“Early scraping activity signals the presence of a mature buck…”
John Ozoga, “Whitetail Intrigue”
Most hunters associate scrapes with the whitetail rut. Bucks are pumped with testosterone and use these cleared oval areas on the ground to alert does to their presence, status, and virility. But bucks also make scrapes well before the rut. Those early ones can be great hunting spots in October, when breeding still lies a few weeks away.
The key to using these early scrapes in your hunting strategy is knowing the different meaning they have from later rut scrapes made in mid and late November. Bucks make these early signpost markings to assert their status to other males in the herd. Biologist John Ozoga calls early scrapes “an aggressive expression of dominance directed at other males.” (Whitetail Intrigue). They are a vital part of buck hierarchy positioning in preparation for the rut.
Since early scrapes are directed at other bucks, the key is to look for them near thick, isolated spots where male deer hangout before the rut—not in doe areas. That is where bucks will be posturing, feinting and occasionally scuffling to establish dominance positions.
Later, in November, bucks will expand where they leave scrapes, moving closer to gentler doe territory and eventually right into female living areas. That’s when the second function of scrapes takes over, according to Ozoga, “allowing the buck to communicate to females his superior status, and readiness to breed.”
But for now, scraping is aimed at fellow males, and core late-summer/fall buck areas are where you need to focus. Fortunately, since fewer scrapes are made at this time, the odds of any one you’re watching paying off increase substantially.
Pinpoint these core buck areas through scouting, and studying topos and satellite photos. Look for gnarly, isolated, steep, or swampy areas. Then focus on transition corridors where bucks make their way from these remote, dense bedding spots to evening feed fields.
The oldest bucks often won’t reach those destinations until full dark, so the closer they are to the bedding cover, the more likely scrapes are to produce daylight shooting opportunities. Scrapes near fields that you find at this time of year were almost always made at night and thus less useful as hunting locations.
Be careful not to hunt too close to the bedding area or you might risk spooking a mature buck out. Instead, start your search at least 100-150 yards away, depending on amount of cover. If the first scrapes you try close to a field don’t produce, work gradually back and find ones closer to the buck’s core bedding zone.
Sometimes you’ll find these early scrapes right along a buck’s travel corridor, but often they’re located slightly off of major trails. Be sure you find a scrape with a licking branch 4-5 feet above it. These are the ones used most consistently by mature bucks.
Other good places to find early scrapes include side knolls, ridge spurs, points, benches, or logging roads crossing the main travel corridor.
To be worth watching, a scrape should be big (2-4 feet) and freshly-tended. If the scrape is small and haphazardly cleared, it’s likely made by a subordinate buck. A series of several large scrapes is best of all, but often before the rut you’ll just find one. That’s enough if it’s fresh and has a licking branch over it.
Trail cameras can certainly be helpful for monitoring scrapes and deciding which are hot, but use them carefully or not at all. The more time you spend fiddling around in a mature buck’s core area, the less likely you are to get a chance to harvest him.
If trail cameras or several fruitless watches show a buck is likely checking a scrape after dark, note the direction tracks show he was approaching from and move 75-150 yards that way. Set up down or crosswind there, closer to his bedding cover, and you may get a chance.
No, you won’t find as many active scrapes in October as you will in November. But the ones you watch are almost always those of an older buck. And the small number of active scrapes actually ups your odds of encountering a buck coming to check it out while you’re watching.