We spend millions on scent-blocking products. Do they work?
I felt like the odd man out. After eight of us pulled on camouflage and slipped into our boots each morning, I stepped outside to enjoy the brisk Illinois air before being shuttled to my morning bow stand. Six others stayed in the outfitter’s scent-free room and spritzed themselves with odor-eliminating sprays. These guys were serious. Not only did they use spray, they also wore scent-blocking clothing, washed their gear in odor-eliminating detergent and bathed with scent-killing soap and shampoo.
Me? I wore the same camo I always wear and, well, I made a few half-hearted attempts to cover my odor. I never had a decent buck walk within bow range all week. Neither did five of those who went through the scent-eliminating ritual each morning. It raised the question, does all that effort work? Could I have at least seen a big buck had I followed that morning routine?
It’s a question as old as deer hunting itself. Ask a dozen hunters if you can beat a whitetail’s nose and you’ll likely get a dozen different answers, but hunters generally fall into two groups: those who believe a deer will smell you no matter what, and those who think every little bit helps. The former eat, smoke or pass gas without a single care of the odors they put forth, while the latter group would never climb a tree without going through a scent-masking ritual. Both groups kill deer, including plenty of mature bucks, but could those hunters who pay no attention to odor actually kill more deer if they put some effort into masking their scent?
Virginia outfitter Chris McClellan doesn’t think so. He breaks his hunters down into two distinct groups: veteran hunters who live by an old-school philosophy, and younger hunters who use the latest gear and religiously follow the hot trends, including scent-proof clothing and various other products.
“The older guys wear the same camo they’ve been wearing for the past 20 years, and they do pretty much the same thing they’ve always done when they go deer hunting,” explains McClellan, owner of Sailor’s Creek Outfitters. “The younger guys are really big into scent-stopping clothing, sprays and hanging their camo outside so it doesn’t pick up any inside smells.”
So who kills more deer?
“I can’t say there’s any difference. If anything, it’s the hunters willing to stay in their stand all day,” he says, “and those who pay attention to the wind.”
Buckmasters founder Jackie Bushman says setting up for wind is critical, but he’s a firm believer in scent-controlling products. “We spend a lot of time in the treestand, and I know for certain that we’ve had better luck since using scent-absorbing clothing,” he said. “No product is 100 percent foolproof, but scent can be unpredictable in swirling currents or when the wind changes. With two people in the stand, we have to have extra protection. We feel the clothing and sprays give us an edge.”
Luke Estel agrees. With more than 20 years of bowhunting experience under his belt, he’s certain using scent eliminating products has helped increase his deer sightings dramatically. He not only sees more deer, he’s also been killing bigger bucks since he started taking scent-control seriously four years ago. A part-time professional bass angler, Estel says using various scent-masking products is in some ways similar to using scents on fishing lures. It’s tough to prove they actually help, but they give him an extra dose of confidence.
“If it makes you hunt harder and have more confidence in what you are doing, then it’s definitely worth using,” he says.
But it’s not just about confidence, insists the 37-year-old Illinois bowhunter. Estel can rattle off countless examples of deer, including some bruiser bucks, that walked directly downwind without a clue they were within bow range of a hunter in a tree.
Last fall, for example, four does walked just 10 yards away, all directly downwind. One doe got suspicious, but finally relaxed and continued on her way. Two minutes later, a 150-inch 8-pointer walked the same trail. Estel arrowed the buck, which had no idea he was there.
“I agree it’s not going to make you invisible, so to speak,” he said. “I don’t think you can beat a deer’s nose completely, but I’m convinced that every little bit helps,” he says. “How else can you explain a deer, especially a mature buck, coming straight at you from directly downwind?”
Or how about 15 deer walking directly under him and a cameraman perched in a 10-foot-high stand in the middle of a pasture? None seemed to notice, recalls Estel, the odor coming from the hunters themselves or on the ground where the two walked within the previous hour. Both men wore scent-blocking suits and sprayed themselves with Estel’s homemade acorn-based masking scent.
It isn’t as much what you do, he insists, but how you do it. For example, last year’s 150-incher fell on a hot day in the early bow season. Estel sprayed himself with his acorn scent just minutes before the four does appeared. He’s convinced that in order for a masking scent or scent-blocker to have the full effect, it’s important to use it repeatedly, especially when it’s hot enough to make you sweat.
“You have to renew scent killers pretty often, especially if it’s warm, otherwise it will wear off and your scent will come through,” he says.
That’s not all he does. Estel wraps his outerwear in a plastic bag and doesn’t put it on until he steps out of his truck at his hunting location. He also stuffs leaves in the sack in order to add natural odor to the garments. He sprays his boots, his hat (inside and out), and his entire body before he climbs into his stand.
Some hunters consider the expense and effort a waste of time. They point to a YouTube video that created a buzz within the hunting community. In it, a dog handler follows a bloodhound on the trail of a hunter who has taken various steps to scent-proof himself.
According to the narrator, who is also running the camera and holding the leash of the dog, the hunter was wearing a full suit of scent-blocking clothes, a head net, rubber boots and rubber gloves and had generously doused himself with a scent spray. After smelling an article of the hunter’s clothing, the dog takes just a few minutes to find the man who had walked several hundred yards and then climbed a tree.
Is it proof that you can’t beat a deer’s nose? Scan through the various discussions of that experiment on hunting forums and you’ll get lots of different opinions. For every hunter who believes you can’t fool a deer’s nose, there is at least one like Estel who is religious in his efforts to cover scent.
United States Police Canine Association executive director Russ Hess says it’s virtually impossible to fool a dog’s nose. A 40-year veteran of police dog training and handling, he’s seen every trick in the book to hide narcotics and even people from canines. “Of course, if something worked, we wouldn’t know it, but I’ve seen some pretty amazing examples of how well a dog can find hidden narcotics,” he says. “I’ve watched a dog find drugs inside an inflated tire, in a plastic bag inside a filled gas tank and even welded into the drivetrain of a vehicle.”
Dogs aren’t deer, of course, but plenty of naysayers suggest both animals have similar olfactory senses. If you can’t beat a dog, they insist, there’s no way you’ll beat a deer. But is it fair to equate dogs and deer? Not at all, says University of Georgia wildlife professor Dr. Karl Miller.
“It’s very difficult to compare animals. We just don’t know how a dog’s nose works in comparison to a deer’s because there is no way to compare them,” he said. “Some people talk in terms of olfactory receptor surface area, but even that has so many variables. A dog might be able to smell something a deer can’t, and vice versa. We just don’t know, and we might never know.”
In regard to fooling a buck, Bushman said, “You’re never going to completely eliminate human odor. The key is to minimize it to the point where deer don’t become alarmed. Most whitetails encounter humans on a regular basis, so they’re used to picking up our scent. If you pay attention to scent control, you can fool a whitetail into thinking you passed by hours earlier, or are farther away than you really are.”
Miller says studies have even shown individual deer have different hearing abilities, so it’s quite possible one deer might not have the same olfactory capabilities as another deer, further complicating the argument.
“Like humans,” he said, “you might smell an odor that your buddy doesn’t. Could deer be the same way? Certainly.”
Despite the lingering doubt, Miller says there is one proven way to beat a deer’s nose. Every time.
“Make sure you stay downwind,” he says. “There’s no way a deer will smell you if you are downwind.”
Read Recent Articles:
• Ghost Deer: Albinos and piebalds are rare, but should they be protected?
• Talk Yourself Down: A few soothing words can keep you from losing your cool on a big buck.
• Tar Heel Haunting: Trophy dream comes true in a ghostly way for this North Carolina deer hunter. This article was published in the October 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.