Whitetails 365: Manipulating A Deer’s Nose

By Noel Gandy

On September 10, 2021 I was stuck in the office on a beautiful, bluebird day. All I wanted to do was get outside and do some deer hunting prep. After deciding I couldn’t take it any longer, I closed up shop early and headed towards a particular hunting property where I had located a buck that I knew to be at least seven years old. I needed to prep a treestand with fresh straps for safety. I needed to cut a new shooting lane to the edge of a corn field too. So much work needed to be done.

I got out of my truck and I did something that I do with great regularity before penetrating a hunting area: I sprayed down with scent eliminator spray. I am fanatical about human odor. I believe entry and exit paths are not guarded closely enough and mature deer “pattern” the hunters that are after them by this scent. Does this spray make you entirely invisible? I doubt it. I do believe, however, that it gives you a bit of an edge.

I slowly and methodically made my way towards the treestand. I arrived at the tree, hooked on for safety and ascended. Once I reached my perch, I got to work reinforcing an already sturdy stand. As I was cranking the last crank on a ratchet strap, I noticed a rustle in the corn no more than 40 yards away. I adjusted my gaze and noticed a giant rack of antlers rise like a phoenix from the ashes. The very buck that I was prepping the stand to hunt had been bedded within bow range the entire time! Between the rustle of the wind and my quiet intrusion I was able to get that close to the bruiser without him noticing. I could do nothing but sit and watch as he browsed a bit and bedded back down. Needless to say, my work was cut short at that point and I made my escape so as not to spook the deer. One swirl of the wind and it would have all been over. Thankfully, the stiff south wind held true and I was able to sneak out undetected.

This very instance placed a newfound emphasis in my mind about the importance of combatting a whitetail’s number one defense mechanism: his nose. I was hot and I was sweaty. However, I remained temporarily unscathed. I have since gone on an all-out quest to determine the very best ways that I can maneuver around the unmatched smelling ability of a whitetail.
A deer’s nose is pretty incredible. Tom Carpenter describes it this way in a realtree.com article from October 18, 2019: “An exceptionally large proportion of the whitetail’s brain- and the most highly developed section- devotes itself exclusively to smelling and scent discrimination. Consider this: A human brain has about five million scent receptors that accept, analyze, and sort smells. A bloodhound has about 220 million. But a whitetail possesses more than 300 million. That’s astonishing” (https://www.realtree.com/deer-hunting/articles/7-fascinating-facts-about-whitetail-noses).

For the sake of space, we will take a high-level view of a couple of different topics when it comes to the scent factor and the whitetail: scent elimination and scent attractants.

Scent Elimination: The Game Within the Game
Scent control and elimination has become a very lucrative part of the retail space in the outdoor industry. There are many tricks, tips, and even gimmicks that people use to try to get a leg up on the nasal sensory of a whitetail. Some work well, some do ok, and some are flat out money grabs.
Allow me to share a handful of tips that have proven successful for me while in the field.

The Wind Game
Let’s face it, I don’t believe you will ever truly beat the nose of a whitetail. That’s why playing the wind is so important not only in hunting situations but also any time you enter into the whitetail’s domain. If the wind is blowing steadily in a certain direction, then you stand a fairly good chance of being able to remain undetected. Don’t be fooled though. Mature deer will often use the wind to their advantage just as you seek to use it to yours. With that in mind, pick the safest wind for the area you’re going to be headed and commit to that. This goes for hunting but it also goes for checking trail cameras, hanging treestands, and other general scouting.

The Ground Game
Guard entry and exit paths. We often think of deer smelling us while on stand. That’s a given. However, ground scent can be a killer and not in a good way. As we are walking in whitetail habitat we are leaving unnatural scent behind. Rubber boots can be a game changer when it comes to ground scent. I’ll say it again: nothing is 100% effective in totally eliminating aerial scent or ground scent. However, rubberized boots can go a long way. If you’ll use a good scent elimination spray on your boots then you stand a better chance of leaving less scent behind than something with a lot of fabric attached. Fabric catches and holds on to tertiary scents that our nose might not even pick up. However, we know from science that a deer can pick those smells out. Rubber, while scented, leaves less behind and can dissipate quicker.

The Product Game
Go to the sporting goods section of just about any retailer and you’ll likely find a healthy collection of scent elimination items. Some are created to mask scent, some are created to control scent, and some are created to “eliminate” scent. There are even products that are designed to manipulate the sensory centers in a deer’s nose. You can shower, wipe down, spray down, and air out your body and clothes. You can even de-stink your vehicle. The trick behind getting into these products is figuring out what you enjoy using and what you think works. Some folks like to take a scent free shower, use an ozone buster for their clothes, and then jam the sensory factors of a deer with certain sprays. Others meanwhile, will wear work clothes and smoke a cigarette on the way to their stand. To each his own.

As for products, I appreciate a good scent eliminator spray. I’ll spray down my gear and my clothing after I get out of my truck before I head into the field every single time. Also, I feel like I’ve had great luck using some of the ozone technology that has been made widely available over the last few years. I truly feel these things give me an edge.
While scent control is one factor in regards to the incredible smelling sense of a whitetail there is also another factor:

Scent Attractants: The Land of Glands
As you scan the shelves of the aisles of the sporting goods section not only will you find plenty of scent eliminators but you will also discover scent attractants. Some will be natural scents and some will be synthetic scents. Some will be depictions of a dominant buck during the peak of the rut and others might be the scent of a calm doe. How do you know what to use and when?
Whitetail deer are recognized as having eight distinct glands. Each gland performs a different function for the whitetail in regards to communication. These glands are recognized through the smelling sense of a whitetail. The nasal gland, as we’ve discussed just a bit earlier in regard to the nose, is almond shaped and serves as an identifier and a receptor for the whitetail.

Utilizing Attractants
If you observe deer behavior for very long, you’ll see them do a lot of rubbing. They’ll rub their rear legs together. They’ll rub their foreheads on things. They’ll rub their eyes on things. All of this rubbing serves different functions depending on which of the eight glands are being rubbed. In each instance, certain glands are secreting certain substances and being left behind as an indicator for the local deer herd. The head area contains four glands: nasal, preorbital, forehead, and salivary gland. Meanwhile, the leg/body contains at least four other glands: tarsal, metatarsal, interdigital, and preputial. Hunters might choose to utilize some of the specific scents from these glands to try and accomplish different things in the whitetail woods. Timing and location are key when using these scents.
Early, if you’re trying to get things fired off by starting a mock scrape, then I suggest you use some sort of interdigital scent on the ground and use a preorbital on a licking branch. These are natural places for these scents to be. If you use those scents in strange locations for the deer then it might be more of an alarm than an attractant. Likewise, deer aren’t rutted up during this time of the year. Keep in mind that scrapes and rubs are communication centers and plan your scent attractants accordingly.

Use Attractants Wisely
Do bucks come to attractants during hunting scenarios? Maybe. I will often find myself using attractant scents as cover scents once I’m in a tree. I long ago abandoned dragging a scent drag full of doe estrous behind me to the stand. Why? Because I’m trying to approach my stand from an advantageous wind direction for me and I don’t want to be dragging bucks to me from my downwind side. There’s always something to think about when it comes to a deer’s nose!
The long and short of scent eliminator and scent attractants during a deer season boil down to personal preferences and experiences. The one guarantee that I can make is that the wind is your greatest ally or your worst enemy when it comes to scent and the whitetail nose. If you have to take one tip away then let it be to utilize the wind and allow it to dictate when you spend your time afield.