By a Nose: A Look (And Smell) at Deer Scents

Deer live by their noses. Little wonder, then, that some hunters swear by prepared scents -- or that others swear at them. Sniff around this guide and see if it doesn't help your hunting.

By Ben Norman

We all remember our elders telling us to stop, look and listen before we crossed the street. Were deer to pass along similar advice to their young, they'd modify their version to: "Stop, look, listen and smell for humans."

Are you one of the thousands of hunters who have failed to connect with a buck (other than to see his flag as he bounded off) because they were winded well before they were aware of their quarry's approach? If so, you may want to consider using a cover and/or attractant scent.

Forty-five years ago, on my first deer hunt, my cousin, Clifton Holliday, told me to rub pine needles over my clothes, boots and hat. I didn't get a buck, but several does came within 10 yards of me. I became a believer in cover scents that day.

Pine needles, crushed acorns, sassafras, and other readily available natural scents are still free for the taking. But deer hunters today have a much more varied selection of commercial scents to choose from than did hunters of 15 or 20 years ago. A walk through the scent section of a sporting goods store can leave you more confused than ever as to what scents to choose. There are urines - both real and synthetic - along with candles, wafers, gels, wicks, and poppers. The number of different cover scents is enough to boggle the mind. You can find bottled pine, acorn, sassafras, squirrel, skunk, and fox cover scents - name it, and someone's probably tried to sell it. One enterprising individual was considering bottling armadillo urine. I haven't seen his product on the market yet, but don't rule him out.

Don Bell with Code Blue Scents ( is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to discussing the use of scents in deer hunting. "There are four categories of scents," says Bell. "You have urines, which are attractants, odor stops, such as detergents, body soaps, and sprays that kill human odor, cover scents that mask or cover human odor, and the various mineral mixes. All of these scents can work for the hunter in harvesting a buck."

Bell not only sells Code Blue scents but also uses the product in his pursuit of trophies. "One of the first things one should do before deciding on what scent to buy is to educate himself a bit on the breeding activities of deer," he remarked. "Hunters are often confused when it comes to pre-rut and full rut. Actually, a deer is in rut from the time he sheds his velvet until the end of gun season - that is, he is capable of mating with a receptive doe any time during this period. You often hear hunters say the rut is on when they see a buck chasing a doe. When you see a buck chasing a doe, the full rut may be starting, but if he is chasing her, she is not in estrus."

Used in the right places and at the right times, the proper scents can help you bag a trophy. Photo courtesy of Knight & Hale


According to Bell, it's important to match the right attractant with the stage of the rut. Bucks, in bachelor groups during June and July, begin to establish their hierarchy of dominance as the summer progresses. They start sorting out the pecking order by pushing and shoving each other around. Through July and August, the dominant bucks grow increasingly impatient with the younger bucks; by September they'll have gotten downright irritated with the other bucks and will break away from the group. Once a buck leaves the group, his first action is to make a rub line and secondary scrapes to establish his territory.

Later, as his neck begins to swell and he gets still more irritated with other bucks infringing on his territory, he'll pick a secondary scrape and urinate over his tarsal gland as he rubs his legs together, thus depositing his rutting odor; this consists of the urine mixed with musk from his tarsal gland and his inner digital gland, which exudes the waxy substance between the hooves that is the buck's fingerprint. The rub line and primary scrapes are a buck's way of saying to other males: This is my territory! Stay out! At the same time, it's an invitation to any estrous doe to hang around.

It's at this stage of the game that attractants such as tarsal gland secretions and buck urine can be used to dupe a buck. "At this time, full rut is not yet taking place," Bell observed, "but he still doesn't want other bucks in his territory. Now is a good time to use tarsal gland and buck urine. It's still too early for estrous doe urine; wait until peak estrus begins to use the estrous-doe urine. Peak estrus means that the majority of the does in a given area are in estrus. Does will stand for a buck about six hours out of the 36 hours they are in estrus. We are now bottling 'Standing Estrous' which is urine collected from does during this six-hour period. This is absolutely the best attractant scent I've ever used."


"When I hunt during the pre-rut, I put out some buck urine and a tarsal gland near my tree stand," Bell continued. "I never put it over waist-high. Some hunters want to put it on their clothing, but all this does is make a buck look for you. You don't want him looking up in the tree; you want him looking for that buck that has invaded his territory. I'll use my grunt tube to make him think another buck is servicing one of his does. Grunting and rattling will get his attention and make him circle downwind from your stand, but the buck urine drifting to him with the wind will make him fighting mad, and he's coming to run the intruder away."

Once full estrus begins, it's time to use doe-in-estrus urine and buck urine to lay a trail. Bell uses a double drag with doe scent on the wick closer to his boot and buck urine on the wick behind it. "This simulates a buck trailing a doe. If decoys are legal in the area I'm hunting, I cock the decoy tail up and apply estrous-doe urine under it. Nothing works every time, but if you use the right scent at the right time and have taken steps to reduce your body odor, there is no doubt in my mind that you will kill more and bigger bucks using urine scents combined with a tarsal gland."


Bell is also a firm believer in cover scents. "After you have used a good odor stopper on your body and clothes, it pays to use a good cover scent," he stated. "But it's critical to use a scent that matches the local vegetation. You don't want to be in the swamp at the edge of a beaver pond wearing pine scent when there isn't a pine tree for a quarter-mile. I use Knight & Hale cedar, acorn, earth, and pine cover scents in spray bottles. I spray my boots, clothing, tree stand - all my gear."

Billy Schofield, another accomplished deer hunter, is partial to his own homebrewed deer scent, the ing

redients of which are a closely guarded secret. He developed it as a cover scent to be sprayed on clothing and equipment, but it's proved to be an attractant as well. "I discovered it had attractant properties one day after spraying my boots: A buck trailed me to my tree stand. I have one customer who swears a doe trailed him to his stand and licked the rung of the ladder stand he had climbed into."

Like Bell, Schofield's harvested some serious bucks by using both his and other makers' scents. "I use and sell my scent, Billy's Cover Scent" - contact - "as a cover scent," he noted. "Its attractant properties are just a bonus. I still use doe-in-estrus urine during the peak of the rut and buck urine during the pre-rut, when I'm hunting a rub line. It's important to bathe and wash your clothes using non-scented soaps. Also, it doesn't do any good to do all of this and then go eat at a restaurant before you hunt. If you smell like a hamburger or rutabaga, your cover scent may not do the job," said Schofield.

According to Schofield, using attractant and cover scents to fool your big-racked quarry isn't as complicated as it seems. "You need the wind in your favor; you must blend with your background; be quiet, eliminate body odor, and use a scent that triggers a buck's curiosity, romantic urges or fighting instinct. If you get all these elements together, you'll get a nice buck."

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