About Cover Scents

By Dr. Ken Nordberg

[The following is the another of many older articles that will appear on my website. This is article was first published in Sportman's Press on May 4 of 1989. Please share what you learn from these articles with your whitetail hunting friends.]

Doc in an early, natural, tree stand.

Doc demonstrating an early, natural, tree stand.

[Back in the 1970's — prior to commercial tree stands — Doc was the first to teach deer hunters how to build and hunt whitetails with natural tree stands. His early publications helped get the fledgling commercial tree stand and scent industries off the ground. He had many articles on how to use — and not use — commercial tree stands and scents while hunting whitetails. Most of the manufacturers of the time sought his endorsement. Only a few received it. Doc's research on how whitetails react to scents, how to hunt whitetails — taking into account scents — and the use of lure and cover scents was a major breakthrough for deer hunters. This research is a core concept in the Modern Era of Whitetail Deer Hunting. If you are not familiar with how Doc influenced the whitetail scent industry, this article will give you a glimpse.]

   Owing to the growing realization that human-related odors make it easy for whitetails to identify and avoid hunters, there has been a virtual explosion of new products intended to solve this problem. Generally, these products fall into two categories: cover scents and those that chemically alter human scents. [Looking back, Doc would rewrite this part of the article to say: "three categories: cover scents, lure scents, and scent reducers or scent blockers.]

   Cover scents are preparations that emit strong (often eye-watering), natural odors, such as apple, acorn, evergreen, fox urine, skunk musk, buck musk and deer urine. They are intended to overwhelm human scents without alarming deer. [Of course, due to Doc's research, it is now known that overwhelming a whitetail's sense of smell is not possible.] Those that alter human scents, such as SCENT SHIELD, reduce or eliminate human odors by making them less or non-volatile. As is typical of just about everything with whitetail hunting, many hunters use these potions in ways that significantly reduce their effectiveness. In fact, some use them in ways that practically guarantee they will see no deer.

   Based on my nine years of testing many of these products on wild whitetails, here are some tips to help you get the most from them.

   First of all, remember two commonly disregarded facts; it's a wonder how any of these products can effectively suppress the odors of average hunters. To make them work, the hunter must first make a conscious effort toward eliminating or minimizing personal odors. Even then, they are not perfect. No scent, I believe (even skunk musk), can completely cover all common, human-related odors.

Doc's hunting clothes hanging on a clothes line outside.

As a result of Doc's scent research — every year — Doc religiously washes his hunting clothes at least 2 weeks before the season, in scentless soap, and then hangs them outside to minimize their odors. Then he stores them in plastic bags, also washed in scentless soap. He never wears his outerwear when food is being cooked in camp, or into a local sportsmen's bar (where it would collect the many unnatural scents — like from cigarettes).

   Take fox urine, for example, I depend on its pungent scent year-round to get closer to deer with my camera. Within my primary study area several years ago, one wild buck I stalked and surprised came to within 30 yards a few times previously, walked freely along a selected trail I had used only an hour before (plenty of fox urine on my rubber boots). Upon moving to within 10 yards of a deliberately hidden, much-handled cloth laced with fox urine, however, it reacted with alarm, quickly leaving the area. During the hour before this happened, three adult does passed the hidden cloth, displaying no more than a brief and mild curiosity. The does had not learned what the buck had learned: Don't trust the odor of fox urine when accompanied by strong human scent.

   After only two seasons of testing, the two oldest bucks and the oldest doe within my primary study area began acting with mild alarm upon discovering fox urine not accompanied by human scent. In all my travels I have not witnessed further evidences of this sort of conditioning. Normally, when a deer responds with alarm, the hunter is at fault in some overlooked way, not the cover scent he's using. Nonetheless, I have heard stories from good hunters that suggest this sort of conditioning is not altogether rare. [Doc receives countless letters from hunters every month.] Because the use of a good cover scent is vital in the most productive of hunting techniques for taking big bucks, I hope this whitetail learning process will not become widespread. [It did — thus, us Nordbergs have completely abandoned the use of cover scents.]

A trophy-class white-tailed buck with his head tilted back, sniffing and looking for elevated hunters in tree stands.

Since the 1970's, mature white-tailed deer have learned to look for, and identify via scent, hunters in elevated stands. They have also learned to associate the use of cover scents with hunting humans. Many of the deer that did not learn about these dangers were harvested by hunters. The smarter deer that learned of these dangers were more likely to have survived, and have passed down the ability to avoid these dangers to our current generation of smarter whitetails.

   Another fact to keep in mind is, the best cover scent cannot work when a deer has you pegged via sight or sound. When you're working close to a deer fooled by your scent, you must use all the stealth (and cover) you can muster.

“To make cover scents work, the hunter must first make an effort toward eliminating personal odors. Even then cover scents are not perfect.”
— Dr. Ken Nordberg

   The reason fox urine (and some other scents) works, I believe, is because it creates a false sense of security. It might be better described as a confidence scent. When a whitetail suddenly smells fox urine accompanied by a modest human scent, the deer characteristically becomes sensitive to the alarm calls and actions of other wildlife. It seems to come to the conclusion a human simply cannot be there (even though its scent somehow got there) because the fox it thinks it smells (and hears) would definitely not be there if a human was in the same vicinity. The fox would be running, not quietly doing what it seems to be doing.

   The ability to create a false sense of security, I believe, is the criterion of an effective cover scent. Fresh cow manure (where cows are common) and coyote, raccoon and even deer urine (without attracting pheromone) are examples of strong, completely-natural odors that can convince a whitetail the airborne human odors it smells must be wayward; a false warning; nothing to worry about.

   Apples, acorns and evergreen boughs lack this effect because they do not warn birds or animals to react to danger.

   Good Luck Hunting,


[Due to further research Doc performed after this article was written, his use of cover scents waned. Cover scents can definitively have a negative impact on hunting success — especially when mature whitetails become conditioned to associate the cover scent with hunting humans. Thus, even though Doc helped launch the scent industry, he has not personally used cover scents now — as of 2014 — for well over 20 years.]

Dr. Ken Nordberg: Good Luck Hunting

Dr. Nordberg has written nine, long popular whitetail hunting instruction books based on more than three decades of scientific, hunting-related studies of wild deer over much of North America. Each covering different subjects, his books introduce several new and much improved hunting tactics, one wolf inspired, developed to make you regularly successful at hunting mature bucks (and other deer) with gun or bow.

Dr. Ken Nordberg's Whitetail Hunter's Almanacs, 3rd Edition Dr. Ken Nordberg's Whitetail Hunter's Almanacs, 4th Edition Dr. Ken Nordberg's Whitetail Hunter's Almanacs, 5th Edition

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