Blacktails: The Art Of Scent-Free Hunting

With noses that detect odors some 100 times better than human noses, blacktails can smell you long before they will ever see you. Here's how to combat human-caused odors in the deer woods.

Photo By Chuck & Grace Bartlett

For two consecutive mornings I'd glassed a quartet of velvet-antlered blacktails feeding along a spring seep across an 800-foot-deep shale canyon. Three of the four bucks were Pope and Young caliber. The biggest buck sported a 4x3 rack that I estimated to be 28 inches wide.

The first morning I spotted the bucks I figured on glassing them until they bedded near the spring. Then I'd slowly sneak within range. Instead of bedding, however, they walked single file through a saddle in the ridge and disappeared into dense, dark timber.

On the second morning I found the bucks feeding near the spring right on cue. This time I was determined to high tail it around the canyon and set an ambush in the saddle before they slipped away. Never having crossed the canyon, I vastly underestimated the time it would take to get into position. I was barely halfway to the saddle before the bucks began moving.

I wanted that big 4x3, and ambushing him in the saddle was my best option. I decided to hike across the canyon in the afternoon, find a level spot several hundred yards below the saddle and spend the night there. Being young and inexperienced, I reasoned that early September nights were plenty warm, so I left my sleeping bag at the spike camp and brought only my foam pad, daypack and bow. That was the longest, coldest night I've ever experienced.

When dawn arrived I inched my way to the saddle and set up behind a deadfall, downhill of the trail the bucks used. After about an hour I heard deer coming. Minutes later a doe and two fawns calmly passed within 10 yards uphill of me. I waited, confident the setup was fool proof. Time dragged by as the sun's rays crept around the point of the ridge and then filled the saddle in bright sunlight. Things were warming up fast. Without warning two bucks materialized about 130 yards away. The bucks were not on the trail, but they were moving my way. Seconds later the 4x3 appeared and I could see the antlers of the fourth buck bobbing above the brush in the background.

The lead buck had closed to within 50 yards when he abruptly stopped and became ramrod stiff. The wheels were falling off my plan, but I remained motionless and hoped for the best. A beat later the lead buck started blowing loudly, as he stared in my direction. Suddenly, the buck bounded upslope and out of sight with his three buddies in tow.

I didn't fully understand it at the time, but poor scent management had defeated me. Years later, I realized that before the sun hit the ridge the air current was flowing downhill, explaining why the doe and fawns had passed so near without catching my scent. By the time the bucks showed up the sun had been shining for sometime, and the resultant climbing surface temperature had reversed the airflow; the air currents by then were blowing uphill and toward the deer trail.

DEFINING THE PROBLEM

According to Leonard Rue III in his definitive book, "The Deer of North America," most odors in the natural world are of organic compounds and are released as molecules of gas. For gases to be smelled they must be mixed or dissolved with moisture. Deer have moist, hairless muzzles. The moisture of the nostrils traps scent molecules. The lining of the nostrils in mammals is referred to as the epithelium.

Through a complex process, scent molecules are dissolved on the surface of the epithelium and the "smell" is transferred to the area of the brain that controls emotion via electrical impulses. A human's epithelium represents about 1/8,000 of the total skin area. A deer's epithelium equals about 1/80 of its skin surface. Thus a deer can detect odors about 100 times better than we can.

The human body is constantly dispensing odor. For the hunter, offending odors come from three primary sources: Perspiration, respiration and contamination.

Perspiration is the worst offender. Sweat caries only a modest amount of scent, but the warm, moist conditions associated with it provide an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. These bacteria expel the gasses that we know as body odor. The underarms, feet, groin and head produce the lion's share of our human bacteria-borne odors.

Respiration or breathing dispenses scent in the form of your breath. Gasses from bacteria that form in the mouth and trace scents from spicy foods and tobacco are released into the environment as you breathe.

Contamination refers to unnatural odors that are carried into the woods on a hunter's clothing and gear. Examples of scent contamination include that bacon fat you wiped on your pants, the white gas that spilled on your boot, fragrant laundry detergent on your underwear, rifle oil and other items with which we come into contact.

When we consider the efficiency with which a blacktail's nose collects and interprets odors, combined with the fact that our bodies are virtual odor factories, it becomes obvious that a hunter must take aggressive steps to keep human-caused scents from reaching the nose of his quarry. And yet the term "scent-free hunting" is an oxymoron of sorts. It is impossible to remain completely scent free in the field. However, the best hunters are able to reduce their scent and its negative consequences.

THE LESSONS OF ISHI

The process of reducing scent begins well before the hunt. Native Americans that depended on getting within bow range of game for sustenance understood this well. Ishi, the last truly aboriginal native in North America, is a perfect example. According to Saxton Pope, Ishi carefully observed several precautions before hunting deer. He would not eat fish the day before the hunt because the deer could detect the odor. He refrained from smoking tobacco for the same reason. On the morning of a hunt, Ishi would bathe vigorously, including washing his mouth, and he would not eat, all to reduce his human scent.

Today's blacktail hunter should adhere to many of the same precautions. Fortunately for us there are cutting edge products available through catalogs and retail outlets that can help push scent reduction to a new level.

Hunt preparation begins with the proper treatment and storage of hunting clothes and boots. Every hunter should have at least two complete sets of hunting clothes, including underwear and socks. Clothing and boots that are designated for hunting should only be worn in the field to keep them from picking up foreign smells. There are scent-eliminating laundry detergents available. However I prefer to wash my clothing in a combination of scent-eliminating body soap and baking soda. Using

body soaps allows me to kill two birds with one stone since I can use the same soap for bathing.

The last thing you want on your clothes is the scent of conventional detergent, so the first thing you want to do is decontaminate your washing machine. This is accomplished by running an empty load with a cup of baking soda in the water, which will absorb the scent of the detergent in the machine. Once the machine is clean, I load my camouflage, underwear, socks, hats and gloves, add about 1/8-cup of scent-eliminator body soap and a cup of baking soda, run the load, and allow it to rinse twice.

Clothes dryers contain nearly as much negative odor as washers, but they're a lot more difficult to decontaminate. My advice: Avoid them. Hang your hunting clothes outside to dry. After the clothes have dried and aired out, it's time to store them. While there are commercial storage bags on the market designed to keep clothing from picking up foreign odors, I prefer to use ordinary clear trash bags. They are less expensive and work just as well.

When storing my clothes I like to add some natural cover scent to them. Where I hunt there are a lot of ponderosa pines, so I add some fresh pine needles and twigs with the bark peeled away to the bag. At times I've added manzanita berries and even deer droppings. I then knot the bag shut and set it in the sun. This heats the bag and draws moisture and scent out of the pine material and deposits it in the clothing.

The most important thing to remember when adding cover scents is to use something that is common to the area you plan to hunt. Most commercial cover scents on the market are intended for use by East Coast whitetail hunters and are out of place here in the West. That's why I prefer to make my own out of natural materials.

PREPPING YOURSELF

With your field clothes cleaned and stored, the next step comes in the form of body preparation. For this step you'll need scent-eliminating soap, scent-free deodorant, baking soda and spray-on scent eliminator.

Before leaving home, shampoo and shower thoroughly with scent-eliminating body soap. After drying, liberally apply a scent-free deodorant and spray your body with scent eliminator.

Proper oral hygiene is easily overlooked. Avoid using peppermint or similarly scented toothpaste. Instead, brush your teeth with baking soda and rinse with plain water. For a day or two before the hunt avoid spicy aromatic foods, since these can linger in the mouth and can also be expelled through the skin.

For the drive to the hunting area don't wear your hunting clothes, since you don't want them picking up odors from the inside of a vehicle. Don your field clothes only after arriving at the hunting area. With each successive layer of clothing, spray yourself with scent eliminator, paying special attention to the underarms and groin. Before putting on your boots be sure to spray them inside and out with scent eliminator. Spray your socks as well. After dressing, spray all the gear you will be carrying into the field, including your pack and firearm or bow.

If you return home after each day's hunt, simply repeat this process. If you will be staying in the field for multiple days, you'll have to clean your body at the end of each day's hunt. This can be done using a wet cloth and scent-eliminating soap. Once you're clean and dry, apply scent-eliminator spray and deodorant. The clothing you wore while hunting should be sprayed and then hung up to air out overnight and through the next day, while you're wearing your second set of clothes. Alternating your clothing ensures you'll always have an odor-free set ready to go. Hunting clothing should never be worn while doing camp chores or cooking.

READING THE WIND

The scent reduction precautions I've outlined don't eliminate the need for woodsmanship and the ability to play the wind. These precautions are intended to buy time when the wind gets fickle at the critical moment and enable you to see bigger numbers of deer than you might otherwise. No matter how many precautions are taken you can't consistently hunt with the wind in the deer's favor, if you want consistent success.

While a lot of guys don't like hunting in strong winds, I prefer windy conditions. Strong winds are stable in terms of direction. I know that if I can move directly into the wind or into a crosswind, the odds of sneaking within range of a buck shift in my direction. It's when winds are light or seemingly non-existent that the going gets tough.

Light winds are typically variable and combine with terrain features to create an unpredictable swirling effect. When winds are calm the warming and cooling of the terrain creates updrafts and downdrafts known as thermals. Early and late in the day, when the terrain is uniformly cool, air currents roll downhill. During midday, when the terrain is uniformly warm, air currents flow uphill. It's during the morning and afternoon transition periods, when part of the terrain is in shadow and the balance is in sunlight, that thermals become unpredictable, presenting a difficult and frustrating challenge. Unfortunately, we do most of our hunting during these transition periods.

At these times it's common for thermals to shift several times over a short distance. This effect is magnified in steep rugged areas.

Anticipating how the terrain and temperature will affect the wind is difficult. If your correct guesses outnumber the wrong ones, you're definitely ahead of the average hunter. The ability to read the wind can be expanded through awareness and experience. When in the field think of the air moving past you as a river and ask, "Where are the eddies, swirls, pools and fast areas?" A simple squeeze bottle filled with chalk dust is an invaluable tool for monitoring breezes. Simply puff some into the air and watch where it goes.

CARBON SCENT SUITS

For stand hunters, the ultimate level of scent control comes in the form of a carbon scent absorption suit. These suits are warm to wear and fairly expensive, however they can't be beat when it comes to containing human odor. "I have killed bucks that were directly downwind of my tree stand, while wearing a carbon suit. The deer should have winded me, but they didn't, allowing me to make the shot," relates expert blacktail hunter Larry D. Jones.

Scent suits utilize a layer of activated carbon that actually adsorbs and traps the gas molecules that make up odors. Since a carbon suit will make you perspire when hiking in all but the coldest conditions, you'll want to carry it nearly to the stand site before putting it on and slipping into position. Leave the clothes you wore on the hike at the changing spot in a sealed scent-free bag.

If a carbon scent suit is too pricey for your hunting budget, consider buying a military surplus chemical warfare suit. These suits come at a fraction of the cost and yet work on much the same premise as carbon hunting suits. The one I've used for the past two seasons was manufactured for the British armed forces. I bought it through a military surplus catalog at about 25 percent of the cost of a traditional carbon hunting suit.

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