I was the only hunter who didn’t know where we were going, so I took my place at the back of the line and followed the three Iowans down the steep embankment, across a drainage ditch and up the other side. Two of the hunters had scouted and set stands months ago, so all I had to do was keep up with the hastened pace the group had set. Thank God for my GPS, I thought to myself. At least I could get out to the main road if they leave me for dead.
After 30 minutes of hiking, we arrived at an old, gnarled tamarack holding a treestand 20 feet up. For the next 12 hours, it would be home for the guy we all called Crash. Dawn was still an hour away, so we had plenty of time to catch our breath and get to our stands.
While I was checking my gear, I heard the unmistakable sound of a zipper opening, and then liquid splattering on the ground. I turned around and saw Crash standing 20 yards away, peeing into a fresh scrape made by an unknown deer.
“Crash always does that,” said another hunter. “He thinks it’ll bring a buck to him.”
“We’ll see,” I replied.
All of us know at least one unconventional hunter who goes against the grain when it comes to hunting strategies. In our tightly knit group, Crash was that guy. Later that night over a sizzling plate of venison tenderloins (courtesy of yours truly), Crash swore on his mother’s grave that his own urine had put two Booners on his wall. The room erupted in laughter — all except Crash, that is. He was dead serious.
Other hunters are against the practice of peeing in scrapes — or anywhere near where they hunt.
“I just don’t feel right about urinating on the ground when I’m hunting,” said my friend Tom Nelson, host of American Archer. “I don’t want to do anything that may alert deer that they’re being hunted.”
Like many other hunters, Nelson carries in his pack a pee bottle. He faithfully uses it whenever nature calls.
Let’s look at this long-standing debate. We’ll cover the similarities and differences between deer and human urine; whether whitetails can associate human urine with humans; what biologists have to say on the topic; and where some big-time hunters stand on whether human urine can make or break a successful deer hunt.
The ABCs of Pee
Regardless of whether you’re talking about deer or people, in healthy individuals, all urine is made up of more than 95 percent water. Human and deer urine both also contain things like ammonia, urea, sodium chloride, potassium and creatinine, along with other inorganic and organic compounds.
You can tell a lot about someone, or something, from their pee.
“Urine is reflective of an animal’s physiology, diet, age, sex and overall health,” said Dr. Karl Miller, researcher at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. “Deer are herbivores and humans are omnivores, so there are big differences between their urine.”
There are unique chemicals, pheromones and hormones found in deer urine, making it not only distinct from human urine, but unique from deer to deer. For example, wildlife biologist Dr. James Kroll found there are at least 90 different compounds in doe urine. Scientists believe deer use urine to communicate and learn about each other, making it a big deal in the whitetail world.
But what information, if any, do deer get from human urine?
“To deer, humans are predators, so it’s possible that deer can tell the difference between predator and non-predator urine,” said Brian Murphy, biologist and executive director of the Quality Deer Management Association. “But it’s unlikely deer associate human urine with humans, unless a human leaves their scent behind along with the urine.”
Miller agrees. “Deer aren’t genetically programmed to be able to identify human urine. For them to do that, they’d have to follow a hunter around and wait for him to urinate, or catch him urinating, and then go check it out.”
In the woods, urine from deer and predators is everywhere. If a deer bolted every time it discovered predator urine, it would never get a moment’s peace. Besides, finding urine from predators, including humans, tells deer where the predator was — not where the predator is. So it’s unlikely that, absent other indicators of a human’s presence, a buck will high-tail it to the next county upon discovering human pee.
“I don’t believe it bothers deer, and can even arouse their curiosity,” said bowhunter and writer Jay Strangis. “Before I climb on stand, I think about whether I might have to urinate later in the sit. If I must urinate, I don’t hesitate to do so anywhere near the bottom of my tree before I climb up.”
Human Urine: Lure Or Hunt Destroyer?
Few studies have been done on the effects of human urine on whitetails. Several years ago, Kroll and then-graduate student Ben Koerth used trail cameras to monitor mock scrapes treated with commercial buck urine, doe-in-heat urine, human urine and new car smell (which they got from a car wash). The researchers ran each test site for two weeks, 24 hours a day. They carefully recorded how many deer came to each site, and how many times. They also noted the type of deer visiting each site (buck, doe, fawn) and estimated its age.
To say the least, what they found was underwhelming.
“Deer of all ages and sexes came to every one of the treatment sites,” explained Kroll. “We found no statistical difference in the number of deer, or type of deer, that came to any one of the treatments. The average number of times a particular deer came to a treatment site was once, and over 90 percent of all visitations were nocturnal.”
Kroll and Koerth concluded that, when it comes to pee, a deer’s natural curiosity explains its behavior. “For their survival, it’s necessary for deer to be curious and know everything that’s going in their home range,” Kroll said.
What’s interesting is that, although not statistically relevant, both the buck urine and human urine outperformed doe-in-estrus urine.
“That's one reason that I commonly relieve myself in existing scrapes,” said wildlife biologist and hunter C.J. Winand. “Whenever I’m leaving a hunting area, I regularly use my boot to make a mock scrape under an overhanging branch and urinate in it. If a buck is walking by your stand and gets preoccupied with one of your scrapes, you have a better chance for a shot.”
Murphy believes the answer isn’t as simple as it may seem. “We don’t know if human urine was the attractant, because there are a bunch of other scents around that could be having the effect, such as deer urinating into the scrape, preorbital gland secretions on the licking branch, and tarsal gland odors.”
Longtime bowhunter John Eberhart, co-author of "Bowhunting the Eberhart Way," believes that it depends on the type of deer you’re after.
“I believe human urine could possibly attract a deer, but I pursue mature bucks in heavily-pressured areas, and in such areas, mature bucks do not behave like subordinate bucks and does do when it comes to anything out of the ordinary concerning odors. If they experience or witness anything out of the ordinary, they are gone.”
Eberhart also believes that if you’re hunting small destination areas like primary scrape sites, near mast or fruit trees close to cover, or pinch points along transition routes, you don’t need a scent to help you bring home the backstraps.
So in the end, human urine probably won’t run most deer off, and it may even pique the curiosity of some of them. If you’re going to drop your britches and answer the call of Mother Nature in a scrape or underneath your stand, just make sure that’s all you’re leaving. “If human urine gets deer thinking about what they’re smelling, then it may heighten their awareness and make them more likely to detect a hunter,” Miller cautioned.
For the hunter, letting loose and letting the urine fly may be just the thing to keep 'em on stand. “If urinating in a scrape is a confidence builder, or it allows you to keep hunting, then go ahead and do it,” Kroll said. “Because one of the biggest things you can do to boost your odds for success is to hunt longer.”
The moral of this story is, if you gotta pee, keep your hunting area scent-free!