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July 30, 2007

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How Do Deer Use Their Sense of Smell?

As we all know, deer have noses that are better than those of bloodhounds, and if they detect even the faintest taint of olfactory uncertainty in the air, they will run like bats out of hell. Except that, this past October, I was hunting from a tower blind in South Carolina, and shot a very attractive buck in a grass patch about 250 yards away.

He immediately dived into impenetrable South Carolina cover. However, because the idea that I might miss was absurd, I waited ten minutes and then walked over to where he had been standing. There was blood all over the place, but the plantation rules stated that thou shalt not track deer on thine own, so I got back on the stand and waited for the truck to come around.

This took about an hour, and while waiting for it, I saw a doe walk right into the grass patch, right where the blood and my bootprints were, and commence browsing without a care in the world. She filled her face for 10 minutes or so and then ambled off.

This is not the first time I've seen such a thing happen. And I wonder, exactly what part does scent play in the mental makeup of these critters? Anyone out there have any similar experiences?


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Blue Ox

I saw a small doe eating the stomach contents from a gut pile I left last season. She muched away for a good fifteen minutes, then walked away cool as could be. The wolves took the rest not five minutes later.

Chad Love

I've long since given up on trying figure out how a deer will react to human scent. The only thing I know for sure is that there are no absolutes. The last two deer I've shot have both been straight downwind of me (one at 12 yards during bow season) and neither one seemed terribly alarmed by the large, stinky manblob they surely could detect just upwind of them.
And then there are the deer that bolt at the first faint whiff of anything out of the ordinary, the "how the hell did he know I was here?" incidents.
Who knows? I think deer are as individualistic as any other mammal. There are smart ones, dumb ones, careless ones and careful ones.

WA Mtnhunter

I think the careless ones end up wrapped in white paper while young and tender. The more careful ones have great racks and are a little harder to harvest before they die of old age.


I truly believe it's what they get used to. If deer live in an area with high human useage, they get used to human odors and will not be bothered. If they live in an area with very little human interference, then the human odor will result in whitetails flying.


You got me. I've never been able to figure it out. I still wash myself and my clothes with the products of the scent free industry racket. But after a few days without a shower last year while elk hunting, I stalked up on a trophy muley, I didn't have a tag for deer, so I was just doing it for my own entertainment, but I was able to get within 40 feet of him, he was straight down wind. I could feel the air blowing directly from me to him, and although minor movements caught his attention, he would stare right at me but couldn't see me. I wasn't wearing any camouflage either, so I wonder about the need for it too. He even swayed his head to each side, trying to look around me, but never seemed to see me right in front of him. I thought deer could recognize facial structure, and I believe he was looking me right in the eye. He never smelled me and never saw me. He eventually got full from grazing and wondered off into the woods, never having known I was there.

My buddied joked that he must have been a retarded deer.

Later that month when I was deer hunting with a buck tag, I saw several does that didn't care that I was moving freely and making noise within 20 yards of them. They would look at me, but then just go back to grazing.

Either they knew that I only had an antlered tag or it must be the CWD.

Steve C

If anything, hunting has taught me that animals don't always follow the "rules" we outdoorsmen assign to them.

Ducks will blacken the sky on blue-bird days, large fish will bite right next to the dock after you've made enough noise to wake the dead, and deer don't always head to the next county when they get a wiff of civilization.

I'm sure we all have stories. My personal favorite was the 1981 opening day for deer in Virginia. I was sitting on my stool with my back to a tree when a buck walked up behind me. I couldn't move without being seen. The deer stopped as is passed me - later measured at 17 feet away - and put it's nose to the ground before looking right at me. There in front of it was a wrapper from a Slim Jim. There were several more minutes of smelling and intense looks before the buck went on it's merry way. After being so thoroughly busted, I didn't even think about shooting it.


On this note it’ll be very curious as to how the deer will evolve and act once the reg change takes effect in three Upstate New York counties this Fall. Rifles will be allowed for the first time for what must be 80-years. It’ll be a new game to these deer.


Deer are like women. I've never been able to figure them out and probably never will. Both will change the rules to suit their whims @ the time.



At least 5 times a hunting season my family has deer walk right past places where we "relieved" ourselves not 2 hours ago.
Unless already spooky, they just don't care about scent.

Whitetail Buck

All you hunters stink,and once and a while me my brothers just mess-up and don't see you stinking up the woods!

Dr. Ralph

My next door neighbor actually shot a six pointer with his pants down in the middle of dropping a load. I have shot deer and stayed on stand and noticed a dead deer on the ground doesn't seem to bother the others. I think WA Mtnhunter has it figured out. The big bucks are just a little smarter than average and a little warier. They will sneak up and lie down 150 yards from your stand and blow at the other deer when they wander too close. This has happened to me several times. If they weren't so smart it wouldn't be so fun...


I shot a a small spike a few years ago and ten minutes late two does came in and fed right around the dead deers body.


i shot a 7 point buck in a corn field and the next day my uncle sat in the same stand and saw 2 does and a spike buck come right in and start feeding right around my deers gut pile and were stinky me had sweated gutting my deer, (it was quite warm)
and drove my big polluting truck right out into the field and he still watched them for like a half hour before they just walked away.

Chris H

A few years ago I had a nice 8pt follow my trail to within about 25 yards from the tree I was in then walk 50 yards below me and right out into the clear cut I was hunting. I watched him walk all the way and as soon as he stepped into the clear cut, I dropped him. Sometimes they just don't make good sense.


I have read that deer are able to taste as well as smell the scent in the air. Apparently when their lip quivers while their nose is actively in the air. Ever wonder why a bear will flex its lips when posturing for intimatdation?According to a long forgotten hunting commentator; same deal.


I think the dumb ones must have spent too much time playing video games...

WA Mtnhunter

The best whitetail buck I have seen in Eastern Washinton walked out into a logging road 20 yards in front of my parked pickup. I had stopped to relieve myself at the roadside and got back in the truck and nodded off in the midafternoon sun. I thought I might just "take 5" while stopped enroute to my afternoon stand.

I awoke to see him standing in the middle of the road looking at me sitting in the truck with the engine running. Since Washington requires that firearms be completely unloaded in a vehicle, I had no real chance at a quick shot. I tried to load my rifle and get out of the truck, but he caught my movement getting my rifle ready and hit the timber. Apparently the urine and running engine of a big shiny truck with the daytime running headlights on didn't concern him too much.

If I could figure out deer behavior, I could become as wealthy as Bill Gates!

Darrold Sisler

I have believed for a long time that it takes 2 of the 3 major senses to trigger fright. Either hearing you plus seeing you, or smelling and seeing, or any combination of the two.


After reading everyones response to this topic I can agree with them all. My Brothers and I have had similar encouters with deer also, some that we still do not understand how and why.
I would like to share a saying that my brothers and I have and is used just about everyday at deer camp as we all tell our past and present hunting stories.
"It all Depends"

WA Mtnhunter

How true, David. The best way to get a deer is to spend time in the woods where the deer are!

Using every sensible means to trick the deer's senses certainly helps

Sam Helton

My father and I like to eat apples as a snack while in our stands. In many instances we have had several deer, mostly does, come up around our trees and eat the cores that we have just eaten off of, and thrown down to the ground, 10 mins before. You'd figure they'd smell us all over it.


After reading all this stuff I think I will try hollering for them to ''come on'' from now on.


Do the words "natural selection" mean anything?


I have been confirmed in why I've never spent any money nor will I upon scent control stuff or cover scents. Bah, Humbug on all of it. Just use your talent at marking the wind and be reasonably clean. Although I don't think the deer would care whether they're shot by an unclean or clean hunter...
Good luck to everyone this year!

Dr. Ralph

Some days everything works and some days the deer know you're there before you do...

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