Outdoor Articles

Whitetails: Using the Right Scent

by Pursue The Outdoors on June 25th, 2005 in Big Game Hunting

Deer lures (scents) have become one of the most popular methods of attracting white-tailed deer. But what can you expect and how do you use them?

I’d been waiting in the predawn darkness for about an hour when I saw the buck walking down the rub route. As I watched, the buck stopped to test the wind, and continued down the faint trail. When the buck reached the spot where I had begun leaving drops of interdigital scent on the forest floor it lowered its nose to the ground. Then it followed my drip line of scent to the overhanging limb where I’d placed forehead several drops of scent. I’d also poured a half ounce of Active Scrape, a combination of buck in rut and doe in heat lure into the scrape, and then poured the remainder of the lure into a dripper, which I hung over the scrape. The buck kept following the drip line, then stopped to smell the Golden Estrous doe in heat lure I’d poured on the ground five yards from the scrape. The buck raised its head and curled its lip, then walked to the scrape, where it began to rub its head on the overhanging branch.

For hunters, deer lures (scents) have become one of the most popular methods of attracting white-tailed deer. Manufacturers have responded to the demand for deer lures by producing urine based scents, pheromone based scents, food scents, curiosity scents and blocking scents. While food, curiosity and blocking scents can be used throughout the rut, urine and pheromone based scents may be more effective during particular phases of the rut.


The scents associated with the pheromones produced by deer glands are used to relay information to another deer. The interdigital glands between the deer’s hooves produce a scent that allows deer to track each other. This scent is present all year long and can be used to lay down a drip or drag line to attract a deer to a specific location.


The tarsal glands appear as a tuft of erect hairs on the inside of the back leg. The scent produced by these glands is so specific that it is believed that other deer can determine the age and sex of the deer leaving the scent. The strong smell of these glands is caused by the deposit of urine on the glands when the deer rub-urinates on itself. The pheromone from this gland is the primary recognition scent of whitetails, is present all year long, and can be used all year long in a real or mock scrape. It can also be used to lay down a drip or drag line to attract deer to a specific location.

Strictly speaking, the metatarsal glands, which are light tan colored circles of hair about 1 2/3 inches in length located on the outside of the back leg are not true glands, they have no duct or opening. It has been suggested that black-tailed deer open these glands when alarmed to express danger; these glands are not totally understood in whitetails, but I have seen the metatarsals flared when two whitetail bucks fight. If these glands are used to express danger they are probably used all year long. Because this scent may be associated with danger it should not be used to attract deer. In areas where there are several different trails, you can cause the deer to use specific trails by placing metatarsal scent on the trails you don’t want them to use.

The forehead glands are located between the top of the eyes and the antlers, and are most active during the rut. The activity of these glands has been positively correlated with age and probable social status; they are most active in older, dominant bucks. The glands produce an oily substance making the hair appear dark. The oil is transferred to rubbed trees and the overhanging branch at scrapes when the head of the buck comes in contact with the tree; and is used by dominant bucks to advertise their presence to both sexes. The scent from the forehead glands may also serve as a priming pheromone to bring does into estrus, and to synchronize the timing of the rut between bucks and does. Since this scent is most evident when bucks rub and scrape it should be used during the rubbing and scraping phases of the rut. Because this scent is associated with dominance it may work best to attract dominants, and it may scare off smaller bucks.

The pre-orbital glands are located in front of the eyes. These glands are under muscular control and may be opened by rutting bucks to signal aggressive behavior. Females open this gland when tending fawns. It was previously thought these glands were rubbed on the overhanging branch at scrapes, but deer researchers are no longer sure if that is true. The salivary glands are located inside the mouth. These glands produce saliva, which contains enzymes to help in digestion. The enzymes in the saliva may contribute to the scent left on the overhanging branch at scrapes and rubbed trees when a deer licks or chews the branch or tree. The nasal glands are two almond shaped glands located inside the nostrils, and they are probably used to lubricate the deer’s nose. Scent from the nasal glands may also be left on overhanging branches at scrapes. Scents from these last three types of glands are not readily available on the market, and they may have no useful purpose as a deer attractant.


Urine is present all year long and the presence of non estrous-urine and non-testosterone urine in an area signifies that deer are using the area, which implies that the area is safe. Urine without hormones can be used all year to attract any age and sex of deer.


It has been shown that a buck’s testosterone level rises in the fall, and that dominant bucks have higher testosterone levels than subdominant bucks. Researchers have suggested that does can smell testosterone and protein levels in a buck’s urine, and are able to determine the health of the buck by the smell; which allows the does to choose a healthy dominant buck to breed with. If this is true, urine from a healthy dominant buck should attract does, which may in turn attract bucks.

Prior to the rut bucks often travel in bachelor groups and groom each other’s head/neck region. As a result of this the bucks learn to know the smell of each other by their forehead, tarsal, metatarsal and interdigital scents. Throughout the year older bucks exert dominance over subdominants by threats; kicking with the foreleg and attacking with the antlers. When bucks begin sparring in the fall each buck knows which of the other bucks are dominant and stronger. They also know which buck used a rub, overhanging branch and scrape by the smell left behind. This eliminates much of the fighting between bucks that might otherwise occur.

Since testosterone levels rise when the bucks begin to shed their velvet and make rubs and scrapes, and remains high as long as does remain in estrous, urine with testosterone can be used throughout the rut. A buck in rut is curious about which other bucks are in its area, and may be compelled to check out any new buck scent in the area. However, because high levels of testosterone are associated with dominance, buck in rut urine may attract dominant bucks, but it may scare off subdominants.


Once the does come into heat they produce vaginal secretions (including estrogen) that the bucks are able to smell. These vaginal secretions may be detected on the doe, or in the urine the doe passes and leaves behind. Some researchers believe that bucks may come into breeding readiness when they perform the flehmen sniff and detect estrogen from a doe; and that this detection may ensure that both the bucks and does are ready to breed at the same time. This suggests that bucks may respond to estrous secretions or estrous urine as long as their testosterone levels are high, which may be as early as late August or early September, until after most of the does have been bred.

One of the problems hunters have is determining which scent or scents to use during the different rut phases. To determine how bucks responded to different attractants a group of researchers used several different substances; urine before a doe was in estrous, urine while a doe was in estrous, urine after a doe was in estrous, buck urine, a commercial deer lure and saline solution. The researchers found that peak responses to the lures occurred in mid-November, when peak rutting activity occurred.

They also found that a high proportion of the responses to all the substances occurred during the first part of the study. It was believed that lower responses later on in the study were a result of the deer becoming accustomed to the substances. This suggests that hunters can expect the best responses the first few times they use scents. It also suggests that if scents are left out for a long period of time, the deer may not respond, because they get used to the scents.

Interestingly, throughout the study, from 8 weeks before peak breeding to 10 weeks after, the researchers felt that adult bucks (as opposed to does and younger bucks) were more interested in and responded best to buck urine. On two different study sites both buck urine and doe estrous urine received the highest responses 3 to 4 weeks prior to peak rut activity. This suggests that both buck urine and doe-in-estrous urine may attract older bucks during the 2-3 weeks prior to peak breeding; about the time the bucks begin regularly making and using scrapes.

In another study the researchers used two does, one treated with one of four different substances:

  • estrous urine,
  • midcycle estrous urine,
  • estrous vaginal secretions
  • mid-cycle vaginal secretions

The other doe had been sterilized and was not treated with any substance. The vaginal secretions were collected by wiping the vagina of the doe with a tampon, and the researchers were careful not to contaminate the tampon with urine. A buck was then introduced to the two does, and its number of approaches and time spent with each doe was noted. There were no significant differences in the buck’s responses when estrous urine, mid-cycle urine and mid-cycle vaginal secretion were used. But, when estrous vaginal secretions were tested, the buck approached the treated doe more often, and spent more time near the treated doe. This suggests that the best substance for a lure is the vaginal secretion collected from a doe in estrous. But, since this is hard to collect, the next best alternative for hunters is to use doe-in-heat urine.

During my own studies over the last seven years I found that bucks responded well to commercial deer lures during the first few days that I used them, and that they responded less the longer the scents were left out. I also found that older bucks responded best to buck-in-rut lures during what I refer to as the scraping phase, the 2-3 weeks prior to peak breeding. In many northern states the scraping phase occurs during the last two weeks of October and the first week of November.

I found that older bucks responded well to doe estrous lures from the time the bucks shed velvet in early September through December. But, they responded best to doe estrous lures during the week before peak breeding. Peak breeding occurs during the second week of November in most northern and mid-state areas, so I use doe estrous lures during the first week of November. I believe that commercial doe estrous lures are less effective during peak breeding because many of the does are in estrous; it’s hard to compete with the real thing. But, since bucks are searching for estrous does, estrous urine is probably the best attractant you can use during peak breeding.

I’ve also found that the liberal use of doe urine in an area may cause the area to be used more often. I believe the reason for this is that all the deer are curious about which other deer are using the area, and they come in to investigate. This in turn attracts more deer to the area, including bucks, and the area becomes productive as a hunting site. You should be careful not to over use urine however. In some cases highly used areas may turn into bedding sites, and if you have placed a stand in the area you can’t get to it without spooking the deer.

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