Making Sense of Deer Scents

Whitetail Deer Hunting Tips and Articles


Whitetail Deer Scents and Attractants

The Still Hunter


My home state of Iowa first opened a deer season in the mid- 1950’s, but I never drew a license. In the 1960’s, after college, I moved to Michigan. That first fall, I scouted a local river bottom for a month before the deer season. Deer sign appeared all along the bottom timber, but the timber extended four miles from one road to the next.

Opening morning, I slipped into the timber just before legal shooting time and made my way as quietly as possible along the river. I reached the other road two hours later with-out seeing a deer but feeling rather proud about covering so much territory in only two hours. I didn’t stop to wonder why I failed to see any deer in an area containing so much deer sign. After the entire hunting season passed without seeing even a doe, I did begin to wonder. During the winter and following spring, I read everything on deer hunting and particularly on still-hunting. I lack the patience to sit on a stand all day. All the literature recommended moving slowly through the woods as quietly as possible.

Perhaps walking four miles in two hours was too fast. The next fall I was ready. My rifle was zeroed in and I was in top shape, full of vim, and excited at the prospect of taking my first whitetail. Slow and quiet were my bywords. Opening morning I headed for the same river bottom but this time slowed my pace considerably.

I watched every step and avoided making noise. About halfway through the four miles, two deer tails suddenly flashed about 200 yards ahead but disappeared before I could react. The slowdown seemed to work that year I often saw flashes of white but never fired a shot.

My third year in Michigan, a fork horn fell to my rifle, but at the time I thought it was an accident. I had stopped to rest on a stump when the young buck moved across a small opening 150 yards away. Looking back on the incident, I realized that I would never have seen him without the rest stop. Last year, I walked only 100 yards in just under an hour on opening day but took a beautiful ten- point buck. I learned long ago what still-hunting really means.

Webster defines still-hunting as “to ambush or stalk a quarry; to pursue game noiselessly.” Jack O’Connor gave a more precise definition. To him, a still-hunter is a “hunter who moves quietly through brush and timber, taking great pains to make as little noise as possible... hoping by this means to see a game animal before it is aware of him.” Most nimrods believe the term still-hunting means walking through the woods as quietly as possible hoping to see a deer.

 None of these definitions says anything about standing still. Then why call it still-hunting? A better term for what most deer hunters do would be “move-hunting” or “walk-hunting.” An expert still-hunter stands still much more than he moves, and he glides silently, two or three steps at a time, rather than “walking.” He remembers that he is hunting, not traveling. Watch a clock—you never see the hands move, but they move quite a ways in an hour. You could much better define a still-hunter as one who stand-hunts but moves the stand (himself) every five or ten minutes. The vast majority of so-called still-hunters should really be called common “woods-walkers.”

Still-hunting represents the most difficult white-tailed deer hunting technique, but carried out properly it is the most effective. Still-hunting also represents the most personal technique. You put all your skills against the wariest forest creature. Exactly how fast (or how slow) to move while still-hunting is a tough question. Much depends on the terrain and visibility. I often read that a half-mile in an hour works effectively. This is much too fast unless you hunt very open timber or end-row corn fields, and even then you’ll walk by many deer. I normally take only a step or two, and never more than three steps, at a time. Then, stand still for at least five minutes and eyeball every inch of possible cover. At first glance everything might look the same as it did three steps back; but on careful examination, every angle is different. In fact, three steps lets you look at an entirely different world. .

Don’t be so concerned about the length of time you stand still that you look at your shiny watch. The watch’s glare might spook any nearby deer, and you lose your concentration looking at the watch. You can use a watch on preseason scouting trips, however. Pick out a spot fifty yards ahead and then see how long you take getting there. In an average timber you should take at least fifteen to twenty minutes to reach the spot.

When you first practice still hunting, you won’t believe you move too fast or don’t stand still long enough. But a check of your actual progress with a watch will prove you move too fast or too often. Taking fifteen minutes to move fifty yards seems like an eternity. If you get discouraged, keep in mind that the important thing is not how much ground you cover but how well you cover it. Besides not spooking deer out of range, standing still enables you to see deer before they see you in most cases.

 A buck may even walk by on his way to feed or bed if you standstill, but the same buck would hear or see you if you move. Most common “woods walkers” make their first mistake when they get out of their vehicle. They don’t start deer hunting until they breathlessly reach their chosen hunting spot. Expert still-hunters start hunting and concentrating the minute they leave the vehicle. They often take their trophy within 200 yards of the vehicle. The adaptable white

tail is not necessarily deep in the woods. After slowing yourself down, you must learn to move silently and furtively. Slowing down and standing still also often help you progress silently. Larry Stille is, perhaps, the best still-hunter I know. He moves without seeming to move. “I never think about my next step or even if I’m moving. I concentrate on looking at every possible

thing that could be part of a deer. A twig might be an antler tine. A flicking squirrel’s tail might be a whitetail’s twitching ear. That shiny rock might be a wet nose. Actually, I concentrate on standing still and moving only my eyes,” said Still. The first time we hunted together we combined still-hunting with a mini-drive. We worked through a ten-acre timber and never lost sight of each other. Even though we moved at about the same pace, I never actually saw him move.

“Most people, even if they stand still enough, move their head and hands. They scratch their head, rub their eyes, swing their arms, and without fail, most neophytes move their head all around looking for a deer. Then, when they take the two or three steps, they take measured steps. I sort of glide instead of walk, and I keep head and arm movement to a minimum,” Stille said. When you practice moving slowly during the preseason, keep your hands in your pockets. You’ll find this awkward at first and you’ll be tempted to use your arms to ward off brush, but after a while you learn to avoid the brush or push through it easily. To keep head movement to a minimum, concentrate on every bush, leaf, squirrel, or rabbit, rather than looking in all directions quickly. When you need to turn your head, turn your entire upper body slowly. During the hunting season, keep both hands on your bow or gun. Not only will this decrease arm movement, but you’re more prepared for a shot.

During the preseason, pay attention to birds and small animals. See whether you spook them very far ahead. This not only tests your speed and silence, but birds and animals that spook, in turn spook deer out ahead. I love to hunt during a drizzle or even a light rain. Moisture makes silent movement much easier. Dry conditions or crusted snow require other tactics. When ground cover is dry, nothing, not even deer, can move without making some noise. Every creature in the forest makes noise while moving but they make a “natural noise.” A rustling noise with your feet sounds much more natural than a crisp start and stop noise.

Never move with a rhythmic step. Rather, move erratically, both in direction and time, and shuffle your feet. If you do spook a deer with sound, or if he spots you and doesn’t hear or smell you, stand still and wait. He may circle and come back most deer don’t trust one sense. They must prove what spooked them. Odor is the only sense they believe immediately. By using a deer scent to cover your odor always increases your chance of not be detected.

You must move into the wind or at least with the wind quartering. When you see a deer, never stoop down so he won’t see you. He’ll spot the motion every time. Instead, remain still and wait until he turns his head before you make a move to shoot or move closer. You may have to remain motionless for quite some time. I’ve had unspooked deer stand and stare at me without moving a muscle for fifteen or twenty minutes. It can drive you crazy, but eventually the deer decides you’re a stump or something and he moves on. Your clothing has a profound effect on your ability to move silently. Down-filled, nylon jackets and coats are wonderfully warm but they probably save the lives of more deer each year than all the animal protection organizations combined. Wool coats provide good warmth and make very little noise, even when you brush past a bush or tree-limbs. They may be too heavy to wear all day, however. I have found that a lightweight wool shirt worn on top of a nylon-down jacket weighs less than a wool coat and offers the same silent movement. Denim pants also make too much noise, not only against brush but also by merely rubbing on itself while you walk.

Wool pants offer the same advantage as wool jackets. Jerry Waite, a bow hunting friend, astonishes me every year with the way he sneaks up on whitetails in cornfields. Since he spots the deer first by walking along the end of the rows, he is really stalking the deer, not still-hunting. But any still-hunter could take lessons. Moving through ripe Iowa corn in October must be the noisiest hobby on earth. Somehow, Jerry gets within bow range without spooking the deer. Actually, he usually lets the noise work for him by hunting on windy days. The noise of dry corn stalks in the wind covers most of his own noise, but he still “moves without seeming to move.” When you walk, or even take only a step or two, you can’t hear deer or other animals any better than you can see them. When you stand still, however, you can often hear a deer before you see him. The expert still hunter becomes a part of the woods. Fie knows all the normal sounds. He can concentrate on deer sounds without even hearing these other normal woods noises.

Most neophytes spend too much time watching tracks or the ground ahead. Tracks tell you where a deer has been and may even tell you in what direction he might be now. You want to see deer, however, not tracks, and you won’t see a deer if you keep your eyes on the ground all the time, looking at his tracks or at the ground ahead of you where your next step might be. We received a fresh snow near the end of the bow season last fall, so I decided to forego my usual tree stand and still-hunt through a fairly open timber. If I didn’t find any deer, at least the fresh tracks might tell me where to set up the next day. Late that afternoon, I broke my own still-hunting rules and moved more than three steps at a time quite often in order to cover more ground. I cut a fresh set of deer tracks moving up a ridge and followed them 300 to 400 yards, but didn’t stop often enough or look up often enough. I did look up just in time to watch two does disappear over the hill before I could draw and release. With my normal routine, I would probably have had a shot.

Always look for parts of deer. Normally, if you see the entire deer, it’s moving away at top speed. When you stand still, don’t just glance around at everything in sight. You must examine each and every bush, leaf or whatever. Look for things out of place or look for soft lines in a world of straight lines, that horizontal line might be a deer’s back.


Those saplings under some heavy bush might be deer legs. Look for ears, tails, the white patch under a deer’s neck, or an antler tine. I once looked at a buck’s head and neck ten minutes before realizing it was a deer.

Binoculars are a must for the still hunter. A white-tailed deer hunter doesn’t really need glasses to bring things closer, but they do help you look through brush and trees.

Lightweight glasses do a good job without loading you down all day. You can slip them under your coat and they won’t bang on your chest or get caught in brush. A hunter who walks slowly and stops often makes a whitetail nervous. Even though they hear an approaching hunter, many smart old bucks sit tight and let him pass. As hard as it is to believe, you can walk right by a deer lying ten to fifteen feet away in fairly heavy timber. But if you stop and start erratically and stand still for long periods, the buck will finally give up and make a break rather than wait you out. Your preseason scouting should give you a good indication of the general area to hunt. Then, each day presents different conditions, and you must decide what little area you’ll hunt that day. Remember that if you move slowly enough and stop open enough, you can’t cover much ground, so you must hunt the most productive spots. Try to think like a deer. Where would you be on a given day?

On cold days, deer will most likely lay on a south facing slope or where they can get some sun. Likewise, on a warm day deer want shade.

During a snowstorm, deer hide in the thickest cover possible or under over hanging evergreens. The expert still-hunter possesses patience and discipline. He’s in tune with nature and becomes a part of the woods. He keeps in the shadows and always stops beside a tree or bush to break his outline. He stays away from ridge tops and skylines. Above all, skilled still-hunters believe a deer stands or lies behind each and every bush, tree or rock.

He not only expects it, but he’s ready. He may not see as many deer in a day’s hunt as the common “woods walker,” but he’ll see many more within range.

By Buck Nut Deer Scent

The Fight

The Fight by Scott Bestul. Photograph by Adam Voorhes.

It was the first week of November—the heart of the seeking-and-chasing phase, magic time. So I stood up, bow in hand, as soon as I heard the mincing steps of a deer. The sleek head of a doe emerged, her forehead and eyelashes dusted by snowflakes. She shook her coat clean and looked down her backtrail as I heard heavier, shuffling steps—and spotted the chocolate antlers right under my stand.

The doe was still staring behind me, and when I followed her gaze, I saw three more bucks walking into bow range—a forkhorn, a small 6-point, and a tall-tined 10 with a white rack and a sorrel face. The chocolate-horned buck instantly laid his ears back, bristled, and stiff-legged it toward the 10.

Most fights—man, dog, or deer—start with some preliminary bluster. Not this one. The chocolate-horn lowered his head and crashed into the antlers of his rival so hard it sounded like a 2x4 cracked against a telephone pole. The impact drove the white-racked buck back, his hooves scrabbling over the snow-dusted oak leaves. With a groan, he dug his hind feet in and pushed back.

For nearly 10 minutes, just 20 yards from me, the bucks mashed antlers, pushing with a force that would roll a small car. Twice they stood in a seeming stalemate, their flanks exposed and heaving—and it occurred to me that I could slip an arrow into one of them. But each time, the bodies quickly shifted, and the opportunity vanished. Almost relieved, I let the show unfold.

Physics won the day. Although the white-racked 10 seemed stronger, each time he'd shove, the ­chocolate-horn deer would slide his back legs slightly more uphill until he had the advantage. Finally he drove hard downhill, twisted his head, and flipped the 10-pointer on its side. Once, twice, three times chocolate-horns plunged his tines into the exposed ribs. Miraculously, the white-rack popped to his feet, then whirled to flee. Chocolate stabbed him once more in the hams and chased him out of sight.

The woods fell silent. The doe, the reason for the fight, wriggled nervously into some brush. The two smaller bucks looked briefly at each other, and then followed her up the long, tangled hillside.