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Understand How Whitetail Deer See, Hear, and Smell to Improve Your Chances This Hunting Season

Human hunters have no chance of competing with deer on a sensory level. But that doesn't mean we can't put antlers on the wall. By understanding how whitetails see, hear, and smell, we can tailor our hunting tactics to take advantage of the chinks in their biological armor.

EYES

Biological Advantage: With more rods than cones in their eyes, deer are more attuned to movement than color, although research at the University of Georgia indicates that they can detect greens, blues, and yellows. Sideset, protruding eyes give them about 310-degree peripheral vision, at the cost of some depth perception. A large opening of the pupil, together with a reflecting membrane at the back of the retina called a tapetum, helps deer see much better than humans in low light.

Achilles' Heel: Whitetails have a difficult time spotting you if you are motionless, and you can sometimes stalk directly toward a deer without spooking it. Plus, their attention span rivals that of your teenage son. If a deer perceives movement but doesn't bolt, chances are it will forget the cause of its alarm in three minutes. Freeze and you may get a second chance. Feeding animals glance up at 15- to 20-second intervals—count to 10 as you're approaching one, then stop to avoid detection.

EARS

Biological Advantage: With 2 square feet of sensitive funnel-shaped surface area inside its ears, a whitetail deer can interpret faint sounds that are undetectable to humans, although a recent study at Texas A&M University suggests that deer do not hear at frequencies as high as previously thought. Complex muscles enable a whitetail's ears to revolve in radarlike fashion without any movement of the head. That allows deer to place the direction and distance of sounds with pinpoint accuracy.

Achilles' Heel: In the absence of snow or wet leaves to silence footfalls, it's impossible to approach a deer without its hearing you. But you can disguise your identity in noisy conditions by changing pace, tickling rattling antlers, or using a grunt call. Sometimes, it's better to walk steadily rather than give away your intent with a slow stalk. Always pay attention to the deer's ears. A doe that occasionally cocks one ear backward may be accompanied by a fawn or, during the rut, a buck. Get your rifle ready.

NOSE

Biological Advantage: Odor particles are detected via a labyrinthine lining of mucous membranes and nerve endings inside the nostrils, and this information is transferred to the olfactory lobe of the brain for interpretation. A second "nose," called a vomeronasal organ, has its opening in the roof of the mouth and seems to be used to assess odors related to reproduction. Sound complex? It is, so much so that deer can analyze several odors simultaneously and under ideal conditions may be able to detect human scent from as much as half a mile away.

Achilles' Heel: No matter how sensitive their noses, whitetails won't detect your scent if you place stands downwind and still-hunt across wind (deer often bed facing downwind, so that they can easily spot a hunter stalking upwind). Soaps, sprays, and charcoal-activated clothing can't hurt, but they are no substitute for careful hunting.

You can also use a deer's nose to your advantage: When you're rattling antlers, drag a tarsal gland saturated with doe-in-heat scent from your position at right angles to the breeze to keep bucks from circling down-wind. Also, deer seldom react to human scent unless the source is within 50 to 100 yards, and this can save your hunt if you are carrying a rifle. Don't let wind direction pull you off a fresh track, for example. You may be able to get into gun range—and put venison in your freezer—even if the trail takes you straight downwind.

ON ALERT: A buck's defenses are strong but not impenetrable.

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