Jhe felt something, but she didn’t know what to make of it. She had arrived downwind of me, in an unexpected place, and I watched her sniff the air.
Whatever molecules of my perfume she received weren’t enough to trigger a fear response. She just couldn’t smell me and couldn’t warn the other deer of my presence.
I relaxed and waited for the opportunity to take a picture, and silently thanked my late friend Ray.
With deer season over, now is a good time to take stock of what works and what doesn’t. I would like to share one of the most important things I learned about how to hunt deer more effectively: be like Ray Semlitsch.
Ray was an amazing amphibian ecologist and professor at the University of Missouri.
I had no idea when I was working on research with Ray that he was so passionate about deer hunting, but I quickly realized that passionate was the wrong word. Obsessive was more specific.
Suffice to say, in the fall, Ray lived and breathed deer hunting and, like many of us, found a way to fit his schedule around good winds, cold and rut.
Knowing his meticulous nature, however, he probably had his hunts scheduled to the minute. But his control of smell was what made him so special.
Odor control is important because smell is the primary sense that most mammals use in their daily lives.
Primates like humans are highly visual, but we’re the exception to the mammalian rule, and studies have shown that we actually pick up on and use olfactory information we’re not even aware of, such as the scents of potential mates. .
Most mammals, however, focus on smell, and that’s definitely one of the whitetail deer’s superpowers.
Deer have 300 million olfactory receptors in that long snout, more than dogs (220 million) and far more than humans (about 5 million).
Deer live in a different world from ours, in which smell is paramount. Defeating this superpower is the key to getting closer to them.
To do this effectively, you have to make some sacrifices.
One year Ray graciously invited me to his home to hunt during rifle season. I was eager to learn his secrets, and he shared them with pleasure, but he told me that I had to follow his instructions completely – without skimping.
When I arrived I noticed how short her hair was and asked about it.
“Odor control” was the answer. The hair helps conduct the scent; the less hair you have, the less scent structures you have.
For once, I was happy not to have a lot of hair, at least on my head, naturally.
My second lesson was about clothes. None of the clothes Ray wore on the hunt, other than his underwear, were inside the house; they were all hanging or in odorless containers on the back porch.
Many of us leave our jackets, maybe even our pants outside to keep human odors from building up. But Ray had it all out
including socks, long underwear, and wellies, and all of these were washed in fragrance-free detergent and then hung to dry due to the potential for human odor in the dryer.
Ray didn’t even use a washing machine for fear of the human smell; he used a plastic bin in the garden, where he washed his clothes by hand (and an old broomstick). I had to wash all my clothes like this before arriving (he sent me specific instructions) and keep all my clothes in plastic trash bags during my trip to Missouri.
As soon as I arrived, I hung my clothes on her back porch, and left my boots underneath, to treat them to a night in the local air. Yet all of this was not yet “The Full Semlitch”.
The next lesson took place early in the morning of our hunt. I had to take a shower before going hunting with perfume-free soap.
I have showered with such soap from time to time at home, but never before a hunt.
To do this, we had to retrieve the towels that Ray had washed in scent-free detergent that were hanging on the back porch.
After my shower, I would put on my underwear – just briefs, mind you – and wrap myself in my towel in case his wife or daughter got up at 4 a.m., which of course wasn’t the case, because they knew perfectly well that a man they hardly knew that they would be walking half-naked in their house at that time.
Before leaving the bathroom for my exposed getaway in the freezing November night air from the back porch, I put on sandals so my now clean feet wouldn’t attract pet hair or other odors.
But the lessons were not yet done. We got dressed and headed to his car, which had blankets added to the seats so we didn’t pick up any new smells from the vehicle. Ray added fragrance to the car by cutting fresh sassafras branches with hand clippers, and I could see a few old clippings scattered around. It worked, as the pungent smell of sassafras filled the car (cedar also works).
We drove to the hunting spot and, after getting out of the car, immediately sprayed on an odor masking spray, something I had used before, but not so religiously before this trip.
We then walked to our stand; the location was chosen to minimize the spread of our scent to areas where we expected to see deer, and on the first day we sat together in a two-person ladder stand. I quickly realized that odor control didn’t stop at the car.
I usually use peppermints to stay awake in the booth (try it, it works!), but Ray frowned at the thought.
He ate nothing in the booth – no energy bars, no candy, no coffee – just water.
Anything with the slightest scent was consumed during a lunch break at the car, and all packaging etc. was left in the vehicle. He also used an unscented lip balm.
That morning, a young male passed by. He swelled his nostrils when he was in our scent path, and Ray admitted it was hard to drown out the smell of the gun oil used to lubricate the guns we were carrying.
I think he was right – we had every other element of our scent world covered. He had thought of everything and controlled everything he could.
I made a good buck on that trip, and every time I look out into the woods I think of Ray and the lessons he taught me.
Although he is no longer with us physically, he is in spirit whenever I go hunting.
I would like to tell you that I do “The Full Semlitch”, just like Ray, but I don’t.
I keep all my clothes outside and wash them in fragrance-free detergent, but in a washing machine. I hang them outside to dry, and spray when I leave my truck, and use rubber boots, which I’m sure makes a difference.
I keep my remaining hair short and shower with fragrance-free soap all fall – no matter what – so there’s no buildup of human scent.
I shower occasionally before hunting, but I tend to use whatever towel I have – although we use regular, unscented detergent for all of our washing.
I cut sassafras for my truck when I can find it, but I also consume peppermints, energy bars and coffee in my stall (albeit quickly!) – I basically trade off alertness and energy to this level of odor control.
I’ve also taken a step beyond Ray in that I now wear merino based diapers and socks.
Hunters have long known of the thermal benefits of wool – think of those heavy, checkered, red and black jackets that many hunters in the northern woods still wear.
Merino is the mithril of wool, for those of you who are “Lord of the Rings” fans.
It is lighter and finer than historic wool, and keeps you cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cold.
It works well even when wet, and it does a great job of minimizing stench.
It can be expensive, but there is a whole market of lightly worn merino clothing available online, and once you try it, you won’t want to use anything else. It’s that good; like mithril, it sometimes seems magical.
It’s even better for hunts in the west, where there’s a lot of hiking to be done. You can live in it for days, sweat a ton and not stink.
What I do know is that Ray’s recipe works. Deer always hit me, but usually because of my movements, and rarely because of my scent.
Even when directly downwind, they generally act like the doe described at the beginning of this column – they know something is different, but they can’t label it as a hazard.
They set up quickly, often allowing a shot. Learning Ray’s secrets made me a better and more successful hunter, providing more meat for the freezer and more pleasure for my soul.
Whether you obsessively follow “The Full Semlitsch” like Ray or just use a few of his tricks, I’m sure they’ll help you in the deer antlers too. Odor control is a New Year’s resolution we could all keep.
HOWARD WHITEMAN, who lives northwest of Paris, is professor of wildlife and conservation biology in Murray State University’s Department of Biological Sciences and director of its Institute for Watershed Studies. His email address is [email protected]