The Art and Science of Hunting: Reading the Wind. By Cleve Cheney

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The air is restless – it is never still. Even on seemingly windless days, the air is still moving endlessly and tirelessly – that is the nature of the way things are. Air and its movement from one place to another is a conveyor of information in the animal world. The animals that we hunt use their highly developed sense of smell to warn them of danger, lead them to food or water, convey breeding status, or to inform them of rivals intruding into their territorial living space.

It has long been touted that humans have a far inferior sense of smell compared to that of animals. Evidence from a study published in the journal Science in 2017 is now challenging this idea.

Different wind directions
Figure 1: Wind directions for hunting

The notion that human sense of smell is inferior to that of animals originates from the work of French neuroanatomist Paul Broca (1879) and psychologist Sigmund Freud. New research techniques may indicate that our sense of smell may in fact compare favourably to that of animals. That having been said, it cannot be refuted that animals have the amazing ability to pick up human scent, as well as other olfactory messages, from a long way off, especially if the wind, however slight, is wafting or blowing towards them. Most hunters will have experienced the frustration of being detected by their quarry by means of scent before being able to get within shooting range.

It makes good hunting sense to learn to read the wind and to be constantly aware of it and the direction in which it is moving. Sometimes it can be constant and predictable, at other times fickle and unpredictable.

Unfavorable wind directions when wind is from animal to hunter
Figure 2: Headwind condition

Game animals associate humans with danger and the moment our human smell is detected, they go into a state of high alert. Animals grazing head down will immediately stop feeding and raise their heads with noses held high to test the wind. If they are lying down, resting, they will generally get to their feet. Body language goes from relaxed to “ready to take flight”. Animals will usually face into the wind and look in the direction the wind is coming from. They instinctively know that the source of alarm is “upwind”.

Wind can be your best friend or worst enemy when hunting. If the wind is in your favour, the chances of you being detected through your smell are greatly diminished and the likelihood of a successful stalk is greatly improved. If the air is moving away from you in the direction of the animal/s you are approaching, you are “flogging a dead horse”, so to speak. There is a great likelihood of your “cover being blown” before you can get to within shooting distance, especially if you are hunting with a bow. There is more leeway if you are hunting with a rifle that has a greater range.

A crosswind will work on single animals or small herds clustered closely together
Figure 3: Workable crosswinds

Wind direction

When hunting, we refer to wind direction with respect to our quarry as follows:

• Headwind: The wind is blowing from the animal towards the hunter, i.e. the wind is in the hunter’s face.

• Tailwind: The wind is blowing from the hunter to the animal and the hunter can feel the wind on the back of his neck.

• Crosswind: The wind is blowing at right angles to the hunter from either the left or right side and away from the animal.

• Quartering-on or quartering-away wind: In the former, the wind is blowing at an angle towards the hunter, while in the latter it is blowing at an angle away from the hunter.

A quartering wind may work on single animals or small herds clustered closely together
Figure 4: Workable quartering winds

Wind directions for hunting are shown in Figure 1. The ideal approach conditions are during a headwind or quartering-on wind. Under these conditions one’s scent is blown away from the quarry (Figure 2). Always try and set up your approach to meet these conditions, even if it means taking the time to make a wide circle around your quarry so that you can approach with the wind in your face.

If you are approaching a single animal or small herd clustered together directly ahead of you, it will generally work under crosswind or quartering-away wind conditions (Figures 3 and 4). However, if you are approaching a large herd – especially if it is spread out, as frequently occurs with large buffalo herds – animals on the outer extremities of the herd may pick up your scent under crosswind or quartering-away wind conditions (Figures 5 and 6).

A crosswind may not always work on large or spread-out herds as animals on the fringes may catch your scent
Figure 5: Problematic crosswind

It is pretty much a waste of time trying to approach animals during a tailwind as they will quickly detect your scent (Figure 7).

It is extremely difficult to approach when the wind is swirling, as it will be very unpredictable, being in your favour one moment and against you the next (Figure 8). Under these conditions your scent will be picked up sooner or later.

A strong, constant wind from a fixed direction makes for good approach conditions if you can get downwind of your quarry.

Animals on the fringes of a large or spread-out herd may pick your scent from a quartering wind
Figure 6: Problematic quartering wind

Monitoring the wind

The importance of constantly monitoring the wind direction cannot be overemphasised. It eventually becomes second nature to a good hunter and he will vary his direction of approach accordingly. There are a number of ways to keep a check on wind direction. Experienced hunters feel it on their skin. You are invariably sweating when you are hunting and a breeze will make your skin feel cooler on the side from which it is blowing. A very helpful way of monitoring wind direction is to see which way the grass is bending. Grass stalks and light brush sway in the direction of the wind. Smoke drifts even with the slight-est of breezes, but unless there is a bushfire you are unlikely to see smoke except if you make your own by striking a match and then blowing it out to see which way the smoke drifts. This can be done while hunting and is a very good indicator but is not ideal, as striking a match against a matchbox can be noisy and it is impractical to stop and light matches every few minutes. The way in which the flame of a cigarette lighter bends is also a sensitive wind direction indicator.

A tailwind is unsuitable for apporach as animals will quickly pick up your scent
Figure 7: Tailwind

Dust is also a good indicator of wind direction when present and can be a useful way of monitoring the wind. Pick up a handful of dust or sand and slowly sift it through your fingers to see in which direction the wind blows it. This can also be done with dry leaves or grass.

Give a dandelion flower a shake and check in which direction the seeds float on the wind.

The favourite of many professional hunters is an ash bag. This bag is made from fairly porous material and is filled with campfire ash. A slight shake of the bag will release dust particles that will blow in the direction of the breeze. The bag is carried on a string strung around the neck or on the belt for quick and ready access. A squeeze/puff bottle filled with ash also works well.

It is difficult to approach under swirling wind conditions as the direction may change from one minute to next
Figure 8. Swirling wind


McGann, J.P. 2017. Poor human olfaction is a 19th-century myth. Science, Vol 356, Issue 6338, 12 May 2017.

The Art and Science of Hunting: Reading the Wind” by Cleve Cheney originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of the Game & Hunt (Wild & Jag) magazine. Reproduced with consent of the copyright holder.

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