The smell test

Looking back over what we’ve learned in the five years we’ve been here, I think it’s instructive to compare our fishing and hunting experiences.

Fishing, we’ve been reasonably successful. Over the season, we catch enough fish to feed us one or twice a week all year, with extra to barter. Our bluefish and striped bass records are pretty good, and we supplement with fluke and sea bass. Although we didn’t get our tuna this year, it was a bad year for tuna. Very few of them showed inshore, where we’d planned to go find them.

Hunting, though, has been a complete bust. Four years, no deer. Why the difference?

Part of the problem is that it’s all but impossible to read anything helpful about hunting deer. Most “How to Hunt Deer” articles are along the lines of one I read recently in Mother Earth News, which essentially tells you to find an area where there are deer, and go there and wait. Oh, and be quiet and don’t smell.

And that’s the real problem. Being quiet and not smelling are not in my wheelhouse.

For illustration, take this incident from my childhood. I’m not sure how old I was – maybe ten, maybe twelve – when my mother told me that you can cut onions without crying if you keep your mouth closed the entire time. I’ve tried this about a zillion times, and I’m here to tell you that it DOES NOT WORK. My mother, though, to this day, claims that it doesn’t work for me because I can’t keep my mouth closed that long.

I make noise in plenty of other ways, too. I step heavy, I drop things, I fidget. Sitting still and being silent is very difficult for me. Doing it in a treestand, with very little in the way of luxurious amenities, is even harder. And then, just for fun, make it twenty-five degrees. And windy. I might as well stay home.

Silent, though, is a walk in the park compared to scent-free. Although I have many fine qualities – I am cheerful and entertaining, steadfast and true – I am undeniably smelly. Some of this is clearly genetic. I know people whose bodies don’t smell, even under duress. I’m married to one of them. Even after an entire afternoon’s worth of sweaty, heavy work, Kevin’s body odor is undetectable. Me, though!

When we lived in New York, I used to go to spin class at the West Side YMCA, on 63rd Street. New York real estate being what it is, the spin room crammed about 25 bikes in a room the size of your average prison cell. Despite fans and air conditioning, the room got hot, and I’d leave class drenched, hoping that, in a crowded, breezy room, nobody could peg that awful smell back to me.

Evidence for a familial component in smelliness comes from my brother’s decision, decades ago, that deodorant was a scam perpetrated by consumer products companies on a gullible and germ-obsessed public. When I told him that, ahem, I didn’t think that was the case, he took it well. Being cheerful and entertaining also runs in the family.

I give my genes an assist, though, with my onion- and garlic-heavy diet. And, of course, my habits. I believe the daily shower is a scam perpetrated by consumer products companies on a gullible and germ-obsessed public, and shower accordingly. Also, deer season comes at a time of year when my house is often cold, and it takes some fortitude to remove your base layer. I see the merit of the pioneer practice of putting your underwear on in October and taking it off in April.

In short, scentlessness is not my long suit. I am trying to compensate for that with a bunch of products that are designed to deoderize.

In general, the process of deoderization is mysterious to me. I read about the development of Febreze in Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. Until then, I’d believed that odor eliminators were a scam perpetrated by consumer products companies on a gullible and germ-obsessed public, but then I read about the wildlife worker who was grateful to Procter & Gamble, to the point of tears, for getting the skunk smell out of her house. Okay, that’s convincing. But how does it work? It doesn’t cover up the smell, it actually makes the smell go away. How is that even possible?

And do Scent-A-Way laundry detergent, boot spray, and soap work the same way? I sure hope so, because that’s what I’ve been using. I washed our camo suits, base layers, and hats. I sprayed our boots. I showered. But our lifestyle is inherently odiferous. We put the suits and boots on the porch so they wouldn’t pick up house smells, but then I put a big pot of turkey stock on to simmer. When Kevin came in from splitting wood, he opened the porch door and got hit with the overwhelming smell of simmering turkey. He put the suits in the truck, but god knows what the truck smells like. I’ll have to wash them again.

It makes me wonder how deer got hunted before the days of Scent-Away. How did a pioneer, a good two months into his base layer, not reek of humanness? Besides, any pioneer worth his salt also smells of wood smoke, and domestic animals, and maybe even turkey stock. How does he get within shouting distance of a creature that can smell a human from a mile away?

Probably by being very very quiet.


25 people are having a conversation about “The smell test

  1. Yes, shit. Add in an angry red squirrel I get up to launch sticks at and there’s my day hunting. My clothes are outside on the back porch but if it’s raining or really cold I throw them in the dryer for a minute. That probably kills my chances for the day but if I’m chattering and shivering and miserable in damp, cold clothes, it’s over before I start anyway. One of these years, Tamar. We’ll figure it out. Year six was not my year.

  2. Though I do my best to be silent, I’m sometimes startled by how oblivious deer can be to noise. A couple weeks ago, I grunted and even whistled at a young buck who was 30 yards away. He took no notice.

    They are not, however, oblivious to smell. I keep my hunting clothes somewhat isolated from household smells, but have never bothered with scent-away soaps. (To paraphrase you, Tamar, I believe them to be a scam perpetrated by hunting products companies on gullible and scent-obsessed hunters.) The trick, of course, is to be downwind of the deer, though arranging that can be hard.

    And then there’s the problem of visually detectable motion. If you’re going to be seen by a deer, as I was by the buck I took five weeks ago, the trick is to be perceived as something other-than-human. Arranging that can be hard, too…

    • Tovar, this year my tree stand is in a spot that should have possibilities for several wind directions, but at this point the idea that I might actually see a deer come through — let alone shoot it — seems like a pipe dream.

      Your noise experience is encouraging, though.

  3. Wool, that’s how hunters in days of old remained scentless. My dad figured this out years ago and has had great success hunting ever since. Wool is amazing! Luckily you can find vintage wool hunting clothes on occasion, I’m mending a circe 1940’s jacket for my husband right now. New products are available, though pricey. At least they’ll last a lifetime as well!

  4. You can be smelly if you stay upwind. Wait till the day the wind is blowing in the right direction from your deer stand. Seriously, know the wind direction before you go out, and only go when its right. Quiet though, that’s another story, no way around that one. (This from a non-hunter who would be a vegetarian were it not for the largesse of her significant other -all i know i learn by listening.)

    • We do pay attention to the wind. I’ve been told that it’s necessary, but I can affirm that it’s not sufficient.

  5. Tamar,
    You could always try wearing deer skin clothing, then at least you would have the same scent as the deer, isn’t that one of the tactic that the early indians use to use in hunting.

  6. I know of a hunter who used to throw his hunting clothes in with leaf mould from the woods to camoflauge his smell. Dad always taught us to clear a space on the ground (pre-tree stand days) because it will help you move quietly and it stirs up the leaves and helps hide your smells. I’m sure it all helps to some degree but Mother Earth News has it right, hunt someplace where there are lots of deer.

    To help with the keeping quiet, read a book. It’s tricky with gloves on but can be done and it is better than anything else at keeping me quiet.

  7. Do Not Give-up!
    The first kill took me 7yrs. I have hunted many years alone, now I take my wife and daughter.
    The best advice I could give; try different areas.
    Do not hunt one stand, the deer learn to go around you.
    Go to different areas, hunt opposite everyone else(see above note)
    Don’t be afraid to take a sloooow walk, it does work
    The end meals are worth every minute of the wait

  8. Tamar, you will be demoralized to know that my friend’s husband in NC just bagged TWO deer. Yes, two. I immediately thought of you and said to myself “Some people have all the luck.”

  9. Tamar – I always check your posts during hunting season because I *know* one day you will get your deer. Even if you’ve lost faith in you, we haven’t.

    There’s no real magic to it. It depends on being in the right place at the right time, and it helps if you have big numbers of deer all packed together on a small island like we do here in the UK. I attribute all my stalking successes to volume and stupid luck.

    Of course, if you get desperate, you could try what my dogs do when off on a hunt: rub in badger or fox sh*t. That’s pretty hardcore, and an inhuman smell if ever there was one. Maybe try that one out of sight of the neighbours though.

    Happy hunting!

  10. Despite my sensitive proboscis, I have never noticed your odor. I do think I have stood close enough for it to be an issue, but perhaps you have always chosen the day on which we would be together as a shower day.
    I have also– fortunately, it now seems– not been with you on the Cape in the winter. (That may soon change). Your lack of willingness to shed that bottom layer is troubling to me, but for the pleasure of your good company, I will bring along cough drops such as Fisherman’s Friend, which will render me incapable of smelling your very smelliest self.
    And by the way: the only reason I have not gone deer hunting is that dreadful “sitting still and waiting” thing. Fortunately, good friends do not feel as I do, and bring me the trophies of their patience. I can introduce you, you can charm them, and then none of this will be an issue.

  11. It’s a darn shame you can’t hunt in my mother’s neighborhood. We have to get out of the car to shoo the deer away in order to get up the driveway. They aren’t concerned by noise, like the honking of a car horn or our human smell. Perhaps you should stop going after wild deer and find some that are used to urban living!

    Increasing driving time during the dawn and dusk hours may help as well. Some folks have better luck at road-kill 😉

    My parents always used a cover scent when they went hunting, like fox urine or such. Only took a few drops on their clothes. Seemed to work well.

  12. Dan — I’ve been known to listen to audiobooks. I put one earbud in, and keep it low so I can hear what’s going on around me. And it definitely helps. Although don’t listen to anything that might make you laugh out loud …

    Bob — I appreciate the moral support! I don’t feel quite as bad when I know I’m in good company. And nice of you to blaze the trail for wife and daughter.

    PQ — The longer I (try to) hunt, the more I’m convinced luck has very little to do with it. Either you develop skills, or you go somewhere where shooting deer is like shooting fish in a barrel. Or, prefereably, both.

    Jen — It’s a little frightening that I’m at the point when I get a suggestions like “Roll in badger shit” I start thinking about where I might be able to get a badger. Hell, it’s got to be easier than getting a deer.

    One day, I *will* shoot a deer. I just hope it’s one day in the forseeable future.

    Marge — Spend a lot of time with me, and you’ll get a whiff of the real Tamar. And you’re right about the “sitting still and waiting.” I suspect you’re not cut out for it, either, so I think your strategy — make friends with hunters — is the one I ought to have gone with. But I’m too far gone to quit now.

    Rebecca — I’m all about the road kill. If we lived in a place where more deer were hit, I’d definitely be on the list the cops call when someone hits a deer. We were once on our way to Kevin’s family’s Christmas party on Long Island, and we passed an apparently fresh kill out by Orient Point. We were all dressed up, and the only knife we had was a penknife, but we were this close …

  13. You’re killing me, Tamar. From my deck or anyplace in the yard I can jump, yell, throw rocks or sticks at the deer and they look at me and move maybe 2 feet and go back to browsing on my plants and shrubs. Even my pellet rifle barely gets their attention. No blind needed here. Damn deer. Come to Ohio. They are everywhere.

  14. I think it’s less about “not smelling” and more about “smelling normal” – smell like the forest. Maybe hang all your stuff with cedar and pine branches for a couple of months leading up to hunting season? I like th suggestion of wearing wool, too. Maybe it smells like herbavore. 😉

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