Ask The Deer Tracker

Posted on August 21, 2018



August Column

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Q. – No matter where I hunt, whether on my own property or some distant location, one of the first and most valuable signs to me is finding buck rubs. Can you explain why it is that bucks rub trees, and if there’s a correlation with the rut associated with this activity?
R. B. – Schroon Lake, NY

A. – For the deer hunter, locating rubs on trees is a psychological edge. These visible signposts reveal that indeed there are bucks residing in the area. The reason for this behavior remains a mystery, even to the most dedicated behaviorist. While it is true that we gain much insight from observation, figuring out why is speculative at best. What we do know is that rubbing activity does not stem from antlers that itch. Antlers once calcified are nothing more than dead bone attached at the pedicle and thus cannot and do not have any feeling. It is my belief that rubbing behavior is both innate and learned.



Early in the fall bucks will rub trees to advertise their presence to other males living within the vicinity. Although the rub becomes a visible sign to any deer passing through, it is what is left at a rub that really becomes important. Atop the male’s head are multiple glands that hold odors unique to him. In layman’s terms, it’s his personal scent. In the process of making a rub, the buck will distribute that scent onto the tree. In many instances, the buck will actually lick the fresh scarring in between rubbing further distributing additional scent. Understand, in a whitetails world most of their communication is transmitted through scents and the sense of smell. When another buck approaches a rub he can identify the maker by the scent that has been left.

As the rut intensifies more and more rubbing takes place. I believe this to be more the result of frustration and intimidation. The buck, filled to the brink with testosterone, is venting his frustration at not yet being allowed to breed. Because of this increased annoyance, he is intolerable to any other buck and shows his heightened aggression by beating up trees. And because he wants to be the chosen sire, the buck struts his stuff in front of perspective mates by vigorously rubbing trees.


Q. – Each deer season I find a variety of rubs, some made on small trees while others are carved out on much larger trees. Does tree size actually matter when determining the bulk of the buck that made the rub? And, do individual bucks have preferences for the tree species they choose to rub?
B. P. – Scranton, PA

A. – When it comes to tree rubs and whitetail bucks, size really does matter. Mature bucks, regardless of antler configuration or mass will rub both large and pencil size trees. However, small bucks will only rub small trees. The most effective way to determine the size of the buck making is to answer a few key questions. First, what species of tree is the buck rubbing? Some bark is a lot tougher to rub than others. For instance, brown ash is a bark that takes little effort to scar, whereas maple takes great physical effort on the buck’s part to peel. Second, how high are the antler marks on the tree? The higher they reach the bigger the animal. What kind of damage has he made on the tree; has he torn it up? A large buck can and will exert a lot of pressure when rubbing, especially if he is frustrated or irritated. I have seen green saplings snapped in half by bucks on numerous occasions, a feat that can only be accomplished by a large buck in a rather menacing mood. Finally, look at the hoof prints around the base of the tree being rubbed. How deep are they penetrating the soil? When a buck rubs most of his weight is transferred to his front legs; the heavier the buck the deeper his imprints will be.



Regarding a tree preference for individual bucks to rub, yes and no. I have found that certain bucks will only rub a specific tree species, while others seem to have no favorite and will rub just about anything. Bucks that only rub a specific species of tree become much easier to identify and keep tabs on as opposed to those that don’t.


Q. – I have read about making mock scrapes and affixing licking branches above those scrapes with the hope of enticing a buck or bucks into a specific location. Likewise, would it be prudent to make mock rubs and will that have any impact on the buck population living within my hunting area?
B. L. – Merrimack, NH



A – Although the practice may sound good in principle, I personally do not think there would be any value for your effort. Understand that when a buck makes a rub it is not just the visual sign he is leaving, there are scents deposited as well. These chemical residues come from both the individual buck’s forehead and saliva. During the process of making a rub, a buck will often pause and lick the tree he is raking. Unless you have a bottle of buck saliva and/or mixture of the compounds found in the forehead glands, a buck will find little-to-no interest in a fake rub.


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