Rusa stag in velvet
Pic: Zac McKenzie

Wind, and the importance of scent for a successful hunt

Your scent may be non-existent to your own nostrils but to a game animal it spells danger. More game is spooked by a hunter’s scent than anything else.

A famous English writer once wrote that human scent to any wild animal was “most awful vile”. That scribe may not have been an outstanding hunter, but he summed it up succinctly in a few words. Unless you are careful to keep the wind in your favour, you are not going to achieve a very high degree of success.

Hunting with the wind
Cloud movement gives a good indication of the wind’s general direction but nature of terrain and time of day can influence movement at hunter level where breezes can be variable

You should constantly check the direction of any wind since even the slightest breeze can influence whether you succeed or fail. 

It is astonishing just how far human scent carries, even on a seemingly still day, particularly in mountain country where there always seems to be a faint zephyr at play. You might not be able to detect the slightest wind movement on thin mountain air, but the game will. 

Despite the fact that you are not within hearing range, and often out of sight, the keen sense of smell that nature has given an animal for its protection is what, more often than not, alerts it to impending danger.


There are many ways of determining the direction of breezes. Many hunters carry a small container of fine ash or powder to waft in the air; then watch the way it drifts as it falls.

If there are any clouds about, watching them for a few minutes will give you the general direction at least of any air movement. 

When stalking a deer in open country like this, the way the grass is bending over gives a good indication of wind direction

A handful of dust, held shoulder high and slowly sifted between the fingers will fall at a slant indicating, the slightest air movement that exists. Dry grass or leaves crumpled up serve the same purpose. A wet finger held up will dry fastest on the windy side.

If wind were visible and you could see its movements you’d be surprised. It swirls and twists, now this way, now that. 

It hardly ever remains constant, no matter how the tree-tops or grasses seem to bend in one direction. It pays you to frequently check it to ensure it is favourable.

The wind is mysterious only because you cannot see it. It is like a great river which is never still. Just like eddying currents of water, the wind can appear to run in a general direction, but at the same time it eddies and billows to follow the contours of the terrain it blows over. 

deer hunting
Nick approaching a downed fallow buck which was taken after a tricky stalk in a variable light breeze

To further complicate matters, air currents also twist and bend to conform to the vertical nature of the terrain as well. Furthermore, its pattern is subject to alteration induced by changes in temperature.

Anyone who has ever seen fog rise from a river in mountain country on a chilly winter’s morning will understand this more readily. To say that wind currents in the mountains behave erratically is something of an understatement. 

Currents shoot mist up every gully and ravine to be, in turn, funnelled off around the hillside and hurled over a ridge, only to be pushed back again further on.


At times when working upwind you can often scent game from afar. I’ve often caught the scent of a herd of billy goats because of their powerful odour. They are probably the easiest to smell of all.

In the rutting season deer, especially red stags, issue a particularly pungent odour that hangs about in the bush and clings to the ground for hours. I’ve often stalked a red stag a long way by following his scent, which was strong enough to painfully burn my nostrils.

Deer hunting
During the rut deer can be stalked upwind and are often betrayed by their pungent scent

Many experienced hunters find it easy to pick up the scent of a deer in the rut but they aren’t always able to distinguish one species from another. A deer is a deer and that’s all. 

The human sense of smell is nowhere near as sensitive as that of a game animal which, from birth, is forced to rely on its nose to warn it of danger. However, by turning any wind movement to your advantage — hunting into the wind — it is possible to pick up the scent of an animal from a fair distance.

Goat hunting
A mature billy goat has a strong odour that gets carried a long way, even on a slight breeze


The wind problem is diminished just after a storm, which is why a lot of game is taken while the weather is clearing.

The time of day you set out to hunt has an important bearing on wind currents. As a rule, morning air, warmed by the sun, rises; cooling evening air moves downwards. Put simply, warming air ascends and cooling air descends. 

It is common sense to make the day’s climb from below early enough to avoid rising air currents that are warmed by the morning sun. By remaining high up and working the ridgetops during the warmer part of the day, you are less likely to be discovered by game bedded on the slopes below you. 

Later in the afternoon, you should descend before the cooling evening air takes over and carries your scent downward.

Showery weather is good for hunting. Not only will game be on the move, but falling rain and damp conditions deaden scent and sound. Just after a fall of snow is a good time to hunt too, since game gets more active with clearing weather and the snow will blot out any scent as well as show fresh tracks.

Sambar usually move down to the lower levels when it snows to congregate along the streams and seek the warm shelter of brushy gullies. Once the weather clears, as a rule, they gradually shift back to higher elevations.

You should learn never to depend upon the ever-fluctuating river of air, which frequently shifts all over the place. Unless you are always checking and changing direction so that the wind works in his favour, he’ll spook most of the game without catching as much as a glimpse of it.


Sound carries a long way on the breeze, too. The voices of two hunters conversing in normal tones may be audible to animals for more than a kilometre in the mountains.

However, many deer hunters worry too much about moving silently in the bush without worrying about their scent. Everything moving in the bush makes a certain amount of noise and this alone won’t spook game. But let that trophy animal catch the slightest whiff of your scent and he’ll quickly make himself scarce.

You should be able to tell whether you scored or missed out because of the effect of weather, elevation, season, prevailing air currents or the temperature of the air about you. 

The smart hunter takes all these things into consideration and files them away in the memory bank for future reference. Any one of them can spell the difference between success and failure. 

No matter how well equipped, how fit or how good a marksman you are, you won’t be very successful unless you take those vagrant breezes into account.




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Nick Harvey

The late Nick Harvey (1931-2024) was one of the world's most experienced and knowledgeable gun writers, a true legend of the business. He wrote about firearms and hunting for about 70 years, published many books and uncounted articles, and travelled the world to hunt and shoot. His reloading manuals are highly sought after, and his knowledge of the subject was unmatched. He was Sporting Shooter's Technical Editor for almost 50 years. His work lives on here as part of his legacy to us all.