by Hunter Ed · October 25, 2014
Every year in September and October, hunters return to fields and forests that are still green and growing for early season hunts. But, there’s one major problem they face: the old proverbial situation where the hunter becomes the hunted … by bugs. If grass and leaves are still growing, you can bet it is warm enough for mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers and gnats to be alive and ready to feed on you. Tiny insects might not seem as intimidating as being stalked by a cougar or bear, but while they may not put you in the hospital instantly, they can ruin your hunt — or give you Lyme disease or West Nile virus that could put you in the hospital later.
While there are thousands of insect repellants available, hunters face the unique problem that many game animals have a keen sense of smell. Running off game to save yourself from bug bites defeats the point of hunting, right? On the other hand, swatting mosquitoes, incessantly scratching itches, or choking on a cloud of gnats can all alert animals to your presence just as quickly. So, let’s take a look at some of the options that can protect you from insects and keep your hunting productive.
Just about every hunter has heard about ThermaCELL repellants by now. A tiny heating element and small butane bottle work to heat up a pad soaked in insect repellant. The repellant vapor spreads out and creates a zone of protection around you to keep mosquitoes and other flying biters away. It’s harmless to you and other animals, and ThermaCELL makes a variety of the repellant with an “earth” cover scent built in specifically to keep from scaring animals away.
The product gets great reviews, especially from bowhunters who often sit in stands for a very long time and need to remain motionless since game needs to be very close for a shot. However, that brings up two issues with ThermaCELL products. First, the repellant zone won’t work while you are moving, since it will constantly trail behind you. Second, it doesn’t repel ticks and chiggers that you encounter when you’re on the ground and moving. If repelling mosquitoes, black flies or gnats is your primary concern, then you should definitely consider a ThermaCELL device to use during your early season hunts.
Permethrin is actually an insecticide, meaning it doesn’t just repel bugs, it kills them. It’s a chemical made in laboratories that mimics a natural insecticide produced by chrysanthemum flowers called pyrethrum. Permethrin does not have an odor, so it doesn’t alert game animals to your presence. You can find large bottles at farm and ranch supply stores that are designed to apply to livestock or around houses and barns. This can be mixed per the directions and sprayed on your clothing, or at least one manufacturer creates spray bottles and aerosols designed specifically for human clothing. Permethrin binds to fabrics and can even last through several washings of your clothes. Some clothing manufacturers are even making clothes with permethrin built in, and it will last for the life of the clothing!
Permethrin isn’t absorbed by human skin, so it is safe to spray directly on you according to the World Health Organization. In fact, it’s the main ingredient in some medicines designed to kill lice on humans. If you’re uncomfortable applying it to your skin, and you are wearing shorts or a short-sleeved shirt while hunting, you might need to apply a repellant, also. And, though they will die later, mosquitoes can bite you first even with permethrin. If you hunt in an area known for ticks that carry Lyme disease, though, permethrin should be on your hunting clothes.
Just about all testing and authorities have reached one consensus on insect repellants: DEET is the best. DEET was developed by the U.S. military and used by soldiers during missions in tropical areas. It’s not an insecticide, like permethrin, but it is a very effective repellant of all insects. It’s not odorless, though, and it’s always mixed as a percentage of an aerosol or spray insect repellant. At very high concentrations, DEET was found to cause skin irritation for some people and extremely rarely it caused some more severe reactions. So, you’ll see some “outdoor” repellants with 20 to 40 percent DEET, and those are the ones you want to use when hunting. You’ll just have to be mindful of wind directions, because it can and will spook game animals with sensitive noses.
Sulfur powder might be the oldest commonly used insect repellant/pesticide in the world. To you and me, it stinks, but to bugs, it kills. Powdered sulfur can be put into a common tube sock, which makes a great “duster” as you pat the sock on your shoes and clothing. It’s safe to put on your skin, too, but it can irritate your eyes. So it’s safe and effective, but it smells. Actually, it doesn’t smell as much as you would expect, not as much as a lit match, anyway. But, there isn’t much information available about whether it is a smell that deer and other game animals dislike. Since it’s a natural odor, found in some water and skunk scent, for instance, sulfur might be just the ticket for hunting. It’s inexpensive also.
Citronella, orange oil, peppermint, lavender and many other natural oils and scents have been used as bug repellants through the years. Any and all of them may be effective at times, but you don’t find them used in any of the commercial insect repellants that tend to feature DEET. You would think that manufacturers today would want to use anything natural that is also effective, since consumers care a lot about safety. So, that’s an indicator they may have done testing and found the natural ingredients are not very effective in comparison to DEET. However, if you have sensitive skin or allergies to any of the products mentioned above, you might try some natural repellants. All of them are going to be very aromatic, though, and that means the animals you’re hunting will smell them. Whether they will be bothered, though, is a question that you’ll have to find out yourself.
Scent vs. Movement
If you’re still concerned about scent from any of the choices above, you’re really limited to wearing head-to-toe clothing with mosquito netting. But, that can be hot when it’s still early in the season, and mosquitoes have a way of drilling right through thin cloth.
No matter what repellant you use, it won’t improve your hunting success if you’re still fidgeting out in the woods. The eyesight of elk, whitetails, turkeys — most animals except hogs, in fact — is way better than that of humans. While they have to be downwind to smell you, they can see you from anywhere. Avoiding bugs makes it a lot easier to stand or sit still, but you still have to do your part and limit your movements.
Good luck with your early season hunts, and may your pants be tick-free!