You hear about them. You notice them in the woods. You know they have something to do with the whitetail rut. But, do you really understand the significance of rubs and scrapes? When I polled a sample group of hunters, I was surprised to learn that few understood why these markings are made, how deer use them to communicate … or how to bow hunt over, or near, them.
So, what’s all the fuss about rubs and scrapes? Going into the most coveted time of year for bow hunters, this month I’m going to focus less on hunting gear and more on tips to help you better your hunting skills.
Whitetail bucks begin rubbing their antlers on trees, establishing territorial markings as early as the beginning of September as they shed their velvet. Detailed explanations aside, the transition to hard antlers denotes the very earliest stages of the pre-rut, a time when bucks start polishing their antlers, strengthening their neck muscles, and claiming their territory.
Rubs are commonly seen on poplar, birch, and spruce trees, but they can also be seen on a variety of other trees and shrubs as well. Early on, they create these tell-tale signs by scarring the bark throughout their home range. Aside from these practical reasons, bucks use rubs to communicate with other bucks and does in the area.
A common misconception is that a small rub is made by a small buck. While this is partially true, small bucks will indeed work only small trees, but big bucks will often rub on larger trees as well as smaller ones. Interpreting rubs can be fairly straightforward. As a rule, I take note of any rubs I see in the areas I hunt, but I don’t get excited until I see something extraordinary. Noteworthy in my opinion means a rub on a tree larger than four inches in diameter. Locate fresh rubs on trees greater than eight inches in diameter and you could well be on the trail of a giant!
In the end however, all that a rub tells you is that a buck was in the area. They will indeed work and rework a rub line, but the sign that should never be ignored is scrapes – primary, or “community”, scrapes in particular.
What is a Scrape?
Scrapes are one of the most critical communication signposts used by whitetail deer. In agricultural areas, first scrapes of the year begin to show up along field edges and tree lines. These are territorial markers and communication tools. Bucks and does both visit these regularly, paw the ground to expose fresh earth, and stand in scrapes, then urinate in them. Scrapes are almost always made under some type of overhanging branches. These are referred to as licking branches as bucks lick them and rub their orbital glands on them to deposit scent. Urine deposited in the scrapes, and glandular secretions left on licking branches, contain pheromones that indicate breeding readiness. Other deer visiting these sites detect the hormonally charged scents to identify which deer was there, and whether they were bucks or does. This behavior persists and gradually builds throughout the pre-rut in September and October. As the rut proper approaches, scrapes are visited more frequently by both bucks and does. In my view, scrapes are the number one most important sign that deer hunters should pay attention to.
Throughout September and the early part of October, much like rubs, bucks will make boundary scrapes to mark their home range. Again, as a bow hunter in the early season, I make note of these but it is only when the late October pre-rut heats up in preparation for the fast-approaching breeding season, that I begin focusing my attention on these.
Bow Hunt over Primary Scrapes
Primary scrapes are immensely important for serious whitetail hunters. Among all of the boundary, or secondary scrapes, made by resident bucks, by the end of October in many regions of the U.S. and Canada, bucks will begin to focusing on a select number of scrapes in areas that they consider most frequented by does. These become primary scrapes. They may look bigger, deeper, and fresher than others in the area. As bucks work their scrape lines, they will continue to open secondary scrapes in an effort to monitor does for breeding readiness, but as soon as the first estrus occurs – usually between November 11th and 16th (again, throughout the mid-west, northeastern, and northern states and provinces, they will step up their monitoring efforts to focus on those primary scrapes.) Biologists typically say that bucks will visit those primary scrapes once or more every 24 hours. What does this mean for bow hunters? As both a bow hunter and as a gun hunter, I have learned to set up stands and ground blinds in close proximity to these primary scrapes.
If you’ve spent any amount of time in the deer woods then you know that after the first estrus, most scrapes are abandoned and it is only those primary scrapes that continue to be serviced, and less frequently at that. As the second estrus hits, usually between November 21st to 25th so, those primary scrapes are worked and bucks and does continue to use them to communicate with one another. Then, almost overnight, as the post rut hits with a vengeance, deer abandon the scrapes altogether.
Make Mock Scrapes
The best tip I can offer, aside from focusing on primary scrapes, is to make and hunt over a mock scrape strategically placed along a heavily traveled natural scrape line. I’ve taken many bucks over scrapes that I made myself. Sometimes natural scrapes are made in places less conducive to setting a tree stand or ground blind. By crafting a mock scrape that, in essence, competes with the natural scrape, we “call out” the resident bucks and lay down a challenge. Dominant bucks in particular, are usually eager to accept the challenge and they will often take over the mock scrape servicing it themselves.
Care should be taken when making a mock scrape. I like to wear gloves and use a stick to scrape back the ground anywhere from 24-inches to 36-inches in diameter. Using a stick, I kick back the leaves and earth in one direction to make it look natural. I then spray scent in the scrape. I’ve had incredible success with Tink’s Scrape Starter and have taken many bucks with a bow and a gun using this combination. If you’ve never tried this strategy, its time you did. You won’t be disappointed.