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Buck Rubs: What Can They Tell Us?

You can learn a lot about those shredded trees we all get excited about each fall.

Buck Rubs: What Can They Tell Us?

If you have been hunting the same location for a long time, you may have noticed many rubs are located on the same trees year after year. Bucks often rub highly aromatic trees like pines, sassafras, cedar, and even telephone poles.

Finding the first rub of the season is always special. The problem is, visitation rates of bucks at rub and scrape sites is primarily a nocturnal activity. Various research papers with trail cameras have shown an 85-percent nighttime visitation rate of bucks at scrapes. Buck visitation at rub sites is somewhat similar.

One of the first studies on visitation rates at buck rubs was conducted by Dr. Grant Woods. While working on his doctorate at Clemson University, he used trail cameras to determine most of the deer behavior(s) at rubs occurred, you guessed it, at night. His results indicated that 74 percent of all buck, 60 percent of doe, and 51 percent of fawn photographs were taken between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Woods determined that all rubs are not created equally. He defined any tree that has been rubbed for three consecutive years and is at least three inches in diameter to be a “traditional rub.” Any other rub that didn’t meet this definition was called a “nontraditional rub.”

Woods used nine trail cameras over the course of two years to individually monitor deer behavior at nine traditional rub sites, and he captured a total of 379 specific occurrences. Woods found six of the nine traditional rubs experienced some reuse. One buck was monitored at six of the nine traditional rub sites during the year. One traditional rub had at least 13 different bucks photographed. Nine of these bucks were estimated at more than 1.5 years old. Apparently, mature bucks are more likely to address a traditional rub than yearling bucks.

Throughout the years, I’ve placed my Browning trail cameras directly in front of many traditional buck rubs. My results somewhat paralleled Woods’ results.

Although buck visitation was primarily nocturnal, I had many more bucks visit during the day than Woods did. This most likely occurred because the area where I hunted did not have as much hunting pressure.

Nighttime visits at rub sites are most likely tied to deer modifying their daily movements to avoid hunters. Different studies have found that deer will readily adjust their activity periods to avoid potentially dangerous situations. This pressure may account for the high number of photos taken at night. Pen studies have shown that bucks commonly rub during daylight hours. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that hunters in areas with low hunting pressure can expect more bucks to rub during daylight hours than those experienced in Woods’ study.

Another interesting finding by Dr. Woods was that buck activity around traditional rubs was strongly associated with the first conception dates. In fact, he found an increase around traditional rubs during the rut. Although most hunters believe this increase occurs prior to the rut, Woods’s study proved otherwise.

Since his work was conducted under an intense quality deer management program, this may account for the discrepancies.

Some hunters may ask, “How can I find traditional rubs without any prior knowledge of the area?” Woods found from a habitat or cover point of view, that traditional rubs are generally located in areas with 80 yards of minimal, unobstructed ground cover.

Another interesting rub study was conducted by Dr. Karl Miller at the University of Georgia. Miller used a known buck density and rub density in a specific study area to theoretically determine that a mature buck could make up to 300 to 400 rubs each fall! And yes, mature bucks will create more rubs than immature bucks.

If you hunt a deer herd with a younger age structure of bucks, the number of rubs is closer to half the number produced by mature bucks. Although these rub numbers may seem high, there can be significant variation in different deer herds. For example, is your buck-to-doe ratio balanced or skewed toward a younger herd? Are there too many or too few bucks in your area? Is your habitat devoid of any understory vegetation?


Whatever the reason, I found some bucks are good “rubbers,” while other mature bucks are not. In other words, your area can have everything right, but not nearly the number of rubs as previously reported in Miller’s findings. We know larger-racked bucks will rub both large and small trees. But what about small bucks rubbing large-diameter trees? Contrary to what some experts say, they definitely will rub large trees, but more often than not, they prefer smaller trees to rub.

Why does a buck make rubs? This most likely has to do with the forehead gland located at the base of the antlers. Research has shown mature bucks have more glandular secretion in the forehead region than younger bucks. This gland becomes even more active during the rut. Although not totally proven, some biologists believe this unique scent found on buck rubs can convey information about a specific buck’s social status.

In addition to a visual display, buck rubs also act as a “scent post” used by all deer. In fact, adult does have also been reported to rub against buck rubs with their forehead gland. Obviously, the levels of glandular secretions in does is much lower than in bucks. Some hunters have skinned the forehead gland from harvested bucks and used them to re-rub existing rubs. Their rationale in using forehead glands is if bucks in the local area don’t recognize the specific pheromone (or smell), or where it fits within the buck hierarchy, you can theoretically draw those bucks to your hunting location.

Six behaviors have been identified at rubs: antler touch, forehead touch, body touch, smelling, rubbing, and butt touch. All behaviors are self-explanatory, except the butt touch. Adult does have been photographed rubbing their posterior up against a rub. Maybe they’re simply rubbing because they have an itch? Sound weird? You bet!

C.J.’s Summary: Conducting a daytime buck-rub study on traditional rubs is something anyone can replicate with a trail camera. If you don’t own any, or have enough trail cameras (who does?), a convenient way to check for bucks is to mark any rubs with a thick, leaded carpenter’s pencil. If the pencil lines on a rub are no longer present, you can assume a buck reused the buck rub. Remember: One buck can make hundreds of rubs each fall.

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