I have a long history of experimentation with various ways to keep my face from spooking game. The problem is real. No matter what clothing you’re wearing, the human face always seems to stand out. I always noted this when I was hunting with others. The problem is especially acute for those with pale complexions and light hair. My wife Lori’s lovely natural blonde hair looks like a neon sign in the woods.
I started out with face paint of various kinds, because that seemed to be what other bowhunters did back then. It helped, but there were aspects to face paint I didn’t like. It was messy and tended to sweat off when hunting in hot weather. If I neglected to clean up thoroughly after a hunt and stopped in at the local grocery store on the way home, I looked like a bank robber.
For a while I just went “natural,” with considerable assistance from my dark beard. Then one day I was hunting ducks from a blind with my dad and noticed that we were flaring birds that should have been landing in the decoys. Dad had a lush, snow white beard, and I decided that was the culprit. When he put a bandana across his face, the ducks started coming in again. A few years later I took a hard look in the mirror and realized that my own beard was now just as white as his had been. I couldn’t get away with hiding behind my whiskers any longer.
I began to experiment with various kinds of face masks, most of which proved disappointing. The main problem was that they slid around on my face, sometimes obstructing my vision. And they did nothing about my hair, which was rapidly turning gray as well.
Then I found a solution that I really liked: the Sitka Gear balaclava. Made from a polymer fabric, it doesn’t ice up from breath condensation as quickly as wool. While very comfortable, the fabric contains enough elasticity to keep it from sliding around on my face. It stays where I put it, and I’ve never had it interfere with my shooting. Even the lightweight version provides enough insulation so that I don’t wear a hat over it unless the temperature is well below zero. It covers my graying hair and, more importantly, Lori’s blonde mane. The balaclava is available in two fabric weights and several shades of camo to match each hunter’s situation.
Unless my beard suddenly turns black again, I’ll probably wear one for most of my future hunts.
E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
Hunters, especially bowhunters, will spend hundreds of dollars on camouflage outerwear. They will argue over patterns, waterproofness, cost…you name it. Granted, all camo works to a certain degree, with some far better than others; however, many hunters fail to mask the most visible part of their anatomy: their face.
I remember vividly the first time I came face-to-face with a deer under 30 yards. I was dressed head to toe in WWII camo…except for my face. I was stationary just off a trail with the uphill wind pushing against my face when the doe ambled across the hill below me. Arrow nocked, I was putting tension on the string as she fed along when she turned to nip off a succulent leaf on a bush between me and her. As soon as she reached out to bite the leaf, her head snapped up, eyes wide open, and with that just-saw-a-ghost look, she blasted down the hill so fast the dust from the wind filled my eyes.
That was an eye-opening event that taught me that although camo can help conceal me, my face was a shining beacon. Enter face camo.
For years, I used face paint from myriad manufacturers. Besides the hassle of putting in on, getting it off was thrice as hard. I turned to a face mask, and tried many versions and styles, all of which affected my ability to see, anchor, and release. Then I found Jones Face Camo, made by my friend Larry D. Jones. It came in round containers, went on easily, and could be removed quickly with a wet cloth or common baby wipes. No longer did I feel like I was sanding the skin off my face as before.
Jones Face Camo came in five colors: black, dark green, brown, gray, and white. The recommended application is to start with the darkest color first as a base coat, then apply highlights with the gray and white last, providing a true three-dimensional effect.
I have used Jones Face Camo often, even though I usually prefer a KUIU neck gaiter. However, there are times when I feel the face camo is more effective than trying to pull up a neck gaiter when a deer or elk suddenly appears out of nowhere and I get caught unprepared. So, I always carry it in my hunting pack and use it frequently.
This past elk season, I was lucky enough to call in an elk for my friend Virgil Vosse of Paris, France, on opening morning. I had attempted to apply my face camo before we started out, but it had finally dried out and I left it in camp. Neither one of us was prepared for this event, and both of us were caught in the open. Virgil knelt behind a large deadfall with some cover around it, while I was standing out in the open when the bull charged straight in to 15 yards. I oozed behind a tree and bugled, but the bull must have seen Virgil’s face, as it turned to slip around us to verify whatever it saw. I cow called, the bull stopped, and Virgil made a perfect double lung shot.
When I got back from the trip, I searched online to try and find Jones Face Camo. Almost every link went to removed pages, but I did find it for sale from Black Widow Bows and will be ordering more before my next big game hunt. In such situations, I find having face paint on can be better than getting caught without it.
Back in 1970 when I first got into bow hunting deer, it seemed every bowhunter had a camo painted face. I remember a few fellows even came to the annual broadhead shoot with face paint on. Deer were scarce, and we figured we needed all the odds on our side. I had some surplus army camo face paint, but it was hard to smear on and difficult to remove. I quickly replaced it with tubes of Bear Archery camo paint. I figured that was the way to do it. Like my peers, I felt like a sneaky, invisible bowhunter.
Over the next 40 years the deer numbers came up and so did my education on heavily hunted whitetails. I learned that all the camo and face paint in the world doesn’t make up for not being hidden and staying still. Over time, I decided it wasn’t my face that old doe was bobbing her head at, but my bulky body perched in the open.
One of my pet peeves on public land was the guys with tree climber stands trimming all the limbs on the trees at funnels so that over the years there was no cover left on the trees. The deer easily spotted the big lumps—or chumps, I guess you could say. I often use limbs for cover to breakup my outline and face, which brings me around to the point that I gave up trying to scrub off face paint many years ago. I also don’t like to shoot in a face mask. The mask seems to be a detriment to my hearing, an important sense to me, and a mask also affects my shooting. Face paint or a mask is just something else to carry and keep up with, so I try to keep it simple. When feeling vulnerable in open country I have used charcoal or blueberry juice on my face, but I feel it is movement and the human silhouette that animals zoom in on.
A white face certainly can stand out in the open, and I usually stop shaving a few days before I am to leave on a hunt or before the season starts. Even a few days of facial hair will help break the shine. I guess there are limits to a large beard once we get older. I had a friend whose hair and beard turned snow white, and he wrapped a camo head net around his long, white beard. Having watched him approach through the woods on numerous occasions without the beard cover I don’t think it was necessary as the beard seemed to diffuse the light and his face didn’t seem to stand out, but he felt more comfortable hunting with it on.
I guess if I felt I needed every break I wouldn’t be hunting with a bow, would I? Learn to hold still and use natural cover.
Don, T.J., and Sterling all write regularly for the magazine, from Montana, Idaho, and Alaska respectively. Each has opinions about everything. Remarkably, none of them has ever been wrong about any of them.