smoking while deer hunting
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Hunting Myth Buster: Does Smoking While Deer Hunting Really Matter?

Any avid whitetail hunter knows that one of the only ways to harvest these wonderful, yet overly cautious animals is by fooling their nose. It's true, a whitetail's greatest defense is their sense of smell and they will rely on it almost entirely to keep them out of danger and away from predators. If you don't believe me, just take a look at the millions of different scent elimination products on the market today, and the amount of money each hunter spends annually trying to rid themselves of all human odors before entering the woods.

This is a widely accepted fact amongst all deer hunters, yet so many avid outdoorsmen enjoy the occasional cigarette while trying to bag a buck. Wouldn't this seem all too counterproductive? I mean, I can smell the pungent odor of a cigarette 100 yards away. So wouldn't a whitetail deer—who has nearly 4,500 times the acute sense of smell that I do—surely be able to smell it before getting anywhere near a hunter's setup?

However, countless stories circulate the hunting community of people harvesting world-class whitetails and claim they were smoking either just before, or even at the time of the shot. To bring a personal example into the argument, my grandfather, a lover of whitetail hunting whose trophy wall is nothing short of impressive, claims he has never shot a buck without a "cancer stick" in his mouth, as he so eloquently puts it.

So the question remains... Are deer truly unfazed—possibly even oblivious—to the smell of cigarette smoke? Or is this simply just one of those old, urban, hunting legends? Let's take a look.

Association with danger

smoking while deer hunting

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Deer associate certain smells with a certain level of danger. For example, a whitetail deer would evidently be able to smell a skunk several hundred yards off, but the deer knows there is no threat there. On the contrary, a whitetail that gets even the slightest whiff of a coyote, regardless of how far off, is going to avoid that area like the plague.

The truth is, a younger deer likely won't associate cigarette smoke with danger. Even a mature deer who has been conditioned to this scent for years without any threats. This can be often seen with urban deer populations, where hunting isn't common or even allowed. They are much more lenient with foreign smells such as cigarettes, gasoline, or even humans in general.

Specific deer

smoking while deer hunting

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A few years ago I was hunting a specific mature buck. He was at least 5.5 years old with a rack that any avid hunter would daydream about. I felt I knew exactly how he was traveling, and I decided to set up on the downwind side. The day I harvested him, he followed my exact entry route in, coming in downwind of my stand, and fed there for about 15 minutes, before I ended up taking the shot.

I couldn't believe it. It was as if everything I had learned about deer and their incredible sense of smell mixed with extreme caution was all a lie, proven at that very moment. Of course there are countless other examples of taking every scent precaution you can think of, and having a doe still catch your scent and stop at you for 10 minutes.

Just like any other animal, deer have specific personalities, and have been exposed to different things in their lives which have led to the development of that personality. Some deer will flag their tail and bolt at the first hint of cigarette smoke. Some will be almost drawn to come in out of pure curiosity. And the truth is, we may never know exactly why.

Wind trumps cigarettes

While a whitetail's sense of smell is quite impressive, it is almost rendered completely useless without the aid of the wind. Whitetail deer, and especially mature whitetails, will travel, bed, feed, and perform essentially any other daily activity in calculated fashion based on the wind. This is their main line of defense and they won't abandon it unless in the most extreme circumstances, such as trailing a hot doe during the rut.

The amount of extremes that I have been able to get away with because the wind was in my favor is astonishing. Thus, if you could locate a popular travel corridor in between food and bedding, set up several yards downwind, torching up your Marlboro Red likely won't alert any passing deer. Just hope the deer don't surprise you on the downwind side.

Light up in the Stand? Or wait until camp?

smoking while deer hunting

Getty: Federherz

Your decision on whether or not to have a smoke in the deer stand is something that will likely come down to your experiences and risk tolerance. If you found 50 hunters who were against it, it wouldn't be tough to find another 50 who swear by it.

The fact of the matter is, whitetail deer have an incredible sense of smell, and often become anxious to any unfamiliar odor. However, factors such as wind direction, time of the year, and herd population, play a much bigger role in your success than cigarettes ever will. Still, I would advise any whitetail hunter to mitigate any possible risk, and opt for a celebratory smoke after the harvest. My love for deer hunting trumps any desire for tobacco, so I'm leaving the Marlboros at camp. What about you?