Gerald Almy: Gaining insights from buck ‘rubs’

Gerald Almy

As you think ahead about the upcoming rifle hunting season, or even if you don’t hunt but just want to learn more about whitetail deer, studying the signs these animals leave can reveal many interesting clues about their behavior.

Both hunters and naturalists look for things such as scrapes – places where bucks paw the ground to remove leaves and grass and leave scent. They also look for droppings to determine what the deer have been eating. And they look for individual tracks and well-used trails through woods and fields to see where they’re coming from and where they are going to.

Few types of sign fascinate us more, though, than the bright scars bucks leave on trees by rubbing their antlers against them. Here are 14 key insights rubs reveal that will help you formulate a strategy for harvesting a buck this fall or capturing images of these majestic animals on your camera.

• Bucks rub trees to leave scent and visual markings that declare their presence, release hormonal tension, and bulk up neck and shoulder muscles.

• Rubs are visual signs, yes. But they’re also stations to deposit scent in the form of primer pheromones. These show a buck’s social status, stimulate does, and suppress sex drives of younger bucks.

• Mature bucks rub three to four times more than younger ones and start earlier in fall.

• All bucks will rub small trees of 1-3 inches in diameter. Four-inch or thicker trees are rubbed mostly by 3 year or older bucks.

• When scouting, search for rub lines more than individual rubs. These show routes bucks are using and help you find crucial bed-to-feed travel patterns.

• Later, during the rut, fresh individual rubs are more important since they pinpoint a buck’s current location with a hot doe.

• Boundary rubs are made in early season, well before rut, as mature bucks mark their territory. These can make good early-season stand sites, but are poor choices otherwise.

• Trail rubs are made by bucks traveling through their core home range, often from feed areas to bedding cover. These are excellent spots during the pre-rut. Deer will usually be heading toward the blazed side of the rub.

• Rut rubs are made during peak breeding by hormonally charged bucks near a hot doe. Three to 4-inch trees may be rubbed, but the buck will also shred nearby saplings and brush to release pent-up testosterone and impress his mate and other nearby bucks. He may also paw the ground, making half-hearted scrapes. These are great peak-rut stand sites. If you find a fresh rut rub that wasn’t there a few days ago, set up immediately or hang a stand and return in the morning. The buck will hang out here with the estrous doe for 24-48 hours.

• Community rubs are made in places like staging areas or the intersection of major trails where large numbers of bucks pass and add their scent, typically on 3-6 inch trees. These can be prime spots to simply tag out with an average buck. They’re not consistent spots for ambushing older bucks – they may only visit them occasionally.

• Random rubs that are simply found scattered here and there are of little use for your hunting strategy. They’re light, incidental marks that may not even fully strip one side of the tree’s bark. A buck likely made these carelessly while wandering. He probably won’t return to that spot any time soon.

• Giant rubs are those made on trees measuring 6-12 inches across. These are rare and indicate a 4-8 year old buck’s core area. Set up downwind and wait. This is the motherlode rub, made by the buck of a lifetime. Be patient and wait for him.

• Dried up rubs that are pale, washed-out and wan-looking were probably made last year. Although a buck used that area in the past, he has not returned recently or the rubs would be fresher. The habitat may have declined. Find a better area.

• Field rubs are made by bucks as they approach these open areas to feed in early season. Except in lightly hunted areas or during peak rut, a mature buck probably won’t enter these open areas until after shooting light. He likely made these rubs at night. Backtrack and find where that rub connects to a line of blazed trees further back in a brushy staging area or along a travel route from bedding cover. Set up there and you’ll have terrific odds for intercepting an early-season or pre-rut buck heading to the field while there’s still shooting light in late afternoon.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.