Making 'Scents' Of Blacktails

You don't hear much about the various smells blacktails emit through pheromones. But serious blacktail hunters will want to follow their noses. Here's why.

I'm not a blacktail expert and don't pretend to be.

Author Scott Haugen has tagged some of his best blacktails as they checked out trails. The pre-rut is the time to start focusing on trails for blacktails.
Photo courtesy of Scott Haugen.

I've pursued Columbia blacktail deer for more than 30 years, have hunted them in an array of habitats in varied seasons and devoted more time to them than any other big-game animal. But it doesn't mean I've mastered them. In fact, I'm a long way from knowing all that I'd like to about these deer.

Because blacktails are so elusive, it will take a lifetime to learn all there is to know about them. I'm fortunate to make my living in the outdoors and hunt around the globe, and I honestly feel the toughest trophy to consistently obtain in North America is the Columbia blacktail.

Once you consider yourself an expert on trying to figure out these cagey deer, the learning stops, and once the learning stops, the deer gain the advantage.

I grew up in blacktail country. My family is made up of many generations of blacktail hunters in the southern Willamette Valley. My college degrees in geography, geology and science were earned, largely, because of my interest in blacktail deer.

As with many hard-core hunters in this part of the country, I'm addicted to blacktails, but I'm far from having all the answers. I routinely make scientific-based observations, however. And one that's been proving itself helpful to my hunts in recent years is how blacktails use their own scents as a form of communication.

Armed with this knowledge, I've been able to predict where bucks will show up, as well as where to place tree stands or ground blinds.

Once you figure out where big bucks live, dedicate time to observing how deer in the area use trails. By paying close attention to this one element, not only will you learn more about blacktail behavior, you'll also increase your chances of tagging that trophy buck.

Blacktails aren't like mule deer, which have a commanding view of their habitat and can see other deer. They're not like Eastern whitetails that might occupy small tracts of land with enriched food sources. Trophy blacktails live in a brushy environment and rely on pheromones to figure out what's going on.

Pheromones are chemicals that trigger innate responses within members of the same species. There are various forms of pheromones, including alarm pheromones, sex pheromones, trail pheromones and many others that influence both animal behavior and physiology.

For hunters, the most famous deer odor is that sweet smell of the rut. Bucks secrete it from their tarsal glands during the breeding season. Pre-orbital glands, forehead glands and salivary glands are also important later in the season.

However, there's a gland located between the toes of every deer. It's called the interdigital gland, and every time a deer takes a step, it lays down a scent with this gland.

To deer, this scent is their identifying mark, sort of like how humans recognize one another by sight. The scent from this gland is so strong that when it's fresh, even humans can detect it.

The scent from the interdigital gland is how does keep track of their fawns, and how mature bucks alert others of their presence in an area.

In some Midwestern university studies on whitetails, results have led to the conclusion that perhaps some of the compounds in this scent may occur in higher concentrations among mature bucks.


We can speculate the same is true for blacktails, and this helps us know where the mature bucks will be this time of year.

This is the time when mature bucks start cruising trails, laying down identifying scents, checking to see what does are in the area, as well as figuring out what bucks are in their domain.

During late September and early October, the interdigital gland is the most important of all glands, despite the fact deer use it to communicate with one another throughout the year. It's important now because as does go about their daily routines, and use numerous trails to get to where they're going, bucks will intently search these trails for fresh scent. Bucks are now curious to learn who is in their territory.

Ask any blacktail hunter what is the best way to get an educated, wise, trophy blacktail buck this time of year, and most will tell you from a tree stand or a ground blind, where you sit and wait near trails. This is so because you're less intrusive, and because you're in a position to watch travel routes, the same trails you've concluded deer are using.

Keep in mind that mature bucks rarely travel primary trails, other than during migrations. Telemetry studies conducted by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have shown that blacktails only use the same trail on two or more consecutive days, 25 percent of the time.

What's even more eye opening to some hunters is that big, mature bucks rarely utilize primary trails at all. Instead, they travel along more covered routes, winding their way through brushy cover.

How does this help the average September hunter? Big bucks spot-check primary trails. That is, they routinely and deliberately travel to these main trails to smell the scents left in them by other deer. The scents they are seeking this time of year may be left by does, insubordinate bucks or even older bucks moving through an area.

While mature bucks spend little, if any, time actually traveling these trails, they do make a deliberate effort to see what deer have been on them. Most of the big bucks I've seen perform these trail checks approach from about 90 degrees or so. They come to the trail, sniff it, and then move on to the next trail.

I have observed them hopping on these trails and following them a short distance, an act which I can only guess means they're trying to let their presence be known. The more the pre-rut progresses, the more often I've seen bucks checking these trails.

No matter where you hunt blacktails this time of year, the older the buck the more restricted his movements will be. This is why it's important to not overlook the most discrete of tr


Signed copies of Scott Haugen's latest book, Trophy Blacktails: The Science of The Hunt, can be ordered at Or send a check for $20 (free S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489.

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