On the Topic of Smell

By Nick Simonson

While recently waxing philosophical about the power of my dog’s nose, I got to wondering, and then worrying, about another well-developed sense of smell in the outdoors.  As I drew to the end on my column which detailed how victory often comes in the form of trusting the nose of my dog to lead me in the direction of birds in the uplands, despite not knowing exactly how it all works, I became concerned that being on the receiving end of such a sensational scent receptor could impact my other autumn passion – deer hunting. 


Certainly, I can count on my hands and feet, and those of a few family members, the number of times I’ve been busted, or at least been detected by a wary buck or doe scent checking the air.  That is, in fact, exactly how my season started this fall as a spike buck spent the majority of his 10 minutes in front of my stand with his nose held high in an attempt to ferret out the source of the unusual smell he was obviously picking up. Despite all the clothes washing in scent-free detergent, the lather-rinse-repeating with odor-eliminating soap in the shower, and the religious spray down in scent killer that I make part of the autumn ritual each time I close the pickup door and head to the stand, I’m never sure it does anything for me, and just hope the wind holds, limiting my downwind scent trail. 


That concern is real.  Deer have a nose with at least 17 times more surface area than humans – something like 30 to 100 square inches crammed into their elongated snouts, depending on age and size of the deer.  Additionally, it is believed that they have more than 300 million scent receiving cells in their brains to help them detect and classify  the data coming in from each inhale.  That’s about thirty percent more than my beloved lab, and about 60 times more than any human. With this combination, they can pick up the scent of water from over a mile away, and the off-putting odor of human sweat at distances of up to 500 yards, depending on wind and terrain. Some experts in the field put the power of a deer’s sense of smell at 1,000 times that of a human, others say upwards of 10,000.  It’s likely you’re busted at either multiplier if the wind carries your scent to Old Otis’ schnoz, whether he’s blinded by the rut or not.


So concerning is this scenario that between odor-eliminating sprays, washes, electronics and clothing, a multi-billion dollar scent free hunting industry has emerged in the last three decades.  As a smelly guy who lives under a white sheet of prescription-strength roll-on antiperspirant in the off season to keep things sociable, I find myself going through a couple containers of laundry detergent, a big bottle of body wash, a stick of scent-masking deodorant, and a few bottles of spray that are scattered between the garage and truck bed just to make it from the end of August to December.  Paranoid that my innate ability to crank out odoriferous emanations (as Hulk Hogan once put it in an advertisement), the forty dollars or so I spend on scent control has seemed worth it up to this point until I came across the data that suggests no matter what I use, some deer somewhere downwind is going to pick me out against the lineup of cow patties, creek mud, and wet leaves and chart a course around my stand. 


In the end, that’s all we can ask for as hunters, when pitted against such a well-evolved sense of smell.  Play the wind, have a couple stand options where we can set up on a trail that doesn’t absorb the brunt of our odor and hope the deer are using that particular route is the best option.  Alternatively, we can also hope that the rut causes that bruiser buck to ignore his best instincts and charge head on into the odor he knows better to avoid, all because he heard a manufactured doe bleat in November. As it turns out though, their sense of hearing is only a couple times better than ours, and with all the scenting ability stacked against us this season, I find some comfort in that and, out of habit, the warm, dry camouflage going through the dryer with two scent-eliminating sheets before this evening’s bow hunt.

Featured Photo: A deer’s nose has you pegged at 500 yards. Playing the wind is still the best option in the era of scent-free everything. Simonson Photo.

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