as a threat.
Sounds easy right! Technology is our saviour! Hardly. Good woodsmenship and experience will be far more beneficial to your hunting success then the clothes your wear or a bottle of scent spray. These are just tools that could help and God knows we can use all the help we can get when chasing an intelligent and elusive animal who also happens to have that sixth sense. You know the one where you feel like you have done everything right, but they still just know something is up. That’s why I love hunting so much. It’s a challenge that can leave you heart-broken and its usually because of that damn nose!
Top Right photo (alarmed doe) obtained via wikipedia and D.Gordon & E.Robertson