Whitetail deer have evolved in response to hunting pressure for thousands of years. Prehistoric tribes in North America hunted them with spear and atlatl (spear thrower). Now we have compound bows and high-powered rifles.
To survive, deer have developed powerful senses. They can hear us in the woods. Their eyesight is nearly as good as ours during the daytime, and better at night when they’re most active. And, as most hunters know, whitetails have an incredible sense of smell. It’s how they communicate with one another and avoid predators. Researchers have demonstrated that deer can pick up certain scents more than a mile away, and that they can distinguish between humans. They seem to be able to tell the difference, for example, between a farmer who might no pose a threat, and a bowhunter who certainly does.
Given these facts, there are a few key strategies that deer hunters use to reduce a deer’s ability to smell them:
#1: Hunt the wind
When I asked experienced hunters for their top bowhunting tips, many answered that hunting the wind was critical for success. This means setting up your tree stand or ground blind downwind of where you expect the deer to appear, and keeping aware of wind direction at all times. Another good strategy is to set up at a place where bucks can’t circle downwind of you, as they often do when investigating a new scent or doe bleat.
#2: Practice scent control
It’s just plain common sense to avoid sources of strong smells associated with humans–gasoline, chemicals, spicy food, and smoke, for example–in the days before a hunt. And hey, the night before a hunt, maybe pass on that second bowl of chili. Many hunters also use scent-eliminating body wash, laundry detergent, wipes, and clothing to minimize the scent they bring into the woods. It’s important to think about your gear, too. Anything that goes out in the field with you could have a scent that the deer will pick up on.
#3: Use a cover scent
A long-standing strategy of hiding your scent by covering it up with something stronger, usually the urine of some animal. Doe urine is a popular choice because it doubles as an attractant for other deer. The only problem I have with this is that animal urine smells pretty nasty. I don’t like even carrying it, because if it drips or leaks you’ll have to smell it for the rest of the day.
My problem with scent control
Deer hunting experts have emphasized that if your stand is wrong for the wind on a particular day, you should hunt some place else. This sounds like a great idea on paper, especially when written by guys with hundreds or thousands of acres of land available to them for hunting and dozens of stands to choose from. Many of us average hunters don’t have that luxury. When preparing for my managed deer hunt, for example, I had to choose one spot to install my climber, and hope that the folks at AccuWeather were right about the opening day’s wind direction.
The other issue with scent control has to do with the nature of deer’s sense of smell. I’m not sure that simply covering it up is sufficient. If that worked on all animals, there wouldn’t be drug-sniffing dogs. Let’s pretend for a moment that human vision is as strong as deer’s sense of smell. You could see a bright-orange leaf taped to a white wall easily, right? That’s like the hunter with no scent control. Now let’s say you tape other leaves to the wall, green and brown ones, all around the orange one but bigger. You’ll see them, but you could still pick out the orange leaf, couldn’t you?
Jamming a deer’s sense of smell
A better possibility would be to overwhelm a deer’s sense of smell by jamming their noses with something potent, something that makes them unable to smell something else. That’s the concept behind the Nose Jammer products. They deliver an innocuous, potent scent at a concentration designed to overwhelm big game animals’ sense of smell. It’s the equivalent of using aromatic coffee grounds to fool drug-sniffing dogs, as the Central American drug smugglers are rumored to do. So when Nose Jammer sent me their pro pack of body wash, laundry detergent, deodorant, and cover spray, I was pretty excited about it. The components of their cover scent are naturally occurring extracts from North American trees and shrubs, with one potent addition: vanillin, the extract from vanilla beans.
In the forum threads where bowhunters discuss their homemade cover scent recipes, vanilla is often discussed. It’s a potent smell that deer don’t seem to find threatening; according to some hunters, they’re attracted to it. The problem is that when you buy vanilla extract, even the “pure” stuff, it’s usually suspended in alcohol (which has a scent of its own). Nose Jammer gets around this by going right to the vanilla bean.
Nose Jammer field test
Encounter 1: 6-point buck
I’ve used the Nose Jammer stuff in the field a couple of times already. However, one of the first tests of this product was at home, where it was reported to smell WAY nicer than most of my other cover scents and deer lures. Big points for that. The same is true for the gear I sprayed and loaded into my SUV–it smelled kind of like a cake bakery in there, which had the side effect of making me hungry but was otherwise pleasant.
Two encounters with mature bucks in the past few weeks have shown promise for Nose Jammer. In the first encounter I went to an urban location where I’d seen a big buck come through over the last couple of weeks. It was getting dark when a younger buck, a 6 pointer, ran out of the woods to the east and into the open. I wore a camo jacket and stood completely still, but didn’t try to hide. He started trotting toward me but saw me and stopped. I could actually see him pushing his head forward to peer at me, but he didn’t seem to smell me at all. He circled indecisively on the ridge for about 10 minutes while I watched. Then he eventually trotted into the woods to the south.
Encounter 2: Mature buck
My second encounter was truly in the field, with bow in hand. I was hunting a county tract where I’d seen some does and a big racked buck in the evenings across a period of two weeks. I was in a small ditch overgrown with tall grasses, creeping forward and watching the woodline, when I saw the buck step into view. Oh baby. A mature buck with at least 8 points, and in range (about 30 yards). I had better cover this time and remained totally still until it was clear he didn’t know I was there. And he never seemed to smell me or my gear, which is fortunate because I was on the ground and close.
He started to nose along northward, keeping in the treeline. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good angle and the wind wasn’t great. Darkness came too quickly and the shot opportunity just wasn’t there, so he lived to see another day. I’m hoping to have better stories to tell as my managed bowhunt gets under way…stay tuned!
Check out more bowhunting tips and stories at In Search of Whitetails.