How To Disappear

Having only one camouflage pattern to rely on can spell trouble as deer season progresses. After all, the background's constantly changing! (August 2007)

Mossy Oak Obsession: a green-leaf pattern ideal for early-season hunts.
Photo by Rod Hunter.

You've spent the last hour slipping quietly through a massive stand of oak trees. You were careful to keep the wind in your face, move slowly, and pause frequently. Stopping next to the trunk of a mature oak, you scan the large clearing in front of you. A slight movement 50 yards ahead catches your eye. You freeze, just as an 8-point buck pokes his nose out of the brush.

The buck quickly scans the clearing, his gaze moving to you, pausing briefly, and then moving on. A second later, convinced that all is well, he steps into the clearing.

That's the good scenario.

The bad scenario is that the buck locks his eyes on you, snorts once, and bolts back into the brush.

Which scenario plays out depends on what that buck sees as his eyes sweep across you.

Just what a white-tailed deer sees when it encounters

a hunter in the woods has been a matter of considerable debate, and quite a bit of study. Do deer see the same colors we do? Do they see them under the same lighting conditions we do? Do they see the same degree of contrast we do?

The best available scientific evidence would suggest that the answer to all of those is: not exactly.

As with the human eye, the retina of the white-tailed deer's eye is furnished with cells known as "rods" and "cones" The cones are what mammals use for bright light, daytime vision, while the rods come into play in the very dim light of dusk or night. In humans, a lack of visible light causes the cones to retract slowly and the rods to extend, providing what is commonly referred to as "night vision." For a human with normal vision, this usually takes about 45 minutes. Any harsh white light almost immediately reverses the process.

Deer have the same basic physical eye structure, but with a twist. All aspects of normal color vision depend upon the photoreceptors present within the rods and cones. These determine what wavelengths of light from the spectrum are recognized and processed. Without getting into serious scientific verbiage, a whitetail's rods are similar to those in most other mammals' retinas. That's not a factor, since legal deer hunting doesn't occur after dark.

The whitetail's cones are another matter: The deer actually have two sets of cones. The photo pigments that process the light spectrum in one set are maximally sensitive to the middle wavelengths, while the other set shows peak sensitivity to the short wavelengths; thus, while the longer red-to-orange wavelengths are not seen well, the shorter blue wavelengths are perceived as vivid. In layman's terms, white-tailed deer -- according to the best scientific data available -- exhibit the same type of "color blindness" that some humans do, seeing blues as blues, and the rest of the visible light spectrum as some degree of yellow. Their vision is basically "dichromatic" -- they see their world in two basic colors.

That, however, is in standard daylight. When light levels are low during dawn and dusk, the short wavelength photo pigments kick in and deer begin to see the blue wavelengths that are heavy on ultraviolet light. Humans can't even see these. This light wave is perceived as bright blue in the two-color world of the deer and can be very intense. Deer still see in, basically, two colors. But, objects that reflect a great deal of UV light stand out vividly against surroundings that do not also reflect it.

On the surface, it would seem that the precise colors of a hunter's garment are not overly critical. Both blaze orange and popular green/ brown camo patterns blend in with green leaves, brown tree trunks, yellow grass, and other natural items because all would be seen as some shade of yellow by the deer.

Unfortunately, color is only one factor in the ability of a hunter to disappear. Deer can still see shapes, patterns, degrees of brightness, and movement. They invariably know their home turf as well as we know our own houses, so when they see something out of place, they tend to react the same way we would: They look more closely and investigate it.

Color factors aside, becoming invisible is best achieved by not appearing out of place.

Deer hunters have been trying to do that for years as part of their sport. The military has also studied the matter in depth as part of their survival training. When they teach the art of camouflage to the troops they start with three Ss -- Shape, Shine, and Silhouette. Irrespective of the colors one is wearing, each of these three factors can quickly give you away if they are ignored.

SHAPE

The eye, whether of a human or a deer, is quickly drawn to any "shape" not matching its surroundings. You can demonstrate this very easily: Toss a dozen regulation baseballs onto the lawn, throwing one soccer ball in among them; blindfold a friend, lead him out there, tell him you want him to find what's different, and then remove the blindfold. He'll lock onto that soccer ball quickly. Even though it's round like the baseballs, and the same light color, it's different, and so stands out.

The same can be said of a hunter crouched in a grove of saplings or standing in a field of short stumps.

SHINE

Even if an object is similar in shape to its surroundings, it too is quickly targeted by the eye if it stands out more brightly. Again, this is readily demonstrated: Take a dozen regulation footballs, one painted white, and throw them onto the lawn; bring your blindfolded buddy back and uncover his eyes. He'll identify that white "shiny" ball in a heartbeat.

Military personnel quickly learn not to wear reflective objects in the field: Dull is good. They also learn not to take a position in direct sunlight if deep shadows are available. The more light that strikes any object, the more that is reflected from it, and the more it stands out.

Deer hunters should take that information to heart. But because of the way deer see, hunters might want to go a step farther.

As mentioned earlier, deer see the ultraviolet end of the spectrum much better than we do. This wavelength, normally suppressed by long wavelengths during midday hours, becomes a serious factor during peak deer movement times at dawn and dusk. Objects reflecting a lot of UV light jump out as bright blue to the deer's eye. The good news is that yellow/green foliage doesn

't reflect a lot of UV light. The bad news is that your clothing might -- especially if it was washed in conventional laundry detergent.

"Whiter whites!" We've all seen the laundry detergent advertisements that scream that promise. They get those whiter whites by incorporating chemical fluorescent UV brighteners into the detergent. Those brighteners gather and release UV light at the blue end of the spectrum that we don't see well, but that deer see extremely well. We usually only perceive the "whiter whites" under bright light and in light-colored garments. Deer can see them as a very bright blue under dimmer light and in any color of garment from blaze orange to the most muted camo on the market.

If your hunting clothes have been washed in one of the leading laundry detergents you could be standing out like a neon-blue bulb, regardless of the garment color or the background that you're up against.

A company named Atsko (www.atsko.com) makes a line of non-brightening detergents for just this reason. If they're unavailable to you, get the cheapest liquid dishwashing detergent you can find and wash your outfit in that. It'll cut grease and grime, but contains no UV brighteners.

SILHOUETTE

When we think of this term, we usually envision something standing atop a ridge, or maybe a couple waking across a beach at sunset. In both cases, the objects are clearly displayed against a sharply contrasting background. But you don't need to cross a ridge or lead your significant other across a beach to be contrasted: All you have to do is stand out sharply against the existing background.

Wear a light tan brush pattern camo in a stand of dark evergreens, and you're silhouetted; ease your way across a recently cut field in your forest green outfit, and you're silhouetted again. Place your back against a dull-gray oak while you're wearing a tan, red and brown forest leaf pattern, and you could be silhouetted then, too.

Regardless of what colors deer can see, or precisely how they see them, if the pattern and brightness level of your camo outfit stands out sharply from the existing background, you can be silhouetted. If, at the same time, you've violated the Shape and Shine rules, there's a good chance you're going to get busted! Instead of the buck stepping into the clearing, you get the snort and the white flag.

That's a major reason for savvy hunters to own more than one set of camo clothing. During the course of the lengthy hunting seasons that we enjoy in the South, the foliage that forms the background we try to blend in with changes. The bowhunter who greets the early season in a tree stand is surrounded by the greens and browns. As we move later in the year, that green/brown turns to yellow/red/gold as the leaves die off. Still later in the season, precious few leaves are likely to be left, and you now move in a world of gray/ black/brown tree trunks and limbs. In some areas, even in the South, the late-season hunter might even have to deal with a bit of white snow on occasion.

More than one pattern is an asset. Sometimes, it can even pay to mix and match your camo. For example, in many areas my favorite spring turkey pattern is a gray/black oak upper garment, with a tan/brown/red "forest floor leaf" pair of pants. A few hunting partners have jokingly asked why I couldn't afford a complete set of camo. But, they understood when they saw me take a calling position with my back against an oak tree and my bottom on the leaf-littered forest floor below it. That two pattern combo blended perfectly with the existing terrain and nothing was "out of place."

If a hunter relies upon one set of camo to wear throughout the season it is likely that, at times and places, the hunter will be glaringly out of place.

Fortunately, hunters don't have to rely on one pattern. Here's a quick look at what the major camo makers offer to solve that problem.

REALTREE

Realtree offers nine different camo patterns that should allow a hunter to blend in just about anywhere.

Four patterns are available in their Hardwoods series. The original hardwoods HD is ideal for later season hunting in virtually any hardwood forest, although some hunters have also found it highly effective in rocky cover. Hardwoods Green HD is a similar pattern that is at its best early in the season when green plants are still prevalent.

If snow is a factor in your area, Hardwoods Snow is an open pattern with a predominance of white, broken up with black and gray limbs and leaves. If blaze orange is required, or desired, Hardwoods Blaze uses the original Hardwoods pattern minus some of the bark and leaves. Although blaze orange in color, the pattern is effectively broken, enabling concealment from deer.

Their Advantage Max-1 and Max-4 HD patterns are designed for more open terrain and blend neutral earth tones, grasses, stalks, cattails and grasses. Max-1 is more suited to southern or eastern farm country, while Max-4 has a decidedly western flavor.

Advantage Timber and Classic are optimized for leafy woodlands settings, while their Wetlands Camo that is designed for waterfowlers is ideally suited for those hunting open field farm country.

MOTHWING CAMO TECHNOLOGIES

Mothwing's interestingly unique approach to camo patterns starts from the premise that few animals blend into a natural background as well as do the various species of moths. The company's designers use the latest computer software to create camo patterns from high-resolution images from a large number of moth species. Of interest to hunters in this region are the Fall Mimicry 1.0 and the Winter Mimicry 1.0.

The Fall image blends tree bark, fall leaves, and a touch of autumn coloration to make it an excellent choice in any area of Southern hardwoods. If snow arrives, the Winter pattern blends white, dead leaves and shadows to allow a hunter to disappear.

MOSSY OAK

Mossy Oak offers nine different patterns that can handle any terrain in the world.

Their Obsession pattern is an excellent choice when green leaves are present, while Break-Up handles chores during the later season when leaves are gone. For those who hunt in the deep, dark swamps, their new Bottomland pattern is definitely worth a look.

Those who hunt farm country where the harvest has left stubble, brush and barren fields will want to take a look at the Shadow Grass and Brush patterns. The latter is a top choice for field edges during the late season, although (depending upon your terrain) their Duck Blind pattern may also work well.

If orange is needed, they have a Blaze pattern, and a Winter pattern is available for those who deal with barren trees and snow.

TREBARK

Originally introduced in 1980, Trebark was one of the first camo outfits made specifically for the hunter. Prior to that time, many hunters relied upon military-style woodland patterns in splotchy greens and brow

ns. But once the leaves are off the trees, colors in the deep woods are more gray than otherwise, and pattern lines more vertical than horizontal.

The original Trebark and the newer Trebark 005 mimic the gray and black world of tree trunks and is highly effective for the end of the season deep woods hunter.

ASAT

Although savvy hunters usually have several camo outfits, matched to season and terrain, some have found that ASAT (All Season/All Terrain) can play a very versatile role. Unlike camo that attempts to blend perfectly into a specific type of background, ASAT uses a khaki tan background overlain with curved, sharply contrasting shapes. The company touts this color and pattern combination as being able to blend in well -- and break up the hunter's outline -- in such varying backgrounds as rock, hardwoods, marsh areas, and other terrain.

The theory is sound, and has been used in camouflage garments by various militaries over the years. It does address the Three Ss very well, and during the 20 years ASAT has been on the market, it has gained a lot of acceptance among bowhunters, who often find themselves in close proximity to their quarry.

When it comes to disappearing in the woods, hunters have never had it so good.

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