Deer’s sense of smell is acute

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 13, 2016

By David Rainer

Finally, Alabama deer hunters got a week of weather where sweating and pouring rain weren’t parts of the equation.

As we head into the new year, I’ve already heard through the grapevine of rutting activity. Judging from the number of outstanding bucks I’ve seen on social media sites, there definitely has been some chasing going on in some parts of the state.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

As the rut kicks off, there is a tendency to want to head into the woods to look for rubs and scrapes to pinpoint the rutting activity.

I visited with my longtime buddy and hunting partner Larry Norton during the holidays, and he thinks a walkabout in search of rutting evidence is a big mistake this time of year. As a member of the pro staff with Tink’s Deer Lures during his 20-plus years as a hunting guide at Bent Creek Lodge near Jachin, Ala., Norton amassed vast knowledge of all things concerning deer and deer hunting.

Although deer have excellent eyesight, their main defense mechanism is their sense of smell. If you’re spotted by a deer and immediately freeze, it might stand there a second or two to try to figure out what is approaching. But if a deer detects human odor, it does not hesitate. It’s gone in a flash with its white tail flagging as it leaves. And, if it’s an Alpha doe, she’ll stand out of range and blow until every deer within earshot knows she’s smelled a human.

Norton said scent-eliminating technology has improved a great deal in the last few decades, but there is still no way to completely fool a deer’s nose.

Norton’s experience with Alabama deer started when he bowhunted at 13 years old. When he got a little older, he began to try to solve the mystery of why he and his buddy kept getting busted by the deer even when they did everything possible to minimize their scent.

“When we were 18, a buddy of mine and I started keeping records of everything possible when we went into the woods,” Norton said. “That includes wind direction, moon phase, everything. We would wash our clothes in rainwater and hang them in the woods to dry. Back then, we were as scent-free as you could possibly be.

“We would take acorns and mash them up and rub them all over our treestands and boots. No matter what, if a deer walked by where we had walked, they smelled us.”

While he was guiding for more than 20 years at Bent Creek, Norton continued to keep a daily log of deer and hunter activities.

“We had a field down near the (Tombigbee) river that just filled up with deer every afternoon,” he said. “You had to walk across the road to get to it. That road was just smooth as glass. I took some brand new rubber boots and a five-gallon bucket of rainwater. I took the boots out of the box, put them on and stuck them down in the rainwater and washed them off real good. I walked down the road to the field about 100 yards, turned and walked into the woods and then walked back toward the field. I had planned to just sit and see what happened when the deer got to my tracks.

“The yearlings smelled the tracks but went right on into the field. The momma, probably a 5- or 6-year-old doe, got about 3 feet from the track I’d made with those just-washed rubber boots. She turned inside out, blowing and snorting and running off. A little while later, two six-points, probably 2-year-old bucks, came in the road, smelled my tracks, but they went on in the field. About dark, about a 140-class eight-point walked into the road. When he hit my tracks, he turned and followed that scent back to where I went into the woods. As soon as he stepped into the woods, his head came up, and he started scanning the trees until he spotted me. It didn’t take long for him to leave after he spotted me.”

Norton has example after example of why it’s a bad idea to be traipsing around the woods looking for sign this time of year.

“I’ve seen it time and time again,” he said. “We’ve had green fields that had deer coming to it every afternoon, pouring in there. I take hunters and put them in that stand. I go pick them up, and they say ‘Man, there are three good trails coming into that field.’ I said, ‘No, you didn’t get out there and walk around did you?’ They said, ‘Well, I just walked around to see where they were coming in.’ I said, ‘You didn’t walk out of the field did you?’ They said, ‘Just 20 or 30 yards.’ Then I asked them how many deer they saw that afternoon. ‘None, but I heard a bunch of snorting.’

“Bottom line: Keep your human scent out of the woods. When you plant your green fields, stay out of them. Ride your ATV. Deer are not scared of rubber tires. If you’re checking your trail cameras, set them up to where you can ride up to them on your ATV, change cards and get out of there.”

Another example came when he found a heavily traveled deer trail crossing a road. One of those tracks indicated a heavy, mature buck was using the trail.

“I got the wind right and got about 100 yards up the road from the crossing,” Norton said. “I sat down against the tire on my truck. A doe came across, a young buck came across, a young eight-point came across, a six-point came across, and then a big doe came out in the road at 5:15. Another person that was hunting started coming out early. I figured that big buck was going to come out right after that doe. When she got alerted by the truck lights, I decided to shoot her to put meat in the freezer.

“I told a friend where they could put up a pop-up blind and probably kill a big deer. Instead of them getting in that blind and sitting and waiting, they got out in the woods and walked around. And they walked down the road looking at tracks. They came back and said, ‘You were right; that road was eat up with tracks.’ The next day it rained. I went up there for five straight days after it rained and there wasn’t a single deer track in that road because of the human scent my buddy left.

“Deer will find a safe haven with no human activity. If there’s no human scent, they’re not going anywhere. That’s why if I’m going to hang a stand on a green field, I hang it in February. If I kill a deer in a green field, I drive up to it on the ATV, step out and throw the deer on the back and get out of there.”

Norton said he’s tried every product designed to diminish or cover human odor that has come on the market with little success. What he has noticed is when the outdoors TV shows have a successful hunt and bag a big buck, there is one common factor.

“They say, ‘Boy, the wind was perfect today,’” he said. “Those guys killing those big deer are playing the wind. I will say this, a cover scent might fool him just enough for him to make a mistake. But the deer I’m hunting and you’re hunting, a 5-year-old or older, ain’t going to make a mistake.”