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The Scoop on Deer Sign as the Rut Approaches

Decipher the locations and concentrations of scrapes and rubs into airtight hunting strategies.

The Scoop on Deer Sign as the Rut Approaches

Scientists postulate mature bucks produce pheromones that younger bucks cannot. When these are deposited at rubs and scrapes, they may trigger breeding activity. (Shutterstock image)

In October 2019, National Deer Association (NDA) biologist Kip Adams wrote: "Whitetails don’t have cell phones or social media accounts, but they are far more social than most hunters realize. They surf the information highway at rubs and scrapes to stay in contact with locals as well as travelers. During the rut, rubs and scrapes are primary communication locations for deer."

Truer words have not been written. However, it does not mean that scrapes and rubs are great places to set stands. After all, research shows that the majority of buck scrape visits occur at night. And rub lines indicate favored travel routes bucks use regularly between bedding and feeding areas more so than any single rub. Locations where two or more rub lines intersect may also have scrapes, and these areas are great places to hang stands. Here’s how to decipher the important clues whitetails leave behind during their travels to vector in on bucks during the pre-rut and rut period this fall.

SCRAPE SCIENCE

Have you ever set up on a fresh scrape only to sit for days and not see a thing? Well, wildlife researchers have shown that most scraping activity (nearly 85 percent) occurs at night. So, hunting directly over a scrape may not be the best strategy. A hot scrape or scrape line is certainly a sign of a good area, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus of your hunting effort.

whitetail deer buck
Instead of focusing on a single scrape, seek out a primary scrape area, where several scrapes are concentrated in close proximity within thick cover. (Shutterstock image)

Some interesting conclusions about deer activity with regard to rubs and scrapes were outlined in the NDA’s 2012 Deer Report. The report stated that pheromones deposited at signposts (rubs and scrapes) by mature bucks may have a “bio-stimulating” or trigger effect on the breeding season. Older bucks may also produce "controlling" or "priming" pheromones that yearling bucks are not physically mature enough to produce. Areas with mature bucks can have 10 times as many rubs as areas without them.

They further reported mature bucks make about 85 percent more scrapes and 50 percent more rubs than yearling bucks. They found that bucks of all ages use scrapes, and any given scrape is likely to be used by many individuals. Lastly, scrapes only a couple hundred yards apart may be used by completely different groups of bucks, which brings into question the idea of a "scrape line."

SCRAPE HUNTING?

Basically, bucks make scrapes in areas with lots of doe activity, including near mast and fruit trees, crop field perimeters, funnels through transition zones and along edge lines between two distinct types of cover. The problem for hunters is that they often fail to ask the right question when deciding whether to hunt a specific scrape location.

The right question is: Does this particular scrape location have adequate security cover that will allow a buck to feel safe enough to visit it during legal shooting hours? The answer should be based in no small part on the amount and type of hunting pressure the area receives. The more pressure, the less likely a mature buck will visit the scrape(s) during daylight hours.

Furthermore, I have learned over the years that sitting over a big, solitary scrape is often a fool’s errand. Instead, I use them primarily as a way to inventory a particular area’s deer herd. Starting in very late summer until early fall, bucks visit scrapes and use the licking branch as a way to communicate with other deer. To sweeten scrapes—both fresh and mock scrapes—I use estrous doe urine. These spots draw cruising deer, and trail cameras positioned near them give me a good idea of what’s living in the area.

Rather than focus on a single scrape, I look for what many now refer to as a "primary scrape area"—a zone featuring clusters of concentrated scrapes inside some form of thick cover. If, as the research suggests, 85 percent of scrape visits happen after dark, this is where the 15 percent of daylight activity happens. Clusters of scrapes in thick cover are also strong indicators that you’re close to bedding thickets—another great reason to focus your efforts there.

Creating a mock scrape freshened with urine-based scents is also a great way to "sweeten" a stand location. During the pre-rut and rut, for example, I like to create a little mock scrape upwind of my stand and hang a scent wick liberally doused with a doe estrous scent. The belief is that it might be enough to nudge a passing buck over to take a quick look—and give me a shot.

hunter with buck
The author arrowed this buck as it worked its way along a rub line between an agricultural field and a bedding thicket. (Photo by Bob Robb)

WHAT ABOUT RUBS?

Rubs—and especially rub lines—are great indicators of good places to set stands for the simple reason that they suggest preferred deer travel corridors. Mature bucks will often take a moment as they travel between feeding and bedding areas to rub trees and let others know they’re in the neighborhood.

They rub trees to remove velvet and in mock battle. Thus, the best places to find rub lines are along the edges of cover where deer are most likely to travel. Follow them until you find natural pinch points, and you’re well on your way to having a killer stand location.

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Signpost rubs are important to consider when planning your hunt. A signpost rub is defined as a primary rub tree—usually a large-diameter tree that’s often used year after year—where mature, socially high-ranking bucks deposit a variety of glandular secretions. Rubs are both visual and olfactory signalers to other deer.

Because rubbing is done primarily with the antler base and forehead, each rub carries the maker’s identifying odor. Multiple bucks often rub the same tree. Signpost rubs are usually located in high-traffic areas, often at the intersection of multiple trails. Bucks cruising an area from all points of the compass will end up passing by on a regular basis as they seek the last estrous does of the year. Rub densities are generally highest in areas with abundant food sources, including wooded cover near agriculture and oak motts during high-mast years.

Other important locations include areas near forest openings with lush herbaceous growth, and even feeder locations, which provide a regular and concentrated food source. Rubs can also be concentrated at trail junctions, along old roadbeds and, in hilly or mountainous country, along trails, ridgetops, stream courses and old two-track roads.

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

Some of the very best pre-rut and rut hunting locations I’ve ever found combine both fresh rub lines and scraping activity. Here are two examples. In a small patch of woods, a half-mile from a big ag field, was an old, ramshackle barn where a pair of ancient, broken-down barbed-wire fences intersected.

Two long, traditional rub lines met at the intersection, and one of the thick wooden gateposts had been rubbed to an hourglass shape over decades. There were fresh rubs up and down both lines, and several scrapes clustered nearby. The place reeked of big-buck action. I sat it for 6 days and saw no fewer than 15 different bucks pass by until, on day 6, one of the largest bucks I’ve ever seen showed up. That I did not arrow him is a tale for another day.

Another time I was hunting a new property, running and gunning until I found a rub line leading up out of a deep hollow and over a steep hill, the trail passing under a barbed-wire fence at the top of the hill, then down into a cornfield in the adjacent valley. The rub line was marked with a handful of scrapes.

I chose a tree at the top of the ridge near the fence where the wind was constant and the afternoon thermals carried my scent up and away. The tree was 25 yards downwind from a big rub tree on the trail. At slap dark a huge-bodied 8-point ghosted up out of the bottom. When he stopped to rub that big tree, I was able to make the shot.

Additionally, rub lines tying bedding areas together or connecting preferred food sources with bedding thickets can be great places to set up and catch a rut-crazed buck cruising for a doe at any hour of the day.

After decades in the woods, I’ve found that rub lines and scrape clusters—not individual examples of either—to be excellent areas to focus on. Where both are present in or adjacent to thick cover that offers deer a sense of security are top-notch places to set up.

MIND YOUR STINK

  • Deer communicate via scent. Don’t add yours to the mix.

When hunting near scrapes—and especially when freshening up a natural scrape or creating a mock one—following a meticulous scent-control program is critical. After all, information passed from deer to deer at scrapes is basically all done via scent, so not contaminating the place with your own is crucial.

First of all, don’t touch anything with bare skin. Disposable nitrile gloves are the ticket, as are knee-high rubber boots. Be sure to douse yourself and your gear with a scent-eliminating spray and use a stick to make or widen a scrape. If you use scent wicks, don’t touch them with bare skin, and store them in zip-top baggies.

Sometimes, running a drag line downwind of your stand to the scrape from several hundred yards out can draw a cruising buck to the scrape, which should be located within shooting range of your stand.




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