Deer Sense The 3 S’s of Understanding Deer: How they use Sight, Sound & Scent

As you develop your understanding of whitetail deer you will become a more successful hunter. I will address three aspects of how they use their senses in this article which will give you insight and wisdom which can be incorporated into your hunting strategy. This knowledge is something that I have gained by my personal observations and experiences as a hunter. I do not claim to be a biologist but I have used what I have learned and been successful because of it.

The first sense I will discuss is Sound:

1 Deer call to each other as a form of quick location in dense cover or semi open areas. In cover sound will not travel as easily, so they sometimes call more frequently as they move through more dense woodlands seeking out a mate. In more open areas sound travels farther and they will stay in the area for a time, waiting to see if a deer will come to their call.

2 Deer have a very accurate sense of hearing and can pinpoint exactly where the sound is coming from. Because of this I have had to change my tactics when doing calls and rattling from the ground. Now when I do this, I actually move away from the area that I have called & rattled from, by at least 10 yards so that when the deer comes in I do not have a pair of eye balls staring straight at me within less than 3 yards, as has happened to me on three occasions. An eager mate will waste no time in getting there. But wait at least 15 minutes between callings because some deer will quietly show up and you will not know they are there. Others are more vocal and will call back to you to let you know they are coming in, which is what normally happens for me.

3 A cautious mature buck sometimes will call back to a doe but may stay put and partially hidden, in the expectation of having the doe come to him. On one occasion when I was hunting I had used only a calm buck grunt. It resulted in bringing in a mature doe in estrus toward me at a dead run, with her tail out straight behind her. She was coming into the buck (so she thought.) She slowed down to a strut as she came closer, looking in my direction. She had come in within 50 yards when a smaller doe showed up on the scene for the same reason. The more mature doe then became irritated with the other one and began fighting her. She bit her and kicked her with her front hooves. The mature doe was there first and wanted to run the other one off because she had first rights with her prospective buck. So this also proves that does will fight each other for dominance and breeding rights.

4 When using game calls, many times an immature buck will come in first. A more mature buck will stay back waiting for the younger buck to flush out or identify the doe's location and then he will come in and take over. But a mature buck will often not come all the way into a call if all the pieces of the puzzle are not there. They want the smell of a doe in estrus and the sight of a doe besides just hearing a doe bleat. You can try using a fake doe decoy by pinning a white men’s handkerchief dipped in doe estrus urine to the back. But be sure to face the doe decoy toward you with the rear away from you. When a buck comes in he will come in from behind the doe to get her scent first. I will not give my opinion on how reliable this is other than to say it works for some and not for others.

5 Using a sequence of calls and rattling will frequently bring results in hunting success. I use a variety of calls, based on the time of year.

  • In early season (October) I will use a fawn bleat.
  • In pre-rut I will sometimes use a buck grunt only and sometimes a doe bleat only. At this time I will also imitate a doe and buck together followed by a fight scene. (An example would be to start with a doe bleat, wait 5 minutes, followed by a soft buck grunt. Then wait a few minutes and use a different buck grunt pointed in a different direction but with a deeper tone. Then I go back to the first soft buck’s grunt call followed by a rattling display. Then use the deeper buck grunt in a “snort wheeze” tone, again followed by a doe bleat.)
  • During peak of the rut I will primarily use doe bleats and various types of grunt calls.

Second, let’s address Sight:

6 Deer must be able to find each other easily and quickly since a doe is in estrus only 24 hours. So does will move toward a staging area where they can be more easily seen by other deer. These areas are normally secluded from main roads and areas easily seen from fields. Once a doe is spotted by a buck, the male uses their sense of smell to verify their interest which I will discuss later.

7 You can use a live doe as your decoy to fool a buck to come in. I have done this successfully on several occasions. When a doe comes into your area begin to use your doe bleat. It may even get her to come closer out of curiosity but it will likely not alarm her. If a buck is in the area he will come in to check her out, at first assuming that she is interested. On one occasion when I was using this set up I had used just a doe bleat because I had a doe and her yearling fawn within 30 yards of my tree stand that I was in. A nice buck came in and chased her around in circles until she finally had enough and stopped and urinated on the ground to prove to him that she was not in estrus. Confused, he left after scanning the area more. However, during all of this, one area of the tree’s canopy underneath me prevented me from making a 10 yard shot at either the doe or buck. And I knew once he discovered she was not interested there would be no more tricks I could pull from my sleeve to get him to return for a second try.

8 Mature bucks prefer to bed closer to does as rut arrives so they are the first to detect a doe in estrus. He is then able to remain nocturnal using this strategy because he does not have to go far to find the does. These dominant bucks often times will select a mature doe before rut begins, single her out, follow her and bed near her until she comes into estrus. They will usually stay together for two days before depart their separate ways. During this time they go deep into the dense inner core areas of the woodlands that provide a combination of underbrush for concealment and densely wooded trees for security. It is known by the lesser bucks that the dominant buck’s domain is the core area. These areas are typically areas that hunters avoid as well, as they are not easily accessible.

Finally, I want to make several points about Scent:

9 In the fall and winter, the wind normally is coming in from the North or North West. Does that want to be scented will often travel in form the north so their scent can be detected. Bucks will often travel in from the south and south east so they can stay down wind and be the first to smell what is in front of them. Use this knowledge to determine your set up location, especially in the morning when mature nocturnal bucks may still be wandering during peak of the rut.

10 In lower valleys the air can swirl in a circular motion making it difficult to cover scent of any kind. These areas can be risky but very productive because they normally will become staging areas. This would be a location where bucks and does would seek out each other and bucks can be found fighting to steal a doe or for the right to be the dominant buck in that neck of the woods.

11 Dominant bucks will normally stay within their home range to breed with local does before striking out into other parts. Primarily dominant bucks become successful “transient bucks” because they know they are the only ones big enough and bad enough to have a chance to take on another equal. Smaller bucks typically have to be more cautious because if they get in the way of a buck bigger they can suffer severe injuries for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

12 Since air current is used by both does and bucks to find each other, it is important to study elevations. In the mid-mornings, once it has started to warm up, the thermal air currents begin to rise as it does so. Deer will likely travel primarily onto ridges and hill top locations at that time for the advantage of scenting anything coming up toward them. Then toward evening as it cools down the air currents will go down into the lower elevations such as valleys, ravines and creek beds. So it’s best to be in lower areas at that time, since that is where the deer will prefer to be.

13 Does smell scrapes to identify if active bucks are in the area. Their scent is unique to each animal and they are familiar with each other. They use scrapes to help locate each other. A lone doe will begin to call as she goes through the area, traveling from scrape to scrape to see if there is a buck near the scrape. Bucks do the same, hoping to come upon an interested doe.

Now that you have an understanding of the 3 S’s I hope you can add a fourth S to that for “Success.” (Sx3 = S squared.) This information is part of the information I cover in the “Whitetail Deer Hunting” seminars that I conduct. I hope you find it helpful.

Synthia Wilson