September 22, 2010
By Don Higgins
Mature bucks are constantly looking for danger, every day, 365 days a year, and their noses represent their best line of defense. As hunters, we need to learn how to capitalize on those unconscious habits that mature bucks have in regard to their phenomenal scenting abilities.I thought I had the perfect setup to take advantage of bucks using the area. The property that I was hunting was once a cattle pasture but had since turned into a thick growth of saplings, weeds and grasses under a sparse stand of towering bur oaks. It was perfect whitetail habitat; the thick vegetation hid bedded deer, the big oaks provided some food in the form of acorns, and a small creek meandered through the cover, offering the deer a secure drink at any time. To complete what had to be an ideal situation, just outside the heavy cover stood several fields planted in a wide variety of tasty agricultural crops.
At one point, the creek within the cover made a sharp bend and came within 35 yards of an old fence that surrounded the thicket. The high bank on the outside of the creek bend helped to funnel deer movement between that point and the old fence. My stand was situated near the fence, less than 10 yards into the cover. By hunting it with the wind blowing my scent out into the open fields, it would be almost impossible for any buck in the cover to detect my presence with his nose. Almost!
Ten yards to the right of my stand was another old fence that bisected the heart of the cover. This fence joined the perimeter fence at a right angle and had once separated the old pasture into two tracts. To further funnel the deer within range of my stand, I had cut away a section of this dividing fence and provided them a clear and unobstructed travel route. A well-worn path proved that the local whitetails had accepted my self-serving offer.
So there I sat on a picture perfect November morning, just waiting for my opportunity at a mature buck that I was certain used this property as part of his stomping grounds. Around 8 a.m., I indeed saw the sight that I was actually expecting rather than just hoping to see. A huge 160-class 10-point was traveling just inside the cover along the perimeter fence and headed my way.
When I first spotted him, he was about 80 yards out and headed for the interior fence that I knew would block his way. I stood gripping my Mathews, knowing that this bruiser was soon in for a big surprise. When he detoured out of his way to cross at the opening that I had cut in the fence, I would be waiting at full draw less than 20 yards away.
I was just a little bewildered when he continued right along the perimeter fence toward me instead of taking the trail toward the fence opening. He was soon standing right in the corner where the two fences met. I still expected him to turn and come through the spot where the fence was down since it was only a few yards from where he stood. However, it soon became apparent that he had other ideas.
He jumped the 4-foot interior fence and continued along the perimeter fence that he had been following all along. Although he was within range, he was now behind my stand instead of in front of it, and he would soon be downwind of me. I was only mildly concerned about him scenting me, because he was close and the breeze was likely strong enough to blow my scent well over his head. My bigger concern was getting turned in the stand and finding an opening to shoot through.
THE KEENEST NOSE IN THE WORLD
Within seconds, the master of survival was directly between my stand and the perimeter fence that I had climbed over in the pre-dawn darkness. Despite the rigorous scent control measures that I had taken, he hit my ground scent that had been left as I walked the few yards from the fence to the tree that held my stand.
Apparently the odor was not strong enough to fully alert him, but he definitely tensed up, as did I. The buck slowly followed the scent right to the base of my tree. I watched in amazement through the mesh bottom of my stand as he actually banged his antlers on my tree steps as he tried to unravel the mystery of the human intruder who had entered his domain.
For a couple of tense minutes, I waited for him to make his move. Would he bust out of there and leave me with a broken heart or calm down enough to continue on his way and offer me the shot that I had been waiting for since last season? He finally made his move past my stand, but he clearly was now on hyper alert. As he was about to enter the only opening that would allow me a shot, I made my move.
I drew my bow as slowly as possible, but he instantly caught the movement and stopped with only his head exposed in the opening. He quickly fixed his stare right at me. I swear his eyes bugged out as they met mine! I think he actually knew how close he had come to meeting his end as he blew a warning for every other deer within earshot. Then he quickly exited my life.
I try to learn as much as possible from every encounter with a mature buck, no matter where or when it occurs. My encounter with this buck served up many lessons that have since made me a better hunter and also helped me move a step closer to understanding how a mature buck uses his nose. Let's take a look at the lessons that this encounter offered up.
SCENT CONTROL 101
It has become very clear to me over the years that many hunters don't have any inkling about the ways in which a buck uses his nose to stay alive. I'm not just talking about beginning hunters, either. I believe that few hunters truly give mature bucks the credit they deserve for the ways in which they uses their noses as a survival tool. I admit that it's hard to fathom the ability that mature bucks have to detect various odors and how that ability drives their daily habits.
One of the first lessons learned from the mature buck encounter mentioned above that I want to stress is the false idea that we can fully control our own human odor. Personally, I take scent control as seriously as anyone I know. I do everything from taking chlorophyll tablets to using the sprays and scent control clothing to chewing the gum and many things in between. I'm confident that every one of these steps helps control my odor and makes it harder for a buck to detect me, but I don't believe for a minute that I'm ever completely odor-free.
I believe that each odor-control step you take cuts down on the distance at which a buck can detect your odor. Obviously, if a buck has to be within five feet of you to smell you, that's better than detecting you at 50 yards. Still, odor control measures are never 100 percent foolproof.
TAKING IT A STEP FURTHER
Don't get me wrong by thinking that I'm knocking scent control products or advising against their use. I use many of these products myself to remain as scent-free as possible, but I also realize that this is only the first step in dealing with a mature buck's scenting ability. I get a real kick out of writers and TV personalities who advocate forgetting the wind because of their super scent-control regiment. The next time you hear such hype from an "expert," consider how many mature bucks (4€‚1/2 years old or older) he has killed under real world hunting conditions. I'll bet it isn't many.
Most hunters understand that a buck uses his nose to detect danger, and by them being as odor-free as possible, a buck cannot detect them under most conditions. However, while their lack of consistent success with mature animals may not be related to their scent-control measures -- they may well be experts in this area -- what many hunters fail to consider or understand is how a mature buck uses his scenting ability as he travels about his home range.
A mature buck is always trying to detect danger, every day, 365 days a year. Even during the summer when no hunters are in the woods, a buck uses his nose out of habit to determine where it is safe for him to bed and where he can safely travel. As hunters, we need to learn how to capitalize on those unconscious habits in regard to the scenting abilities that all mature bucks have.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM MATURE BUCKS
The buck I described at the beginning of this article did something that I fully expected to happen. He was following the downwind edge of cover as he searched for does, and he did so while remaining within that cover, thus feeling more secure. I cannot possibly remember all of the times I have seen mature bucks use a crosswind as they followed the downwind side of cover. They do it automatically, and if you think about it, their doing so makes perfect sense. It allows the buck to use his nose to detect danger or other deer that may be hidden from view in the cover upwind. At the same time, he can use his eyes to cover the open fields that are downwind.
An even better situation is one with a quartering crosswind that allows a buck to travel with the wind quartering into his nose. He can then detect a deer or possible danger in the cover before he actually gets up to it. Think about it this way: Even if you are sitting in the middle of this cover totally odor-free in a stand overlooking a lot of good sign, how are you going to kill a buck that isn't using that travel route in daylight hours?
Even if a buck can't smell you, he is still going to try, and this will affect how he travels about his area. Therefore, you've got to consider where and how mature bucks will be traveling as it relates to the current wind directions if you are ever going to be consistent at tagging them. Now do you understand that simply controlling your odor isn't going to cut it?
What this buck did that surprised me (and taught me a great lesson) was jump the fence instead of walking over to the opening a few yards away. He was not willing to give up the wind advantage that he had, even for a few yards! I'm sure you've heard about or read about how deer crossings can be created by tying down the top strands of a barbed wire fence, making it easier for the deer to jump it at that location. I won't say that it will never work, but I promise you that most of the time, a mature buck isn't going to give up the wind to use such a crossing, even if it's the path of least resistance!
LEARNING THROUGH EXPERIENCE
For years, I've been cutting old fences on land I own or where I have permission to do so in order to make deer crossings. It does work like a charm with most deer, and most of the time there is a path beaten down through the opening within a very short period of time. However, I've noted on numerous occasions that mature bucks are not as comfortable using these small fence openings as other deer are. For one thing, mature bucks don't seem to like the tight opening. Over the years, whenever I do try to create such a deer crossing, I've learned that instead of making an opening that is 2 to 3 feet wide, it's better to make one that is 10 to 15 feet wide. By doing this, mature bucks are much more likely to use them.
Let me give you another example of how mature bucks use the wind as they travel. I live in the open farm country of central Illinois, where we have a lot of narrow travel corridors connecting small woodlots and other pieces of cover. It's no secret that deer use these ditches and fencerows as highways as they travel across their range. I have a couple of stands on these kinds of travel routes that I like to hunt at certain times of the year.
However, it took me several years to finally figure out the best wind direction to utilize when hunting these narrow strips of cover. Any wind that is parallel with the cover is going to alert any approaching deer from one direction on the corridor, and any deer traveling from the other direction would be traveling with a tailwind. Since I personally don't want to waste time sitting out on the open prairie waiting for a buck to give up the wind and commit suicide, I've found that the best way to hunt these corridors is by using a crosswind! Over the years, I've been very successful using this strategy.
KNOWLEDGE IN ACTION
Several years ago it became very apparent to me that most bucks, and mature bucks in particular, would be traveling along the downwind side of these strips of cover when using them with a crosswind. This makes perfect sense because these bucks are able to detect anything within the slight cover while using their eyes for the open areas. To hunt such a setup, I simply get as high as possible with my stands, and with any substantial breeze my scent goes right over the top of downwind deer.
In fact, I expect any mature bucks to be on the downwind side with such regularity that I concentrate my attention in that direction no matter what other factors may be present. For example, last season I was hunting a fencerow that had a plowed field on one side and a picked cornfield on the other. Most of us know firsthand how hard it is to walk across a plowed field, yet every buck that I saw from that stand was walking through the plowed field rather than the cornstalks because the plowed ground was downwind of the cover! It's plausible to think that the bucks would have had an easier time walking through the cornstalks than the plowed ground, but they were not willing to give up the wind to do so.
For whitetail fanatics like me, there's a lot more to understanding how a buck uses his nose than trying to be as odor-free as possible and occasionally throwing out a bottled deer potion. All deer use their noses every day, but mature bucks have mastered the process. In fact, it is not even a conscious thought process -- it's an instinctual habit.
Remaining scent-free is a small part of the overall equation. Learning how a mature buck actually uses his nose is an ongoing and difficult process. Certainly it's made more difficult by the fact that it is beyond comprehension
for us humans to envision continually acting and reacting to smells, since we don't have that ability. A mature buck's sense of smell is almost like an additional X-ray vision that he uses without thought just as we use our sight without thought.
I'm sure that we'll never fully understand all the ways a mature buck uses his nose, but I can say with confidence that the more we learn about the subject, the more mature bucks we'll end up seeing in the woods!