Can Deer Smell? A Hunter’s Biggest Challenge

Christian | |

You see an entire herd of deer pass by the same place every morning on your trail cam. Yet the day you finally hit the tree stand, they’re nowhere to be seen. How do they know? Are they psychic? No, it’s not a sixth sense that whitetails have, but just because it’s one of the standard five doesn’t mean it still doesn’t border on the supernatural. If you want to take down a whitetail deer, you’ll have to beat its nose first. 

Can Deer Smell?

Yes, deer can smell. In fact, they’re great at it. Their long noses are a lot better at picking up the scent particles in the air with a whopping 297 million olfactory receptors while humans have a dinky five million. For reference, dogs have 220 million, so presumably, deer have an even better sense of smell than the animals we employ to sniff out bombs and cadavers buried decades ago.

On top of that, the nose isn’t a whitetail’s only organ for scent detection. They have something called the vomeronasal gland, also known as Jacobson’s organ, located on the roof of the mouth. Often referred to as a “second nose,” this gland picks up important environmental scents like other deer’s urine that immediately trigger hormonal reactions in the deer’s body. 

A closeup of a whiltetail deer nose
The long nose of a whiteail deer is more sensitive than a dogs

What does this all mean? Even if you don’t notice anything, you may be giving off a strong scent that a deer can recognize as human and dangerous. Consequently, it won’t come anywhere near you. 

How Far Can a Deer Smell Your Scent?

As a general rule, a deer can smell a human being from a quarter mile away, or a bit over 400 yards. This is assuming a normal person with good hygiene who hasn’t taken any efforts to mask their scent. 

If you have particularly bad BO or there’s a strong wind carrying towards the animal, it can be much farther, over half a mile. Of course, if you mask your scent, it may be a much shorter distance, or the deer may not be able to smell you at all. 

Will Deer Come Back After They Smell You?

This question depends on many factors and has no definitive answer, but for the deer hunter, it’s best to assume that a deer that’s caught your scent will not return to the area for the rest of the day. When does register a threat, they usually go back to their bedding areas. They won’t return to the area of the threat until at least the next day, approaching with extreme caution when they do. Mature bucks are especially wise and experienced and know that the scent of a human means a likely ambush. 

Most of the time, if a deer smells you, you won’t even know. But if you are lucky—or unlucky—enough to actually see the deer sniff the air, get spooked and run off, the odds of having a successful hunt that day are slim. Additionally, it’s a good idea to use a different spot for the next hunt if you have that option.

Hiding Yourself From the Whitetail Nose

Hunters spend a lot of time hiding themselves from whitetail eyes. Indeed, camouflage might as well be the official color of hunting.

However, all things considered, whitetail deer can’t actually see all that well. While you should of course wear camo and avoid standing out in the woods, it’s much more important to camouflage your scent. There are a few ways to do this.

Scent Elimination

We often don’t realize it because we have bad noses, but humans make a lot of smells. You’re constantly releasing pheromones and oozing liquids like sweat and body oil. Along with having their own scents, these bodily emissions host bacteria and other microorganisms that consume them and then produce even more odors. 

A quick wash down in the shower is usually enough to eliminate these odors for people, but for deer, it takes a little bit more work. Plus, getting rid of your body odor only to replace it with the smell of the coconut vanilla body wash you usually use is only going to make things worse in the tree stand. An artificial scent stands out even more to a deer and is the dead giveaway of a human presence.

To kill your scent, you need hunting-specific odorless soaps, and not just for your body, but your clothes and gear as well. In fact, it’s even a good idea to use scent-eliminating dryer sheets for your hunting gear. 

Unfortunately, though, this isn’t even enough. Imagine you took your bow to the range during the off season. Now it’s covered in oil from your hands, smoke from the range owner’s cigar, the scent of your car’s air freshener, whatever. Luckily, products like carbon scent absorbers can eliminate these scents as well.  

Scent Masking

Even with a rigorous scent-eliminating routine, it’s unlikely that you’ll totally get rid of all your scents, especially since your body is constantly making new ones even while you’re in the tree stand. You also need to mask your scents with a good scent cover.

This involves giving your body and gear some other smell that appears normal and non-threatening to whitetails and stronger than your human odor. For example, my aunt, who taught me to hunt, usually kept her hunting gear in a big plastic tub filled with dirt, leaves and pine needles the week leading up to a hunt. This way, the primary odor she gave off was the same as the woods, the deer’s everyday environment.

Some hunters do the same thing by smoking their gear or making their own cover scents by boiling leaves and twigs and using the leftover water. There are actual products, though, too. From sprays to wafers, these produce strong scents that mask yours.

Scent Luring

Lastly, you can try the scent control strategy of giving the deer a scent they love so much they’ll ignore any dangerous smells and come running. For instance, strategically spreading some doe estrus scent near your tree stand may lure in a buck who cares more about mating than he does being cautious. Other great deer scents include buck urine and the buck tarsal gland odor that they often leave in scrapes.  

It Can Be Beaten

Don’t underestimate the whitetail nose, but don’t let it kill your confidence either. Now that you know the power and importance of scent when it comes to whitetail deer hunting, you can take the proper measures to eliminate and mask your human odor as well as use the deer’s own sense of smell against them. With a well-developed scent strategy, you can have success no matter how many olfactory sensors your opponent has.


I'm an avid hunter, archer and outdoorsman. I was born and raised in the Ozarks, my aunt taught me to hunt and I've been shooting bows since I was a kid.

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