Camo confustication

When fall arrives and all my mismatched camo clothing is taken out of the closet and laundered, the clothesline looks like the gypsy camp of a poorly organized and badly supplied backwoods militia.

Once upon a time, and in a place far away from the North Country, I owned a full set of matching camouflage hunting clothes: shirt, pants, jacket, hat, gloves… the whole nine yards. This entire wardrobe was on sale, if ordered by mail, from a once thriving but now long-defunct outdoor equipment company by the name of Herter’s, based in Waseca, Minnesota, with distribution centers and showrooms in several other cities, including Mitchell, South Dakota. From the Mitchell store, I acquired my one and only “coordinated” set of camo clothing.

These days, no two pieces of my camo outerwear remotely match in pattern, colors, weave, or material. And I’m okay with that. Fashion is not my thing.

But way back then, almost 50 years, ago, I was completely taken. That first matching set of camo was listed at end-of-season bargain prices in an outdoor gear catalog published by Herter’s. I suspect Herter’s still turned a tidy profit on this set of half-priced camo clothing because it was West German army military surplus, lightly used (the catalog product description promised) and meeting full military specifications. Herter’s was known for its frequent claims that its gear met military specifications, even when there were no military specifications. Cast-off army clothes imported from West Germany made the mil-specs claim even more dubious, but in that more trusting age we expected advertisers to exaggerate facts but not to lie outright. We’re smarter now.

But $24 for a complete matching camo outfit? How could I go wrong?

The camo gear arrived in the mail, bearing only slight resemblance to the wool-blend clothes pictured in the Herter’s catalog. Its weave and curiously dyed pattern of brown and green blotches, zig-zag stripes of tan and gray, and swirls of off-white may have been just the ticket for clandestine army maneuvers in the Black Forest of Germany in the dead of winter, but the catalog’s guarantee that this camo would make a hunter virtually invisible in a North American woodland was questionable. I wore the stuff while bow hunting and duck hunting for three or four seasons, but the avoidance behavior of deer (and antelope, raccoons, coyotes, ducks, geese, and virtually every other species of bird) made it clear that I was not invisible to wildlife but was in fact glaringly obvious to any animal with basic visual acuity.

This was before conservationists and scientists became engrossed in the study of a deer’s ability to visually perceive outlines, forms, colors, patterns, and movement. The result of the data compiled by this research over the course of many years is that we now have multiple choices in camo clothing specifically designed to confuse and distort the ocular cognizance of deer: Mossy Oak (which is produced in several subvariants such as Bottomland, Shadow Grass, Break-Up, Elements Terra, Mountain Country, and others), Realtree (which is made in designs that include Hardwooods, Seclusion3D, Edge, Waterfowler, Xtra, Staghorn, and other patterns), plus a half-dozen lesser known name brands that run the gamut of every known outdoor landscape.

The German army camo, however, was counterproductive in any landscape. It was also stiff, scratchy, and noisy. As it wore out I replaced it piece by piece. Pants torn? Throw them out and buy a pair with camo pattern better suited to the scrub thicket gullies of northeast Nebraska. Jacket frayed at the cuffs and out at the elbows? Toss it in the trash and buy a parka that matched the cattail marshes along the backwaters of the Missouri River. Shirt faded and pockets gaping? Get rid of it and buy one that more closely resembled the ragweed stands around stock ponds.

No two items were of a matching camo pattern, of course, but since I was much more a rifle hunter than a bow hunter in those days, orange coats and caps took precedence over camo. Any bargain basement piece of camo would serve. When my father ended his deer hunting days I inherited a few items – pants, shirts, jackets, and formless hats – that were labeled Jungle Camo, probably military surplus from the Vietnam War. When fall weather arrived and all this mismatched stuff was taken out of the closet and laundered, the clothesline looked like the gypsy camp of a poorly organized and badly supplied backwoods militia. 

But there was an upside to my ragtag camo outfits. By trial and error, I learned that deer did not care if my camo garb was mismatched, faded, discolored, stained, or patched. As long as my human shape, form and outline were jumbled and confusticated in deer vision, it makes little difference what camo pattern accomplishes the jumbling and confusticating.

My jacket of Realtree Hardwoods pattern works well. So do pants and gloves of Mossy Oak. A knit balaclava cap in Breakup camo has done yeoman’s service for many years, and an insulated Seclusion3D pullover, frequently patched and mended, has never failed me. All of these pieces of camo clothing, in any mix-and-(non)match combination will do a good job of concealment if I sit still an do not fidget too much. But then, a scruffy faded-green sweatshirt that I tossed into a bucket of walnut husk “dye” has also proved to be adequate camo in the first week of the bow season. You pays yer money and yer takes yer choice.

Scent? That is a different matter. I refuse to be convinced that carefully coordinated camo clothing makes a bit of difference when bow hunting, but I am a believer in scent-killer sprays, laundry detergents, and deodorants. More times than I care to admit I have been “busted” by a stray gust of wind that carried my scent to an otherwise unsuspecting deer that has been approaching my tree stand.

Of course, there is a possibility that I just smell really, really bad, but I’m not about to admit that. Or stop smoking cigars. Tobacco stains, by the way, add a nice touch to any piece of camo outerwear.


About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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