Buckmasters Magazine

The Smell of Success

The Smell of Success

By Bob Humphrey

Use a whitetail buck’s No. 1 sense against him.

Light was fading quickly and I was ready to close the book on another afternoon when I caught sight of movement in the stream bottom.

Hefting my trusty Nikon 10x42s, I saw a big doe following a trail that paralleled the stream. Her trail would take her past me, well out of bow range.

She paused briefly, putting her nose to the wind, then made a 90-degree turn and walked straight to the scent dispenser hanging 25 yards below. She would have made an easy target standing just under that dispenser.

Mike Mattly, PR Manager for Pradco Hunting Division, had put it there the previous evening, along with a mock scrape, then graciously offered me the stand after seeing a couple shooter bucks.

The doe nosed the canister and even licked it several times before investigating the mock scrape underneath. Next, she sniffed and licked the overhanging branches for several minutes before eventually disappearing.

Over the next few days, several more deer went out of their way, making a deliberate effort to visit the dripper and the mock scrape. Alas, none were bucks, but had any come in the vicinity, chances were good they’d have worn my tag.

Scents, like calls, can be an effective tool in your hunting arsenal, but they won’t make up for deficiencies in any aspect of your hunt planning and implementation.

If you do everything else right and have a little luck, scents can tip the balance in your favor.

To get the most out of scent products, it’s important to use them in situations appropriate for their purpose.

What follows is a quick rundown on the types of scent products available and some tips for how to use them.


Cover or masking scents can be divided into three basic categories: animal, vegetable and mineral.

The latter can be summed up as earth scents, usually synthetic aromas conjured up to smell like dirt.

Vegetable or plant scents are either extracts from, or synthetic versions of, real plants. Like earth scents, they’re intended to mask the human odor you haven’t already extinguished with your regular scent-control measures.

Commercial versions come in a variety of forms from spray-on liquids to scent-impregnated wafers.

You can get much the same effect by storing your hunting clothes in an airtight container along with a few boughs, fronds or leaves of the real thing.

The more aromatic the plant, the better. It’s important to use scents from plants native to your hunting area.

That holds true for animal-based cover scents, too. Some of the more common animal-based cover scents include fox and raccoon urines and skunk scent.

I advise caution when using animal-based cover scents. The scent of any canine, particularly coyotes, could put deer on alert.

Early in my hunting career, I used skunk aroma. My theory was that it is so strong it might overpower the deer’s acute but sensitive sense of smell. I never had enough encounters to say whether it worked or not, but it certainly made for some interesting adventures when I wasn’t in the woods.


In addition to covering human odor, scents can also be used to lure deer into range.

First in this category are food scents. Like the cover scents, they’re either extracts or synthetic versions of real plants, only in this case the plants are common deer foods.

I don’t use a lot of food scents, mainly because I usually hunt near some sort of actual food. However, they can be effective, particularly where food is scarce and where baiting is illegal.

Again, the scent should be something that grows in the area, but it could be more effective if it’s a desired food that’s in short supply.

For example, apple scent will certainly be familiar around an orchard, but isn’t likely to pull deer away from the real thing. It might be more effective in a forested area characterized by abandoned, overgrown farmsteads where wild apple trees exist.

Similarly, acorn scent isn’t going to do you much good during peak nut drop, but it might pull a deer your way when acorns are few and far between.

When using food scents, have realistic expectations. Deer probably won’t run to your scent the way they would to a feeder, but it might be enough to draw them into gun or bow range.


Curiosity scents are a bit of an anomaly. As deer hunters, we work very hard to reduce human odor and eliminate other foreign scents from our setups. Why, then, would you want to risk compromising all that hard work by introducing a completely foreign odor? Because it can work.

To my knowledge, neither vanilla nor anise (licorice) grow anywhere in North America. It seems almost inexplicable, but both are sometimes used as curiosity scents, sometimes with positive results. I haven’t gotten them to work for me, but I know folks who swear by them.

The Smell of SuccessANIMAL

By far, the largest group of attractant scents are based on whitetails themselves. Some are glandular-based, others are urine-based. Some are intended for use during the rut, while others have a broader range of application. When used properly and under the right circumstances, all have the potential to pull in deer and hold them long enough for a shot.

Urine-based scents are probably the most common, and they range from buck or doe pee to a whole range of blends containing other glandular scents  or secret formulas. They can be used to attract deer, or merely put them at ease by suggesting another deer has been in the area recently.

One of the more common glandular scents is from the tarsals — the two glands located on a deer’s hocks. Tarsal scent has a strong, musky odor. It likely won’t do much to attract a doe, but it could represent a challenge to a jealous buck. I sometimes remove fresh tarsal glands from recently killed bucks. I tie them on a piece of cord and hang them near my stand. On more than one occasion, I’ve had deer approach and sniff them.

I believe interdigital scent is one of the most underrated and under-utilized scents. That could be in part because of a lack of understanding on the part of both biologists and hunters, as well as a simple lack of availability. Very few scent companies even offer it.

The interdigital glands, located between the toes, release a fairly strong odor that is deposited on the ground with each step. Their presence merely signifies a deer passed by recently. If you’ve sat on one stand long enough, you’ve probably noticed deer tend to walk where other deer most recently walked, even when the original deer are long gone.

Apply interdigital scent to boot pads, and you can lay a scent trail that will draw deer where you want them to go. It also puts deer at ease.


I’ve saved the best, or at least the most popular, for last. Doe-in-heat and rutting-buck aromas are the luminaries of the deer scent world. They get the most ink in magazines and the most attention from hunters and deer.

I’ve always thought that was curious when you consider rut scents have the smallest window of effectiveness of just a few weeks. On the other hand, it’s when most hunters are in the woods, and the rut is a time we all know whitetails are actively using and looking for the sex scents of other deer.

The down side is sex pheromones are extremely volatile. That means they evaporate at a very rapid rate, often within minutes of being exposed to air. Were that not the case, bucks wouldn’t waste valuable energy chasing does that aren’t quite ready to breed.

Estrous doe is by far the most popular rut scent. It tells a buck he’s found what he’s been looking for. Outside the rut, however, it might be less effective and could even work against you.

Buck urine, on the other hand, might draw out a buck, or it might not.

Using both at the same time works on a buck’s desire and his competitiveness.


Many hunters use only one type of scent at a time. Why? Deer constantly give off dozens of scent cues, and they’re always smelling the air for scents related to food, danger and companionship.

During the seemingly simple task of tending a scrape, a buck communicates all kinds of information using multiple scents. First, he contacts the licking branch with his forehead glands, leaving the same identifying scent he leaves on every rub he visits.

Next, he delicately works twig ends into the pores just in front of his eyes, depositing scent from his pre-orbital glands.

After that, he rub-urinates, dowsing the ground with a pheromone-laced stew of urine and musky volatiles from his tarsal glands.

Finally, he paws at the earth, grinding his interdigital glands into the ground then scattering the malodorous soil across a wide area.

In the process, he’s communicating his individual identity, his health and his breeding status to any deer that passes within 100 yards or more. You can do the same by applying several different scents in different ways.


If you’re going to use scents, don’t scrimp. Buy products from reputable manufacturers. The only way they can stay in business is by selling products that work. And buy fresh. Don’t try to carry scents over from one season to the next. Unused scents break down over time and can turn into something quite repulsive to deer. To put things into perspective, a fresh bottle of scent costs about a quarter the price of a box of .30-06 shells. Would you go to the woods with an empty gun?

I didn’t think so.

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This article was published in the October 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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