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Comprehending Whitetail Rubs

Todd Amenrud | Originally published in GameKeepers: Farming for Wildlife Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

deer rubbing antlers
Despite having the technology of trail-cameras, reading physical sign like rubs, scrapes and tracks is still one of the best ways for a hunter to learn the travel patterns of bucks. Much can be learned by examining these sign posts.
antler velvet
The smaller buck in the photo ate the velvet from this giant’s crown. Some
believe bucks rub specifically for the purpose of removing antler velvet.
The author believes because of the violently increased dose of
testosterone they’re simply marking the area with a signpost and testing
out their new antlers - velvet removal happens as a result.

One of the marks of an adult buck, the appropriately named "rub," is one of the best scouting aids a hunter has to learn about a buck’s habits. Sure we have trail cameras now-days, but a hunter should still learn to read physical sign like rubs, scrapes, tracks, etc. During late-summer very increased amounts of testosterone start flowing through a buck’s body. Blood stops flowing to the antlers, his “bone-crown” hardens, the antler velvet dries and around this time they will begin making rubs.

Why do bucks make rubs?

A few years ago I read a piece that said there were several reasons why - one reason bucks make rubs is to remove antler velvet, another was to build up neck muscles. I don’t believe either is true. The fact that they’re rubbing may aid in detaching some of the velvet, and it’s obvious this act helps to build up those majestic looking, “linebacker-like” necks we see, but I don’t believe they rub solely to accomplish velvet removal or for a good workout. I don’t think either is its own classification of rub; it’s simply the buck testing out their new antlers and marking the area with a signpost.

Velvet falls off, is eaten off by birds and other deer, scuffed off from sparing and numerous other incidental reasons.

What Does It Mean When A Buck Rubs A Tree?

In my view, the main reason bucks make rubs is as a sign post to the other deer in the area, both bucks and does. Deer rubs ares a visual and scent-coated marker that transmits numerous details to the other deer in the area.

large buck rub
You can most often tell the direction of travel from a
rub, and you can sometimes tell the size of the buck
that made it. Besides the overall size of the rub,
sometimes you’ll see gouge or marks on adjacent
branches that would indicate tine length.

The majority of rubs are made by the more dominant, breeding-age bucks in the area to signal their readiness to breed and to announce their influence over a given area. Young bucks also make rubs, but mature bucks rub more often, are the first to make rubs in the fall and will create the rubs that are most often the ones focused on by the other members of the herd.

Rubs are intended to be both, “eye-catching” and to transmit smell-messages to the herd. They are anointed with each buck's distinctive scent. All whitetails have specialized forehead glands that increase activity during the fall. Studies show that mature, socially high-ranking bucks release greater amounts of the glandular secretion than do younger males or females.

When there is a balanced herd, the older bucks tend to be the primary signpost makers and message "senders" within the group and younger males and females are the primary message "receivers." It has been shown that the chemical signals exchanged at a rub will suppress the aggressiveness and sex drive of younger males and those same signals stimulate females and help synchronize breeding cycles. As a result, the presence of older bucks and these signposts (both rubs & scrapes) helps maintain social order in a given area.

When Do Bucks Start Rubbing?

The process of beginning to make rubs for the year happens suddenly. One day you’ll observe a docile creature with fuzzy antlers and the next day he’s changed into a feisty hard-antlered beast. A serious reduction in blood flowing to the nerves in the velvet causes the cells to die. Not only will they begin to make rubs, but they will start to spar with the other bucks and exhibit other more aggressive behavior after this tremendous transformation.

I recall hunting the edge of a flax field near Pembina, North Dakota on their opener one year. I was watching a two-year old 4x4 (that I guess might score 120 inches) just mow down the tender ends of the flax plants. He walked directly under my tree into the bush and emerged 10 minutes later with a few bloody strands of velvet hanging from his rack. I was then a spectator to something I hadn’t seen before - birds (I don’t remember the species) began dive-bombing and swarming this buck, plucking the nutrient-rich velvet from his summit.

sign posts rub
Rubs are both visual and scent-broadcasting sign
posts. They hold the distinct smells from each buck
that has interacted with it. All whitetails have
forehead glands and studies show that mature
bucks release greater amounts of this glandular
secretion than younger males or does.

Numerous times I’ve seen other deer (almost always other bucks) eat the nutrient-packed velvet from another buck’s antlers. I suppose this vitamin-packed substance is too valuable to waste.

While I’m cautious to make the claim that a rub is made specifically for removing velvet or building neck muscles, I do believe they may possibly be made for different reasons. One reason, and probably the most important and prominent, is to transmit messages - not only visually, but mainly by scent. As said, a buck will rub his forehead or preorbital gland on the tree. This tells the other deer in the area exactly which buck made the rub along with other scent-carried messages. However, sometimes, it seems they rub out of frustration. With all that testosterone-produced energy penned-up inside, I might take up rubbing trees too. I've witnessed bucks make rubs in the presence of other bucks in sort of an aggressive act - "Don't mess with me! See what I can do to this tree." In this case it appeared the purpose was as a display of dominance, not necessarily to mark territory.

This feat, as stated, also helps build up the neck muscles on the bucks. This is nature’s way of seeing, that for the most part, only the strong survive and perpetuate. There will always be some year-old bucks that will do a small percentage of the breeding, even if you have a balanced sex ratio and age structure. But with a balanced herd the more dominant, breeding class bucks will do the majority of the breeding, thus better genes should be passed along.

For whatever reason rubs are made they are an excellent way to learn a buck’s travel patterns. Following their daily movements and then ambushing them along one of these paths is a proven tactic for harvesting trophy bucks.

What Do Rub Lines Mean?

When you come across a good density of rubs it usually means you've found an area where at least one buck is spending a good majority of his time. I’ve heard it called a "hub," "core area" or "secure area," it's definitely a spot we're trying to find. Whitetails will often have a number of different secure areas and many travel routes to and from them. They’ll choose which bedding site or which route to use depending on where the wind and other factors will give them the best advantage. They also change secure areas and travel routes depending on time of year, the availability of cover, pressure and food changes during the course of the season. 

brush rub
Don’t expect all rubs to be on typical trees or
saplings. Bucks will rub on fence posts, bird-feeder
stakes, telephone poles, or in this case, bushes and
brush-clumps like the one pictured here.

Once located, a buck’s hub or "bedroom" is a reliable origin to begin the hunt. Food sources, travel routes and other factors change, but their bedrooms will remain reliable day to day – that is, unless pressured or seasonal needs create the need for them to make a cyclic move. They pick these spots for a reason. If not pressured, or if the conditions haven’t changed drastically, usually they'll go back to these spots day after day Different deer have distinctive personalities. Some deer seem to love to rub on tees and others don't do it as often. The number of rubs correlates with the age and breeding status of a buck, as well as the buck to doe ratio in the area. Sometimes the amount of rubs can also depend on the type or size of the trees in an area. If there aren’t many trees of the right size or type, obviously you won’t see as many rubs. Don’t always expect rubs to be on trees and saplings, they may also choose to rub on fence posts, bird-feeder stakes or telephone poles.

My Ontario property is a perfect example of how they don’t always have to be “normal rubs.” We have a balanced buck to doe ratio and a great age structure. We also have the most perfect poplar trees that I’ve ever seen for bucks to rub on. If I were a buck I would be rubbing’ like crazy. Yet for some reason they don’t use these saplings. What I would call a “traditional rub” are few and far between. They instead favor bushes like small willows and red osier dogwood. 

Other important evidence can be detected from rubs aside from simply “a buck has been here.” Direction of travel should be easy to tell. If a buck is traveling north, he's facing the south side of the tree, so the rubs should be on the south side of the tree. 

Size of the buck can be told too. You've all heard, big deer rub on big trees - small deer rub on small trees. For the most part that's true. However, big deer will also rub on small trees, but small deer seldom rub on big trees. If the rub is on a small tree, how high it is off the ground is a good indicator as to the size of the buck - the higher off the ground, typically the bigger the buck. Unless the tree was so skinny a smaller buck could have pushed the tree over and worked up the tree that way.

As far as where to intercept a buck along a rub line - I like to work from their core area. I don't mean bust right into his bedding area, I mean use it as a starting point. Use it in conjunction with other things in their domain – food sources, doe bedding areas, pinch-points and other structure, etc.

Once you’ve found out where a buck is spending the majority of his time, try to put very little pressure on the spot. If you spook him from his secure spot, you may have blown everything, or at the very least, you’ll have to start all over from square-one. Some bucks will tolerate very little before vacating the area or making it seem as if they’ve vanished.

buck rubbing
Most of us rely on trail-cameras to glean knowledge
of our quarry; however, we should also learn to
interpret physical sign like rubs, scrapes, tracks,
beds, etc. The author feels that rubs are one of the
most important forms of physical sign we have to
help us learn of a buck’s habits.

You'll have to determine when and where he’s going to give you a shot during legal hunting hours? Is he going to dawdle on his way back to his bedding site in the morning? Does he like to get up midday and take a stroll around his perimeter? I hear people say a buck is “totally nocturnal,” I highly doubt it, but it may seem that way. If he's one of those bucks you never see mornings or evenings and you think he's nocturnal, midday is my favorite time for a buck like that.

How to Make An Artificial "Mock" Buck Rub?

Just as some people create mock scrapes to fool bucks, using mock rubs can also assist in the dupe. A wood-rasp or pruner will work to scuff the small trees to produce your rub. I like to concentrate on 2 to 4 inch diameter trees. Utilize the same size and same species of trees/saplings the bucks in your area favor. And if the bucks in your area aren’t rubbing a lot, don’t go crazy with it. I believe this visual marker induces a response from the bucks. Oftentimes I’ll place a small amount of a scent called Mega Tarsal Plus on my mock rubs. This territorial intrusion scent aids in pulling off the illusion that a foreign buck has invaded their turf. Mock rubs can be used alone or in conjunction with mock scrapes.

Rubs are one of the best physical scouting aids we have. Sure, nowadays trail camera photos are what most people rely on, but aside from an actual animal sighting, you can gather more information from a rub than any other form of physical sign. If you search out rubs in your hunting area they just might lead you to a buck this season.

If you want to learn more about reading deer sign and locating bucks, take a few minutes to read the article about Backtracking Bucks by Todd Amenrud. Todd is the editor of GameKeepers: Farming for Wildlife Magazine, an accomplished outdoorsman and an avid food plot guru!

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