The sun had set and the woods were growing rapidly darker when I heard approaching footsteps. I expected the deer to hang up inside the wood line and wait until full darkness before stepping out into the open, because that’s what they always do … almost always.

Not only did this one not stop, it walked steadily out into the open, from directly downwind, and straight to the base of my tree stand before I could react. There it stood a mere 6 feet away, and safely obscured by branches, close enough that I could hear it sniffing the air. It could have been mere coincidence, but I suspect it had something to do with the bottle of doe pee that spilled in my hunting vest pocket earlier that afternoon.

Deer season is here and with it come all kinds of questions from novice hunters about ways to outwit wary whitetails, especially when it comes to using scents. “Do scents really work? What should I use? Is it possible to use too much? Is it too early to put out estrus scents? I have a half bottle of scent from a couple years ago; is it still good?” There are no hard and fast rules but there are some general guidelines on the use of common scents, most of which involve a liberal dose of common sense.

Let’s start with whether or not they actually work at attracting deer. Sometimes. With scents, as with calling deer, reactions can vary from alarm or complete indifference to definite interest. Much depends on the quality of the product, especially its freshness. Don’t be a cheapskate. Get the good stuff and start each season with a fresh bottle.

The most common attractants are urine-based scents, with enticing names like Rutting Buck and Doe N Estrus. Some hunters are very particular about what they use and when they use it, applying neutral buck scents early in the season and holding off on the so-called estrus scents until closer to the rut. Some might even warn you not to use estrus scents too far outside the rut. There’s no harm in being meticulous about which scents you use but it may not be as critical as some would have you believe.

The pheromones secreted when a doe is in estrus are extremely volatile and evaporate very rapidly when exposed to air. Even if the scent company’s claims that they only collect urine from does that are in peak estrus are true, by the time they gather samples and bottle them, those pheromones are gone and you’re left with basic doe pee.

We really don’t know how much deer can discern from scents, but given their complex sense of smell it’s quite likely a lot. They can probably identify individuals from the same neighborhood, and distinguish sex and possibly other things like breeding condition and their place in the dominance hierarchy. The real question is: Does it matter? Again, probably not as much as you might think.

While we’re trying to attract deer by offering a challenge in the form of buck urine, or an enticement with doe pee, the biggest attraction is more likely simple curiosity. A deer gets a whiff of urine from downwind and comes in for a closer inspection. That’s why so-called curiosity scents containing anise or vanilla sometimes work too. And sometimes they don’t.

There are various methods for using scents. Walking to your stand, you might drag a scent-soaked wick or rag along behind you, or better yet, off to one side so the deer aren’t also smelling your boot tracks. Once there, you can hang a scent wick, usually a felt pad, on a nearby branch.

A very popular and effective technique involves making a mock scrape by hanging a scent dripper that slowly releases scent over an extended period. The key is to have an overhanging branch about 4-5 feet off the ground. In a classic research study by John Ozoga, he was able to entice bucks into making scrapes merely by erecting overhanging branches over heavily used trails.

There is another part to the common sense aspect worth mentioning. With recent proliferation of chronic wasting disease, some states have banned the use of urine-based scents and many discourage the practice. Research has shown the likelihood of transmitting chronic wasting disease through urine is extremely low, but it is a possibility. If you’re concerned, you can choose not to use, or you can use synthetic scents.

It’s also worth mentioning the Responsible Hunting Scent Association’s Deer Protection Program. All deer urine collection facilities participating in the program must be in compliance with USDA standards as well as more rigorous Deer Protection Program standards including continual chronic wasting disease monitoring and more frequent facility and herd inspections. All packaging will contain a seal indicating participation in the Deer Protection Program.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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