How To

Making Sense of Scents

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“The whitetail’s nose has caused many hunters to shake clenched fists in vengeance in the direction of a whistling snort. Here, the quarry is well alerted even when danger is not seen or heard.”

–George Mattis

As I sat in the restaurant enjoying a fine cut of rib eye, oblivious to the din of chatter going on around me, ignoring the various aromas commonly associated with an eatery, my palate was drinking in all of the allure associated with a steak practically melting in my mouth. Then suddenly, without warning, my senses were immediately heightened by a much different, but extremely pleasant odor. It was not the stylish dress, nor was it the attractiveness of the female that passed my table that caused me to take notice; it was the scent that she was casting. Not an overpowering perfume, but certainly one that got my attention as it lingered in her wake. Scent is a powerful substance that plays a vital role in its influence and no more so than in its effect on both whitetails and those that pursue this animal.

The whitetail’s nose

Before we can decide how best to use a scent, or if it is even practical or necessary, we first must understand how a deer’s nose works. And let me assure you, his olfactory gland is far superior to yours. By way of a comparative, the nose of a deer has up to 297 million olfactory receptors, dogs have 220 million, with humans limiting out with just five million. A whitetail’s life is governed primarily by its nose, the scents that it smells plays a vital role in its decision making process. Deer have a moist, hairless muzzle, which is highly efficient in trapping scent particles. The nostril is lined by the epithelium, containing mucous membranes and sensory nerve endings. Scent molecules are inhaled and dissolved on the moist surface of the epithelium. Responses to the chemical action flow through sensory nerves to the olfactory bulbs. These bulbs then emit electrical impulses to the brain stem, where the odor is classified.

A whitetail constantly gathers and processes scents and many variables, including wind, thermals, temperature, and humidity have a direct bearing on how well this can be accomplished.

Here is a basic example of how well the nose of a whitetail works: when we smell a pot of vegetable soup simmering on the stove, the overall aroma is appealing yet to our nose the fragrance of each ingredient is lost to the whole. If a whitetail were to smell that same soup, he would be able to distinguish every one of the separate ingredients making up the soup. Smell, not sight, attracts whitetails to food. If food smells good, the deer tastes it; if it tastes good, they eat it. Their sense of smell and taste enable deer to detect differences in palatability of what they eat.

Whitetails possess an invisible bubble of awareness with that bubble reaching out only as far as current atmospheric conditions allow. Humidity levels between 50 and 70 percent are ideal scenting conditions for deer. It is during these times that deer become increasingly more nervous due to a higher level of scent being carried to them. The flip side is when humidity levels drop below 20 percent. Under these conditions the animal’s nasal passage dries out hampering its ability to capture and register scent molecules.

Cover scent

It must be understood, there is nothing on the market that can or will completely eliminate human odor. As long as we continue to breathe, which entails emitting millions of molecules each time we exhale, completely removing the human scent is impossible. There are, however, products that go a long way in masking our stink.

Because of the relative inefficiency of our noses, we really have no idea how many different odors we carry into the woods on our clothes and body. What have I touched? Has the dog sniffed my boots? Did my pants come into contact with doughnut crumbs in the cab of my truck? Is the sticky residue of a melted candy bar on my grunt tube? As subtle as these odors might seem, a whitetail’s nose can effectively distinguish each smell.

Scent control usually falls into two camps: those that take it to levels even a germaphobe would find incredible, and those that pay little attention to their odor. I personally believe there is a balance and the more one attempts to mask the dreaded human stench the closer his or her deer sightings will become. 

Masking scents and products designed to cover scent come in a wide variety and an even greater disparity in price range. A charcoal suit with scent eliminator is a pricey item. However, those that ascribe to wearing these garments absolutely swear by them with cost being a small price to pay for the results. And then there are those more frugal hunters that are quite content to wallow around barnyard animals in their hunting togs and step in cow patties prior to heading to their stand, boasting of equal results. The point here is not to argue the veracity of any one method of masking odor, but rather to encourage the reader to understand how human odor affects whitetails. If what you use provides a psychological edge, by all means continue to use it regardless what anyone’s opinion might be.

Attractant scent

It is mind-boggling to see the number and variety of attractant scents being offered to the hunting public. It seems everything and anything has been bottled, canned, or packaged to entice a whitetail. Food odors such as apple, acorn, beechnut, corn, soybean, hemlock, spruce, cedar, peanut butter, etc., are all available. You can get urine in all states of chemical breakdown from buck pee, doe urine, doe in estrous urine, buck tarsal gland urine, buck in rut urine–and the list goes on an on.

The premise behind an attractant is to get the animal to come to the scent being left. It is the same principle that has been used for centuries by trappers. I am frequently asked to comment on what I think would be the best attractant to a whitetail. My typical response is always, “whatever will entice him to come.” 

Whitetails are by nature a very curious animal. If they smell something that perhaps they have never smelled before, and it has an appeal to them, they may well come to investigate the source of that odor. Does that mean that scent will work every time, or be attractive to other deer? Not necessarily. If that were the case the manufacturer would not be able to bottle enough of it.

Common scents (sense)

This one thing I know: beat a whitetail’s nose and you will secure him nearly every time. A rather bold statement I know, but more than four decades pursuing deer plus countless hours huddled behind a camera has proven to me that the nose of a deer will bust you 10-to-1 over any of the animal’s other senses combined.

I would not classify myself as cheap; however, it is difficult for me to spend hard-earned cash on something that I’m going to dump on the ground. It is even harder to invest into a product that cannot fully make me invisible; but then that’s just me. What I have invested in is gaining as much knowledge and understanding of the behavioral characteristics of the whitetail as possible. I always play the wind to my advantage. If I’m down wind to the deer he cannot smell me.

For years now I have used Scent Killer Body Wash & Shampoo along with Scent Killer Anti-Perspirant & Deodorant, both of which are exclusive products sold by the Wildlife Research Center. Following a lengthy conversation last summer with long time Communications Director Ron Bice of the Wildlife Research Center, and upon his urging, I took my personal scent control to another level. First, I sprayed all of my exterior hunting attire with the new Scent Killer Gold spray, washed the rest of my hunting clothes with their new Scent Killer Gold Liquid Clothing Wash and showered daily with the new Scent Killer Gold Body Wash & Shampoo.

The results of going the extra mile along with using the Wildlife Research Center’s newest products, at least for me, were substantial enough to believe that it helped exponentially. Throughout my month-long season I did not have a single occurrence of being busted due to a deer detecting my scent. That is not to say that my human stench was completely eliminated, nor did I forego using the wind to my advantage, but I do believe that by using these three new products as prescribed certainly provided an extra edge; an edge that more than benefited me.

I also utilize whatever is natural within the geographic region that I am hunting to help mask my scent. For instance, when there is snow on the ground, I will pick up the yellow substance where a deer has urinated and wipe it on my pants; it sure can’t hurt to smell like a deer and best of all, it’s free. I pay close attention to humidity levels, which will reveal just how close I can expect to get to a deer on any given day. I use precipitation to my benefit, as these weather events will drive all scent to the forest floor.

Whatever methods you may ascribe to and to the extent that you apply them, just remember to use common sense. Doe in rut urine is not going to work in September; apple scent will not attract a deer that has never even seen an apple much less tasted one. Think before you purchase, and think even harder as to how you intend to use a scent. Wishful thinking can never trump intellect.

This article originally appeared on R.G. Bernier’s blog bigwhitetail and is republished with permission.

Images by Richard Bernier, featured slider image copyright iStockPhoto/Paul Tessier

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of OutdoorHub. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.