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The whitetail nose: countless hunters have been made fools by the mature whitetail's nose, but with an appropriate level of understanding and preparation--and perhaps a bit of luck--you might be able to improve your odds of success this season.

treestands and hunting blinds, combined with breakthroughs in camouflage, have tilted the odds in favor of a hunter being undetected by the eyes of a deer. New silent fabrics help to quiet a hunter's movement and hide him from their ears. But, of the three primary defense mechanisms that a whitetail deer uses for survival--sight, hearing and smell--the most important, least understood and most difficult to fool is the sense of smell.

"Animals in the wild need to be able to recognize other animals, whether they are predators, potential mates or rivals," Harvard University researcher Catherine Dulac says. "Many animals rely on the sense of smell; they can distinguish one type of encounter from another one based on chemicals."

Researchers have discovered that with some prey species, more of the animal's receptors seem to be dedicated to sniffing out predators than to detecting potential mates.

I spoke with Mike Tonkovich, deer project leader with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife regarding what is known about a whitetail's sense of smell.

"There isn't lot of hard data out there to help us fully understand just how sensitive a whitetails nose is," Tonkovich explained. "We do know a whitetail deer can detect 'dangerous' odors such as those given off from humans at great distances--up to 100 yards or more when scenting conditions are ideal. ... Their elongated nose harbors hundreds of millions of olfactory sites, compared to less than 5 million sites in the human nose.

"Several years ago, I watched video of state prison guards training canines to track escaped prisoners. These dogs were capable of tracking an escaped prisoner step for step up to 12 hours after he had escaped. And a whitetail's nose is more sensitive than a canine."

According to researchers, prey species show specific adaptations that allow recognition, avoidance and defense against predators. For many mammalian species, this includes sensitivity towards predator-derived odors. Avoidance of predator odors has been observed in many mammalian prey species including rats, mice, voles, deer, rabbits, gophers, hedgehogs, possums and sheep. Meat eaters, (carnivores and omnivores) give off specific odors that are readily detected by plant eaters (herbivores, including deer).

Field and laboratory studies show that predator odors have distinctive behavioral effects on deer that include inhibition of activity, suppression of non-defensive behaviors such as feeding and shifts to habitats or secure locations where such odors are not present Perhaps part of the reason that whitetails become more nocturnal each fall is the increasing presence of residual odors from human hunters that deer associate with danger. Deer quickly learn that the strange new predator is only here during daylight hours and adjust their movements accordingly.

Most hunters agree that there is really only one truly effective method of getting close to deer without being detected by their superior sense of smell, and that is to play the wind. By this I mean that the hunter positions himself in an area where the wind will not take his or her scent in the direction from which they believe the deer will approach, which is usually a lot easier said than done.

A constant wind direction where I hunt in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio is not very common. Playing the wind in hilly terrain is difficult. Ridgelines can run north and east or south and west, causing the wind to swirl, and a few feet of elevation change can sometimes make a big difference. Each fall, I fill the pockets of my hunting jackets with milkweed pods or fuzz from the tufts of a cattail. One of my favorite past times while in a treestand is to set loose these floaters and follow their decent downward. It is not uncommon for a floater to drift off in one direction and then suddenly race 180 degrees in the opposite direction when it gets a few feet from the ground.

Another problem is rising and sinking thermal currents that usually change at least once or twice over the course of a day's hunt. This occurs most often in conjunction with the rising or setting sun. Even in flat terrain, woodlots and various obstructions can cause eddies in the windstream. And then there's the challenge of predicting from which direction the deer will approach. Just like a predator approaching the sound of a distress call, a mature buck will often approach a food source after circling to the downwind side in an attempt to detect any predators waiting in ambush. Whenever possible, I try to hang my treestands on the edge of a steep drop-off so the deer will mostly likely approach in front of me on days the prevailing wind is in my face. The eyes and ears will occasionally betray them, but the nose will not!

A mature buck rarely travels with the wind at his back, and when he does, it is usually for limited distances. A few years ago, I had the privilege of hunting a mature buck we named "Sticker." The sticker buck was at least 7 1/2 years old when my son arrowed him during a Level 3 snow emergency during the last week of Ohio's 2008 bow season. The sticker buck's home range encompassed a large brushy draw, hardwood ridge and river bottom. The boundary between the hardwood ridge and river bottom was a 1/3-mile-high rock wall. Across the entire 1/3-mile span there were two cuts where deer could traverse up and down the ridge. Over a three-month period, we got trail camera photos of Sticker coming down off of the ridge on 60 different occasions. All the photos were after dark. Within the first month, a pattern emerged. When the wind was at his back, he came down off of the ridge an average of two hours later than when the wind was in his face. Even under the cover of darkness, wind direction altered the timing of his movement!


So if we can't completely fool a whitetail deer's nose, should we only hunt when we know from which direction a deer will approach and when the wind is at its back? I don't think so. There are plenty of measures a hunter can take to reduce odor. The goal is to make yourself less detectable.

Historically, the thinking among hunters was that human odor could be diluted or masked by less threatening or stronger, more pungent smells. Earth scent, skunk spray, raccoon or even fox urine have been popular for many years. After field-testing cover scents for several years, I've come to the conclusion that they are not entirely effective in hiding us from the olfactory sensors in a whitetail deer nose. While they might cloud the air with additional odors, they don't remove or reduce human scent, and when you're dealing with olfactory capabilities on the level of a whitetail deer, that might not be enough.


The popular practice of hunting from an elevated platform or treestand helps the hunter in a couple different ways. The first, and perhaps most important, is that it gets you above their normal plain of sight. The second benefit is that scent given off from the body is more likely to disperse before reaching the ground. Human scent leaves the body at about 98.6 degrees--warmer than most ambient temperatures. Our scent will rise and flow off in a downwind direction similar to smoke leaving a chimney, before descending to the ground. There are however, drawbacks from hunting high up in a tree. The higher you go, the smaller the kill zone of a deer, due to the angle of the shot. Distance is also distorted, which can be extremely problematic for bow-hunters. And, of course, safety becomes a greater issue the higher you climb.

In the 1980s, scent-eliminating products became popular among hunters with the introduction of a variety of scent eliminating sprays, soaps, shampoos, laundry detergents, dryer sheets and deodorants. These products represent the first line of defense against the whitetail's keen sense of smell. My personal scent-reduction regime includes showering in non-scented soap before every hunt. My hunting garments are washed in non-scented detergent and stored in a scent-safe container until I am ready to hunt. Breath odor is of serious concern so I brush my teeth with baking soda and peroxide toothpaste before every hunt.

In the mid-1990s, carbon-lined scent-absorbing clothing was introduced to the hunting community. This technology was borrowed from the military. Since that time, there has been some controversy surrounding the claims of the effectiveness of this technology and its ability--or inability--to be reactivated by a household clothes dryer.

One measure of scent control I have employed in recent years that has rendered a few strange looks from my hunting buddies has been the use of hardwood smoke or smoking up.

I don't believe the smoke works as a cover scent but rather the antimi-crobial properties in the smoke act much like the process of smoking meat to cure it. I use a device called the Scent Smoker. Similar to a bee smoker, it is fairly inexpensive and easy to use.

Yes, I smell like I've been camping for week, but my field tests have proven to me that it is effective.


Speaking of antimicrobial properties, the latest and perhaps most effective technology in the fight against human odor has been the emergence of antimicrobial fabrics, most notably in base-layer under garments. Any antimicrobial fabric is most effective if worn next to the skin. Antimicrobial fabrics are very popular in the health care and wound-dressing industry.

These fabrics attack the bacterial odor that is absorbed into them at the molecular level, effectively eliminating the odor at the source. The United States military uses antimicrobial fabric to reduce odorcausing bacteria. Antimicrobial garments can also be worn for extended periods of time between washings, making them an excellent fit for the camp hunter or anyone who doesn't have easy access to a washing machine. Antimicrobial silver garments have been available to hunters for several years. The newest antimicrobial garments to hit the market are made from copper-coated extruded yarns. Copper and its alloys are naturally antimicrobial. A fabric with a base component that includes metal doesn't sound all that comfortable, but this latest technology bound to nylon or polyester is silky smooth and extremely easy to wear

Copper socks are very popular with diabetics or anyone with poor foot circulation. Copper socks were among the first items sent to the trapped Chilean miners in 2010 through their supply shaft. Conditions in the mine were warm and damp, a perfect breeding ground for airborne mold, mildew and bacteria.

In conclusion, nothing short of the perfect wind will allow us to completely fool a whitetail's nose. If you're breathing, you're giving off human odor. Again, the goal is to make yourself less detectable. The best bet for hunting on those days when the wind isn't perfect is to minimize your scent as much as possible in the hope of confusing the deer's perception of how far off the danger is. Elevate yourself if possible. Wash your body and clothes in non-scented soap. Smoke up. Brush your teeth with baking soda based toothpaste. Wear antimicrobial base layers next to your skin and play the wind as best you can!

Of the three primary defense mechanisms that a whitetail deer uses for survival--sight, hearing and smell--the most important, least understood and most difficult to fool is the sense of smell.
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Author:Rex, Mike
Publication:North American Whitetail
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 7, 2012
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