Chances are 10-to-1 that your next buck will approach you from downwind.
You'll never see him unless you're scent-free and using downwind tactics. Being odor free, using the right scents, and employing downwind tactics is the surest way to fool a whitetail buck.
Was it the twitch of an ear, the thud of a hoof, or some sixth sense that told me the buck was there? I slowly pivoted my head, and my eyes met a thrilling yet heartbreaking sight. Jutting over the wooded knoll 40 yards off was a long-tined whitetail rack, the prettiest and most symmetrical I'd ever seen from a stand. But immediately below it were three black radar receivers -- two wide eyes trying to read my soul, and a nose twitching like a divining rod in the breeze blowing by me.
Hunting Intentionally Upwind
I was thrilled with the nice trophy and clean kill, but most exciting was the success of my uncommon approach. I'd taken special precautions, intentionally hunted upwind of him, and it had worked beautifully. The buck counted so much on his nose that he would not believe his eyes when they told him a hunter was in the tree. I'd defeated the whitetail's fabled sense defense.
Challenging a whitetail's sense of smell is neither easy nor natural. To hunt this way, you have to realize two things: that the whitetail places total trust in his nose, patterning his behavior around it, and that it is possible to breach that defense. Keeping this in mind, you can develop a more successful approach to hunting big bucks.
Exactly 34 whitetails that I'd classify as trophy bucks have walked within sight of me during my tenure as a bowhunter. In these deer I've observed only two constant characteristics. The first is unpredictability; the second is the only exception to that trait. It is the tendency for mature bucks to walk into the wind, letting their nose be their guide, while carefully using eyes and ears to monitor their backtrail and flanks. Walking into the wind, scenting what's ahead, is the only predictable pattern that helps them survive. That is, unless you're hunting upwind in a way that keeps your scent away from the deer.
You don't have to hunt whitetails upwind. Some does and small bucks will travel downwind. All deer travel downwind occasionally. But deer are always more wary in situations where they can't depend on their nose. And most deer travel into the wind most of the time. Trophy bucks nearly always walk into the wind unless they're sure there's no danger downwind, or the scent trail of a hot doe has suspended their discretion.
Mature Buck Behavior
Mature bucks will sometimes walk downwind if there are other deer to run interference for them, or when they are crossing an open field. Otherwise, it's against the wind all the way -- bucks can nearly always choose a bedding, feeding, or watering site that is a safe walk upwind.
The whitetail's relationship with the wind is little researched; the best deer biology books don't even address it. But Mike Ondik, a seasoned whitetail biologist from State College, Pa., once told me he strongly believes that bucks spend their entire lives facing the wind.
"A buck will do things you wouldn't expect him to do, just to keep his nose in the wind," Ondik says. "I've tracked bucks that were obviously heading for a certain piece of cover, and seen where they stopped and made a 90-degree turn in a depression where the wind direction changed. They'll keep heading for that cover, but they'll go a half-mile out of their way to keep facing that wind."
It's not easy to plan hunting strategy around this pattern. Should you set your stand crosswind and close to a trail? Breezes are fickle and you can't be sure that a deer coming crosswind will not scent you. Should you get high in the branches? Treestands don't guarantee you won't be scented, either, and high stands make sitting still, shooting, and recovering game more difficult.
Bypassing The Scent Defense
There are, however, a few hunters who can defeat the deer's formidable scent defense and turn the tables on the trophies. True, a deer can pick up the scent of an average hunter a couple hundred yards away. But there is nothing magical about a deer's nose. Just as you can remain unseen to a nearby deer with the right camouflage, you can avoid his nose by totally concealing your scent. The whitetail's sense of smell is overrated. Or maybe it's better said that "our ability to master that sense is underrated." You simply have to be scent free and employ a couple of downwind hunting principles.
There is a myth that man is the smelliest animal in the woods. Granted, I've tented with some hunters who might qualify, but it doesn't have to be. Most modern whitetail hunters pursue deer a few hours at a time, close to home, and have many ways available to eliminate their scent for short periods.
There are a couple other myths about a whitetail's sense of smell. The suburban or agricultural-area buck is used to scents of civilization. While he has an instinctive fear of man and other predators, he is not afraid of the smell of chewing tobacco, soap residue, or any other inanimate object unless he has learned to associate it with danger -- which is rare. Even a wilderness deer is unlikely to associate such a smell with man. It's better to have a slight soapy scent and the smell of Red Man on your breath than the body and mouth odors of a human.
In Part 2, we'll take an analytical look at how you can prevent a downwind deer from scenting you. Here's a hint: It does involve scent-eliminating clothing, as you might guess, but requires a whole system for scent control to work.
Please read more in Part 2.
For a fine assortment of scents and scent-eliminating products, click here.
Mike Strandlund is editor of Bowhunting World Magazine and
bowhuntingworld.com, and is a member of the National Bowhunters Hall of Fame.