Whitetail 101: Whitetail Deers Sense Of Smell

Section #3: Overview Of Whitetail’s Keen Sense Of Smell


How many times have you heard the following story? “Everything was perfect. I was sitting in my stand, and this wide eight was coming down the trail. The wind was in my face, perfectly downwind, and then suddenly he stopped at attention at 50 yards out and took off.”  Maybe you haven’t heard that exact story, but I am willing to bet you have heard or experienced something similar.  The vast majority of deer hunters’ near misses come back to the whitetail deer’s sense of smell. You can beat their eyes but you can’t beat the deer’s nose.

Grunt, Snort-Wheeze, and Rattle this to your buddies!

WHITETAIL 101: WHITETAIL DEERS SENSE OF SMELL, deer nose

In my early days, I was busted by deer more times than I could count.  This was back when I had one tree stand and literally two spots to climb a tree.  I also hunted on the ground a fair amount back then. In any event, I learned the hard way that a deer’s sense of smell is their best asset for survival.  Not only is their sense of smell keen, but their vision and hearing have all evolved together with one goal in mind: survival.

Even though it is so important to a whitetail deer’s survival, there has been very little scientific research done on the how’s and why’s of the deer’s sense of smell. Since there has been little scientific research done, the best we can do is use our experiences and knowledge of biology to understand facts about the deer’s sense of smell. Here is a list of things we know about deer and their sense of smell (or at least think we do):

Things We Know About Deer’s Sense Of Smell (Or At Least Think We Do)

Whitetail deer, as well as many other mammals of the family Cervidae (elk, moose, etc.), are known for having long faces and noses. These long noses must serve a purpose, right? One of the biggest advantages to the deer’s long nose is that it houses up to 297 MILLION olfactory receptors. For comparison, dogs only have 220 million, and humans only have roughly five million. This scientific fact explains why so many hunts have been ruined by the whitetail’s keen sense of smell.  Keeping this fact in mind will make us better hunters, as we learn to respect the whitetail’s strong nose. 

WHITETAIL 101: WHITETAIL DEERS SENSE OF SMELL, deer nose

Deer, like humans and other mammals, learn to react to their environment from conditioned learning. Conditioned learning is something that creatures do subconsciously. At its basic form, it is gathering stimuli we get from our senses and transforming it into thoughts and reactions.

Conditioned behavior has to do with past experiences. A great example of this is imagining a deer. A whitetail deer’s sense of smell identifies fruit and reacts by trying to find it, because it has tasted it before, and no harm came to it. If a deer smells a human, it might have had a bad experience with humans, so it will become alert. Conditioned behavior in all animals, but especially in deer, is one of the things that makes them more difficult to hunt.

Like many animals, deer have several scent glands that are used primarily for communication with other deer. Animals use these glands to give off pheromones and to leave their mark all over their home territory. If you’ve ever been near a whitetail, you have more than likely caught the odor of their tarsal glands. The tarsal gland is the gland on the inside of their back legs. Whitetail deer rely on their scent and sense of smell for communication. At times this can work in the hunter’s favor, if they want to use a gland lure. 

Deer are constantly evaluating the odors in their surroundings. One of the constant forces that drives deer is their appetite. If a deer smells a certain type of food, they will use conditioned behavior to decide whether they trust it. If a hunter is using food lure or bait, this can work in their advantage.

Beyond these facts, and the fact that hunters spend untold resources on covering and containing their scent, we don’t know much else.  The question then becomes, “do we need to understand more than what we do know to become better hunters?”  I think we understand enough of the deer’s sense of smell to help ourselves harvest mature deer, but that is just my opinion.

What Does All This Mean To A Deer Hunter?

We know through the stories of veteran hunters, and our own experience, that evading the whitetail deer’s nose is priority number one in harvesting mature bucks. We can only do that by properly hunting the wind. Below are a few tips and tricks to cut down on our exposure to the powerful nose of the whitetail:

  • Hunt the wind, you can’t beat a whitetail deer’s sense of smell.
  • It is extremely important to minimize your scent footprint when traveling to and from the stand. 
  • Have multiple stand sites to utilize based on the wind.
  • Only use strategic stand sites when the conditions and timing are perfect.
  • Use scent free or scent eliminating detergent when washing your hunting clothes.

Some things about a whitetail deer’s sense of smell we still don’t know. There are still many things we do not know for sure, such as how long your scent footprint stays in an area after you leave. We do know enough to respect the power of the whitetail’s nose. Keep the whitetail deer’s sense of smell at the forefront of our deer hunting strategy this fall. To be consistently successful, we must overcome their acute sense of smell by implementing what we know to work for us.


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