As serious whitetail hunters, we are always looking for that extra “something” to help us level the man vs. deer playing field. One of the time-honored tools that bumps the needle in our direction is the use of scents—attractors, imitators, and covers. The one that we use depends upon many variables—including the time of year and our hunting strategy for a particular stand or setup—as well as personal brand preferences.
Deciding which scent to use from which manufacturer for this purpose or for that time of year seems complicated enough, and the decision-making is compounded by a factor of two because many scent types are derived from natural deer biomatter (primarily urine) or are wholly synthetic (man-made) in composition. Synthetic scents, especially, give some hunters pause.
“Is synthetic scent as good as naturally derived scent?” is a question we’ve all asked ourselves, as well as, “Do deer know a scent is ‘fake’ and will that make a positive or negative difference when setting up a rub line or mock scrape?”
Weary of trying to answer these annual questions, we decided to stop speculating and set aside our own experiences and undoubtedly subconscious biases to get the real skinny from those who know this territory best. The folks at Wildlife Research Center, who have been knee-deep in the art and science of whitetail behavior, scent research and development for over 35 years, starting with the introduction of the deer hunter’s perennial favorite, Trail’s End #307.
Wildlife Research Center President Sam Burgeson was eager to answer our questions and clear up some myths and misconceptions we had, while at the same time offer time-proven strategies for using both natural and synthetic whitetail scents.
The question every hunter looking at a shelf full of deer lures wants to know is, “Do synthetic scents work as well as natural scents?” Since, as a manufacturer, you have conducted years’ worth of research to develop optimal-performing scents—both natural and synthetic—what does the field data reveal to you?
Burgeson: There are a lot of things to consider here. Many hunters will say, “You can’t beat the real thing.” That is hard to challenge. Natural or typically urine-based scents are very complex. Urine is a biological fluid containing perhaps thousands of chemical compounds. You cannot simply reproduce it synthetically in a lab and expect to get the same thing.
That said, with the right expertise and decades of testing, experimenting, and field testing on deer in the wild, some pretty incredible scents can be created. That is what has allowed us to make synthetic scents that work just as good as “the real thing.” While not the same, we have been able to create synthetic scents that incorporate certain key compounds simulating some of those found in natural lures and other key ingredients that deer just absolutely love. This has helped lay the groundwork for our Scent Reflex® Technology. It works so well, we have incorporated it not just into our synthetic scents such as Estrus Gold, but several of our natural/urine based scents as well, to get even stronger, more consistent responses. The truth is, we are seeing better results than ever before.
In some states, scents that include real deer urine or other bio material are banned due to the fear of spreading chronic wasting disease (CWD). Hunters in those states, obviously, have no choice in whether to use real or synthetic scent—synthetic is all they can use. But, in the states where hunters do have an option, the vast array of choices presented can be overwhelming. Setting aside brand affinities and anecdotal experiences on the part of hunters, how does one go about choosing between a synthetic or natural-based deer scent? In other words, what does the, “If this, then this…” decision-making flow chart look like?
Burgeson: Choosing a scent, natural or synthetic, involves several criteria. You must consider the time of season, location and how you are hunting. Scrape hunting is one of the most effective ways to pattern big bucks. For that, you might choose a scrape scent that simulates scrape activity. Early season or late season you might choose a scent that has other attractive qualities that peak hunger or curiosity instincts. At the peak of the rut, you might want to go with a high-quality, estrus-type scent to really peak their interest. When using scent, you think of it like telling a story, and the more convincing you can make it, the more believable and attractive it will be to the deer you are trying to hunt.
All that said, at the end of the day, you can’t effectively touch/feel what is in the bottle. You do have to have confidence in it and choose a brand you trust.
Is there a time of year when natural-based scent formulas are more desirable than synthetic scents?
Burgeson: Not really. Whether using natural or synthetic, it is more about using the right type of scent for the time and occasion.
From the “hunter-on-the-ground” perspective, what are the key advantages of synthetic scents?
Burgeson: Sometimes, it is good to change it up. Just like when you hit a dry spell on your best fishing lure, sometimes, you just have to pull something else out of the box to get things going again. A good synthetic can do just that, peaking a buck’s interest and giving you an opportunity.
For us at least, many of our synthetic scents continue to attract longer after putting them out, than do traditional natural lures. Adding our Scent Reflex technology to some of our natural lures, however, has leveled the playing field on that.
What is the key advantage of natural-based scents?
Burgeson: Natural or urine-based scents contain numerous complex biological compounds that cannot be duplicated in a synthetic product. Deer have powerful noses and can isolate and breakdown individual smells in a complex scent. It’s not very easy to fool their nose. From that perspective, it really is hard to beat the real thing. Only well-developed, well-tested synthetic scents can stand up to the challenge.
Assuming a hunter in a state where natural deer lures are permitted, what would be an ideal natural/synthetic lure strategy to employ from the opening of archery season through the rut?
Burgeson: Natural or synthetic doesn’t matter as much as using the right scent for the time of season and situation. Curiosity and hunger-type scents work great, especially early season and late season. Territorial-type scents work great leading up to the rut and during the rut. Estrus-type scents also work great during and leading up to the rut. It’s fun to experiment and try different things. If things slow down, don’t be afraid to switch it up and try something new to get them excited again.
Nothing is more rewarding than setting up that convincing scent scenario and having a buck get totally convinced and go right into it. It takes practice and some careful thought. Like a lot of things, the more careful you are and the more thought you put into it, the better you can do.
So, what is our takeaway regarding the natural vs. synthetic whitetail scent conundrum? Thankfully, the choice is simple. This is not an either/or decision. Rather, natural and synthetic scents both can work, and work well, assuming you are using high-quality products derived from solid research, premium manufacturing control, and backed by intensive field testing.
Naturally, though, we can’t leave it all up to the scent manufacturers. Only experimentation on our part, trying different lure types in different scenarios at different times of the year and maintaining a performance log of the scents used, will reveal what works best and when for the big bucks haunting our individual hunting territories.
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