Of All Deer’s Superior Senses Nothing Is More Difficult To Fool Than Their Extraordinary Sense Of Smell!

August 01, 2015

Sure, big bucks have keen eyesight and they can spot movement ten times better than the human eye. Their excellent hearing can pick you up at tremendous distances but of all their superior senses nothing is more difficult to fool than their extraordinary sense of smell. Let a wary adult deer catch your movement and he might pause to check you out and if he hears you he might cock those huge ears forward, cup the sound and evaluate your position. But if a seasoned buck catches a whiff of you he instantaneously blows out of the territory at lightning speed. Truth is, you might be able to dupe his hearing or eyesight but his extraordinary sense of smell is impossible to fool. Therefore, wind direction is an ever present factor affecting when, where and how you hunt deer.

One interesting scientific study indicates that deer have over 290 thousand olfactory nasal receptors and another say’s adult deer have thousands more that the scientific community has still not studied. Humans have around 5 thousand receptors and a Mississippi State University researcher found deer to have a better sense of smell than a blood hound and at least 1,000 times more acute than a human’s. Scientists also feel that deer can sort out at least a half dozen different smells at one time.

I joined famous deer photographer Leonard Lee Rue III for dinner at an Outdoor Writers Association of America convention and we had fun discussing how to photograph trophy bucks. Lee has been my mentor, tutor and I admire his photography skills and wealth of information regarding deer. Many of his opinions have come from countless hours in the deer blind with telephoto equipment at hand. In my opinion he is a field biologist and wildlife observer on a monumental scale. I value his opinions regarding whitetail deer more than any paid biologist on planet Earth. When the topic of how well a deer can smell came up I’ll never forget his smiling answer, “An adult buck can smell a human a mile away”. I agree if conditions are ideal and sure as sugar is sweet you can bet wind is the culprit to carry human scent direct to a big buck’s nostrils.


We have all had it happen to us. Conditions are ideal. A dandy shooter buck is sneaking into range and just as we tighten our finger on the trigger he snaps up his head, wheels back and bounds for the cover of the nearby brush with amazing speed. You didn’t make noise. You didn’t move but the evening breeze shifted and is now on the back of your neck. Other times a smart patriarch doe gets your scent and proceeds to inform every critter in the county by stomping front feet and repeatedly snorting.

Human scent sends deer into a state of panic, ever noticed how often they run downwind, tail flagging, making long leaps and running flat out for at least a half mile before they stop and look back. One exception to this is inner city suburbia whitetails that are accustomed to seeing and smelling humans on a regular basis. But if you get close and they get a nose full they will blast for cover but because they have limited territory they tend to dive for cover and set up. Often they will disappear into thick brush, cattails or foliage thick enough to conceal their outline. They remain on guard for several hours and reserve activities for the cover of darkness. Deer naturally are nocturnal and bucks under pressure make the switch from day activities to night patrol at lightning speed.

King of the hill. A rare Michigan 12-point stands on the crest of a hill to get an elevated view for predators, check wind for hunters and survey his back trail. Kenny Darwin photos

If there is one important message I’ve learned from 56 years of shooting deer in Michigan it is in order to harvest big bucks consistently, especially with bow, crossbow or camera, you need to learn ways to prevent deer from detecting your odor. You need to respect the wind and learn how to use it to your advantage.

While shooting big bucks is my passion I have probably learned more lessons about deer and how they react to humans from mature whitetail does. In my opinion they are not only the leaders of the entire deer community but are one of the wariest critters to roam Michigan’s great outdoors. You know what I’m talking about. Big does with huge black nostrils, thick body, monster ears and eyes than scan the horizon like an eagle. Often they lead small does and fawns. I’m taking about a dominate doe that is constantly alert and is an expert at locating hunters and blowing the hunt by going berserk. They can make deer hunting a nerve-racking experience especially if a big buck is following a smart doe and you need to move or make an adjustment before you can shoot. From experience I’ve learned to move and get prepared to shoot by making those adjustments slow as molasses in January when you first see the critters way out, then sit tight when they come close.

So, how do you outsmart wary deer and play the wind to your advantage? Perhaps the hottest tactic going is to be patient and avoid hunting if the wind is blowing from the wrong direction. Also, if you reach your stand and the wind shifts to a bad direction bail out or abort the hunt and sneak away before Mr. Big gets tuned into your presence. Savvy hunters know that you can fool a deer’s eyesight, outwit his hearing but there is no given miracle tactic that will give you a free pass when a deer gets a whiff of you.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes a rookie hunter makes is over-hunting a stand. Keep in mind the more you walk back and forth to a particular stand the more likely deer will cross the human scent trail at night and vacate the area. Smart hunters allow stands an opportunity to chill between hunts. It is a good idea to have other stand locations and alternate stands to use depending on wind direction. Try a spot for a couple days, then move to another stand and allow wind, rain, dew, and time away to naturally dissipate your human odor. It is impossible to defeat a deer’s awesome nose.

Select a stand site that is downwind from where you expect to see deer. Pick a tree or ground cover that helps to conceal your human outline. Try to set up where the wind will take your scent across an area that’s not going to have deer traffic like a steep ravine, field, pasture, pond, bluff, more. It is important to set up your stand about a week before you hunt so human scents have time to dissipate. Savvy hunters have learned that one productive approach is to use a climber stand, set it up and ambush deer that have no idea you have slipped into their home turf.

Savvy hunters leave clothes, bows and hunting gear outside where the fresh air can dissolve any human scent. It is a good idea to wash your body and clothes to eliminate your scent with scent away soap but stay away from under arm deodorant, shampoo, laundry detergent, cologne and more. Smart hunters keep hunting clothes in a large Hunter’s Specialties Scent Safe scent sealed bag and use H.S. Scent Away dryer sheets that smell like fresh earth to give gear a natural odor.

Become a wind detective and learn to understand how your scent can reach deer. Understand that high winds can carry your scent several hundred yards downwind from your stand. On cool calm days thermals shift toward dark which can spread your scent into ravines, river bottoms and into standing corn fields.

It takes plenty of luck and woodsmanship to beat a buck’s sniffer. Keep in mind deer prefer to bed during a howling wind and they have a tough time picking up your smell when it is raining or the woods are immersed in thick fog. While most stand hunters prefer calm weather keep in mind that smart deer will refrain from moving until after dark when the woods becomes dead silent and their movement seems to make excessive noise that would attract predators or hunters.

Spot and stalk hunters quickly learn that smart old bucks bed downwind from a doe in estrous so they can determine her position by odor. They also prefer to bed facing downwind so they can use their acute eyesight to spot any intruder bucks. To increase your odds at filling a tag try stalking bedded deer by walking crosswind.

One deadly tactic is to stalk or still hunt following a cool rain when the woods are wet and you can silently slip through the underbrush. Most still hunters prefer to move upwind or crosswind in an effort to get close to deer. This tactic is deadly during the rut when bucks have established a breeding zone where they have been chasing or breeding a doe in estrous. The zone is often a relatively small area in rather thick cover best identified by zillions of running deer tracks, hot rubs and scrapes, matted tall grass and the scent of rutting bucks in the air. Slip into the zone during peak rut and you often will see larger and more bucks.

Do attractant scents and scent sprays work? Absolutely! Keep in mind that each of us emits our own unique odor based on what we eat, drink, exercise or sweat. Some folks simply stink while others give off a sweet smell. Cover up sprays or odor-eliminating sprays reduce all human odors and should be used liberally on complete body and boots on every deer hunt. Attracting scents can get the attention of bucks and hold them in excellent range as they check out a mock scrape, scent line or dripper.

I prefer to use doe urine for cover scent on my boots during the early season but eventually switch to doe-in-heat come rut time. Keep in mind that deer scents appeal to a deer’s curiosity. Sometimes they come running with nose to the ground like a bird dog on a rooster pheasant. Other times bucks seem to ignore scents or perhaps avoid coming into range. I’ve zapped plenty of curious bucks with their nose on my scent trail after dabbing my boots with Buck Stop Gland-u-Lure.

But there is no way we can conceal our smell from the highly advanced nose of an adult buck. The more we know about deer and how good they can smell the more we pay close attention to details and use products to help reduce our scent. Of course, playing the wind to our advantage is a must and savvy hunters know to take stand where they are not spooking deer. The key to success often hinges on predicting wind direction and making certain the wind is used to your advantage. If not, your chances are blown.