You know those ads? “Don’t let them see you sweat.” Well, with whitetails, don’t let them smell you sweat. Or anything else. Because with whitetails, the nose knows.
Hunters have tried dozens of tricks to overcome this deer defense, everything from rolling in dung and setting out skunk cover scents to dusting in baking soda and wrapping in charcoal. These all work to a degree, but there’s one tactic that works flawlessly—stay downwind. If your stink molecules don’t float into the nostrils of a deer, you’re “odor invisible.”
Every deer hunter older than 5 understands this. Not all of them know how to work it. I do. Not because I’m Super Hunter, but because I’m Long Time hunter. I’ve been stalking whitetails for 46 years. And here’s what I’ve learned about working the wind …
Air currents carry and disburse human scent much as they disburse smoke. With no breeze, the smoke spreads out in all directions. On a light, steady breeze it drifts as an ever-widening column, or “scent cone.” The faster the breeze, the narrower the column and the farther it moves downwind before spreading. The smoke is carried up during hot days; on cold days it sinks. In winds of 20 mph or more, scent begins to tatter and confuse deer that detect it. They often hesitate, start to move, stop and start back the other way until they decipher exactly where the stink is coming from.
Play the wind right and your stalks won’t end like this.
PLANNING A STALK
With these images of drifting and blowing smoke in mind, you can stalk deer from not just downwind, but from the sides … and often as close as 20 degrees off the main wind direction. In other words: During a north wind, a buck to the north of you can be stalked from the south, east, west and probably northwest and northeast. But the closer you approach due-north, the greater the risk.
Of course, Old Ma Nature always throws in a few wrenches, and orthography—the lay of the land—is one of them. Hills, canyons, cliffs and the like block, push and funnel wind. A north wind blowing into an east/west ridge will climb up and over, but also flare out the the sides somewhat. In a tight canyon it will follow the twists and turns, sometime enough to double back on itself. Woods and brush will break up a scent cone, deflecting parts of it thither and yon. On the downwind side it will swirl, perhaps climb and maybe drop. Before stalking any deer, consider how terrain and vegetation will change air currents.
Now, for some good news: Modern technology can give you a leg up on wind. HuntStand ScentCone Wind Map not only indicates what the wind is doing now, but what it’ll most likely be doing 72 hours from now. Add temperature and barometric pressure reports to the mix and you’ll know how to plan your hunts, your routes, your whole day. If HuntStand indicates the morning breeze will blow 5 mph from the NW until 10 a.m., then swing around to the SW and blow 15 mph throughout the afternoon, you can start your day at the southeast corner of the alfalfa bottom, then cross it to still-hunt that north/south oak ridge until mid-morning. Once the wind has shifted, drop west off the ridge and still-hunt the brushy bottom running to the west, arriving at the NW corner of that hot bean field for the evening feeding flurry.
Swirling winds at the edge of woods can alert deer from nearly any direction.
KNOW HIS NOSE
Here are a few things to consider when planning to avoid a whitetail’s nose: A whitetail’s sense of smell is 60 times greater than yours, and you know how far downwind you can detect a campfire, right? But also realize that whitetails in settled country are used to smelling humans. Farmers, county road workers, kids playing in backyards, hikers. Distance matters. Deer aren’t going to necessarily freak and run if you’re 300 yards upwind, but they’ll know you’re there.
A 3 mph zephyr leaves time for your scent molecules to drift to either side, creating a wider scent cone the farther it drifts downwind. A 10 mph breeze pushes is farther downstream before it can spread out and so on. At 20 mph and faster, wind can tear and tatter scent so much that deer miss it or are too confused or unsure of themselves to react correctly. They hesitate, sometimes run the wrong direction, catch another whiff of torn scent and turn back the other way. A wind that strong also provides auditory cover. You can get away with more rustling and crunching.
A breeze of less than 3 mph is tough to work with. It doesn’t compromise any deer’s hearing, it spreads out your scent cone, it keeps your stink concentrated, and it’s likely to vary at least a few degrees, sometimes as much as 45 degrees. Your best approach is straight upwind. There is one redeeming quality to such wafting currents: You can outrun them. I sometimes do this when closing for a long rifle shot in open country. If a buck is standing in or about to cross my downwind trail and I’m far enough away that he’s unlikely to hear me run, I’ll drop behind a low ridge or screen of brush and run right at him, straight downwind. My objective is to reach a clear shooting position within effective range (usually 250-400 yards) before my scent reaches the buck. My brisk walking pace is 4 mph, so I can stay well ahead of my own odor in a 2 mph breeze. I’ll usually have enough time to set up and make the shot before the buck “nose” I’m around.