Behind the Scenes at Sam Callora's Doe Urine Deer Lure Operation

Question: What's the difference between your drunk neighbor peeing in your Dutch tulips at two in the morning and a whitetail doe doing the same thing?

Answer: Your neighbor is a pig and should be whipped with a garden hose before he's thrown in jail for committing a lewd act. The doe, on the other hand, is doing you a favor, and if you had any brains you'd be outdoors with a chamber pot catching the flow before it hit the ground.

Sam Collora is an Iowan who had the brains to go outdoors with the chamber pot. Collora, 55, is the owner of Mrs. Doe Pee's Buck Lures, and last March he gave me an insider peek at his operation. Sam, his wife, Judi, and a small band of workers tend to a captive herd of 130 whitetails that he keeps near his home in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. The Colloras do it all: raising and breeding whitetails year-round, then collecting, packaging, and shipping the urine the animals produce.

Collora did not set out to be a pee farmer (does anyone?). In the late 1980s, he was managing a steel fabricating plant and Judi was an RN. When he wasn't working or hunting, Collora indulged his love of all things whitetail by running a part-time taxidermy business. "One year, Judi bought me a pair of deer to use as a reference in my taxidermy work. We enjoyed just having them around, and as a hunter, I was fascinated by the behavior I could watch any time I wanted to."

One fall day, Collora observed an estrous doe urinate, then walk off. As an experiment, he scooped up the damp earth and dumped it into a plastic bag, then stashed the bag in the refrigerator. "I started taking the stuff with me when I'd hunt," Collora says. "I'd sprinkle the wet dirt around my stand. If a big buck came by and smelled it, he'd lock in on that spot, and I killed a few nice ones that way. When my friends found out, they wanted dirt, too. I kept collecting it, and some of my buddies killed big deer. That got me to thinking."

His thinking led to a change in careers, and he is now a leader in one of the odder industries connected with hunting--but one that goes back a surprisingly long way.

THEY LAUGHED, AT FIRST

In 1934 Pete Rickard, a New York woodsman, began bottling a product he called Indian Buck Lure, a liquid designed to tempt bucks into shooting range. Rickard's hunting pals laughed at him, but the veteran hunter probably knew as much about hunters as he did about whitetails. Market a product that'll beat a buck's nose, he must have figured, and deer nuts will line up for it.

He was right, and then some. According to a Cabela's spokesman, this still-expanding market generates multimillion-dollar sales each year: "We devote three pages of our fall catalog to scents and handle even more brands in our stores. It's a very active market, and there are new players all the time. These days you can buy everything from straight urine to blends of scents to a scrape kit with fresh dirt, minerals, and a tarsal gland."

Companies like Mrs. Doe Pee, Rickard's, Code Blue, Hunter's Specialties, Wildlife Research Center, and Tink's are competing for hunters. No one will confirm dollar figures or sales volume, but Mike Gallop, the owner of In-Scents, a midsize scent company, notes, "It's safe to say that the bigger players will sell at least a half-million bottles of scent annually."

Assuming each bottle holds 2 ounces (the range is 1 to 4 ounces), that equals 7,812 gallons from just one maker. Multiply that number by the 59 scent companies that exhibited at the 2006 Archery Trade Association show, and you're looking at 460,908 gallons. Toss in another 100,000 gallons sold by the smaller operations that didn't attend, and each year, America's deer hunters buy enough deer scent to nearly fill a 660,000-gallon Olympic-size swimming pool.

Despite the myriad choices, deer scents typically fall into two categories: cover scents and lures. Cover or masking scents help obscure human odor. Examples include everything from vegetation (hemlock, acorns) to other animals (fox, skunk, raccoon). Lures, on the other hand, are meant to attract whitetails into gun or bow range. These can include food scents, such as apple; curiosity scents, such as buck urine; and sex scents, such as estrous doe urine. There are even synthetic versions that smell like deer pee or other excretions, though they contain no real animal products. Urine, however, is the 800-pound gorilla of the scent industry. Whitetail hunters embrace urine (if that's possible) like no other scent. After all, it smells the most like a real deer. The problem, Collora explains, is that most hunters don't know what deer urine smells like.

LIFE ON THE URINE FARM

"From the beginning," Collora says, "I wanted to offer a product that was as close to nature as possible. I think preservatives kill the pheromones, the good stuff, in urine. Fresh urine works better. When we started, I'd go to shows and guys would come up to the booth, uncap one of our bottles, then take a sniff. Many would say, 'This stuff's no good--doesn't stink enough.' They were used to the dirty diaper smell of urine that's mixed with feces or just plain spoiled. Fresh, wild deer pee doesn't have a nasty odor. In fact, it's virtually sterile when it's eliminated, though it quickly becomes a vehicle for bacterial growth; heat kick-starts the process."

Eliminating the preservatives meant overcoming some logistical hurdles. The product not only had to be bottled and shipped quickly but also refrigerated en route. Dealers and retailers needed coolers to keep the pee fresh. Though the Colloras solved these puzzles, they also wanted an alternative product with a better shelf life.

In 1995, Judi visited a University of Iowa professor who specialized in freeze-drying. When he assured her that the process was tailor-made for urine, Judi and Sam promptly bought an expensive machine that converts fresh pee into a spongy powder. Mix the contents of freeze-dried Mrs. Doe Pee with distilled water, and the result is as potent as the real deal.

As the Colloras discovered, selling deer pee can call for sophisticated marketing and scientific know-how. And deer farming presented its own learning curve. Not surprisingly, maintaining healthy whitetails requires the same veterinary protocols practiced by any livestock farmer. "We've had unavoidable disasters, like EHD [a fatal virus that affects tame and wild deer] outbreaks where we'd lose a dozen animals in a week," Collora says. "We also monitor for bovine TB and CWD, which is expensive for us and tough on the animals. But we're committed to keeping a healthy, disease-free herd, something that's important in this business." Collora also maintains a closed herd--breeding only from his stock or through artificial insemination--to prevent the risk of introducing diseased animals.

How does he actually get the precious liquid? In 1990, Collora designed and built a labyrinth of runways that allows him to efficiently guide bucks and does into holding pens and handling stalls. Does are more social and tolerant, so Collora can fit several in a larger enclosure. Their urine is harvested throughout the fall; as individual does enter estrus, they are singled out for collection. The deer stay overnight, their pee dripping onto a sloped floor and running toward a vat that is refrigerated as soon as it's full.

Bucks, higher-strung and more aggressive, are herded into individual pens for this process starting in late August, after their testosterone levels begin rising. Things can get serious, which is why Collora cuts off their antlers shortly after the velvet is shed. During one such removal, a 3½-yearold buck escaped the handling chute and went crazy, shoving a G-2 tine into Collora's thigh, barely missing his femoral artery. Collora was back at work the next day, limping through his chores but refusing to concede dominance to the animal that had almost killed him.

THE GREAT PEE MYSTERY

Remember that mythical 660,000 gallons of deer scent? If even half of that amount is urine, the logistics of collecting that much of the yellow stuff in a year just don't seem possible. So I called Gary Tank to talk pee production. Tank, a third-generation deer farmer and member of the North American Deer Farmer's Association, has owned as many as 280 whitetails at one time, making his Minnesota ranch among the largest of its kind in the country. He also produces his own line of hunting scents and knows the details of urine collection intimately.

"Where does all that pee come from?" Tank asks. "That's the million-dollar question, and no one's answering it. If you crunch the numbers, especially on so-called estrous urine [which companies advertise as being collected during a doe's heat cycle], everything falls apart."

Tank trickled numbers to me over the phone. "The average doe, assuming she's relaxed and drinking water in her collection stall"--on Tank's farm it's called a Whizzard--"will produce an average of 25 ounces per day. If you collect from her for an entire three-day cycle, you've got 75 ounces. If that doe is bred in her second cycle, she's done. But let's say she goes through even two more cycles. Now you're up to 225 ounces."

And that, Tank contends, is where things get mysterious. There aren't enough captive whitetails in the country to come even close to filling that Olympic swimming pool. "Most guys who farm whitetails are in it for antlers or breeding stock, not urine," Tank says. "Yet when I send out information to scent companies offering to sell them product, no one responds. So where do they get it ? It's all top secret. That's why I say on my brochure, 'If your scent company doesn't own deer, you should be pissed!'"

Mike Gallop basically concurs. "Companies that produce a lot of urine either have to own a lot of deer, or they have to buy it somewhere. There are deer farms that sell urine, and we considered some of them when we started our business. But we weren't sure where a lot of it came from. I guess I'll just say that some people consider anything with four legs and hooves to be a member of the deer family. Our bottle labels say 'whitetail deer urine,' and hunters can be confident that's exactly what's in there."

Of course, if the pee of a cow elk or even an Angus bull pulls a whitetail buck to a mock scrape, no hunter is going to file a truth-in-advertising lawsuit. But with no ingredients label required and no regulatory oversight, even scent proponents stress that hunters need to educate themselves. "We feel the growing market is a good thing," says Ron Bice of Wildlife Research Center. "Sure, there are folks out there trying to make a quick buck. That's just business. But today's hunter is not only much more aware of how to use scents properly--he's also more discriminating. Sticking with proven companies and performers is the best route in my book."

OKAY, BUT DOES IT WORK?

Plenty of hunters will tell you that scents are a waste of money. They should spend some time with Sam Collora. His modest home was already crammed with giant deer heads when, in 1996, he took the highest-grossing typical whitetail ever shot by a bowhunter. As if to prove the world-class buck wasn't a fluke, Collora killed another goliath with his muzzleloader only four years ago. Each year he passes up bucks that would turn the hearts of most of us to jelly. Here's how he does it.

On virtually every hunt, Collora drags a urine-soaked rag behind him as he walks to his stand. "I tie a 2-foot length of string to the ankle of my boot. On the other end is a square of absorbent material that I spray with urine. The important thing is to heat up the scent trail by applying urine every 60 to 80 yards as you walk. Otherwise, a buck that hits the trail will track it toward the strongest scent--which leads back to your truck."

Once Collora reaches his stand, he makes a J-hook upwind and within bow range of his setup. He removes the rag and hangs it on a nearby branch. The looping maneuver steers a buck in for a perfect shot, and the rag diverts the animal's attention, so Collora can draw his bow undetected.

Use them right and scents work. "A few years back, a friend was coming out from Pennsylvania to hunt," Collora says. "He was convinced buck lures didn't work, but we told him about our collection process and he decided to give it a try. On the first afternoon he ran a drag rag soaked with some of our estrous urine and shot the fourth buck that followed that scent trail in. When I hear stories like that, I know why we do what we do."

MAKING SENSE OF SCENTS

Most scents can be sorted into two categories: cover scents and lures. Cover scents are designed to mask human odor with a naturally occurring smell, such as the scent of a tree, plant, or animal. Lures are intended to draw deer into gun or bow range out of hunger, curiosity, or sex appeal. They include food scents such as apple, non-estrous doe urine and--the most sought-after of all--estrous deer urine. No matter what you use, remember that deer can discern multiple odors at the same time, which places a premium on reducing human smells as you deploy these products. For maximum results, stay meticulously clean and wear latex gloves when you handle any scent.

CURIOSITY LURES

These imitate deer odors and are typically gland-based, though they may include non-estrous doe urine, buck urine, or an array of formulas generically called deer lures. Use them during the pre-rut, in particular, to attract deer to stand setups. Apply them to a drag rag, wick, or boot pad, or on a mock scrape near your stand.

VEGETATION COVER SCENTS

Pine, hemlock, cedar, sage, and acorn are just a few of the many cover scents on the market. Match them to local tree or plant types in your hunting area for best results. (For example, use cedar in cedar swamps.) Good for stand or still-hunting, they should be applied directly to clothing or boot soles.

ANIMAL COVER SCENTS

Based on urine, such as that from a raccoon or a fox, these scents are best used for covering the scent left by your boots as you still-hunt or walk to a stand. Apply to boot soles or pads, as needed.

SEX LURES

Estrous doe urine is the primary buck lure, the one that hunters crave. It's best employed at the end of the pre-rut and through the peak rut. Apply it to drag rags, mock scrapes, or scent wicks, all within range of your stand.

FOOD LURES

Designed to appeal to a deer's stomach, these imitate natural deer food smells such as acorn, apple, and corn. (Some double as cover scents.) They are best used when matched to local food types in season. Spray or drip liquids onto a scent wick or clean cloth hung from a branch near your stand; hang scent wafers from branches.

Where does all that pee come from? That's the million-dollar question, and no one's answering it.

For more on Mrs. Doe Pee's lures, call 319-385-3875 or visit mrsdoepee.com.