How to Effectively Understand Whitetail Rubs
December 15, 2014
A few years back, my workload was doing an excellent job of keeping me out of the deer woods, keeping me from scouting new hunting grounds, as well as actually bowhunting my favorite old haunts. I was fit to be tied over missing the entire first month of archery season, and I vowed to correct that in short order.
A buddy of mine had gotten me permission to hunt a new place, but I hadn't laid eyes on the property — I'd been given only a mind's-eye lay of the land via phone conversations with my friend.
However, he reported great deer movement and gave an accurate description of the farm's woods, meadows, and grain fields.
With this information locked in my head, I bolted from my work assignments early one mid-October afternoon and sped out to the property. Soon, I was happily hiking a field road with my favorite recurve in hand and a lightweight hang-on stand and climbing sticks on my back. I was going in cold but I didn't care, because I was finally going bowhunting.
I crept along the track and stayed alert to any and all deer sign. In short order, I noticed a well-worn deer trail that ran away from the road, through a large flat of woods and then atop a long ridgetop that dropped sharply off on both sides into cavernous ravines. The west side drainage was choked with buck brush and hardwoods, while the east side dropped a bit more mildly down through many white oak trees before bottoming out in a small cattail slough.
Scanning down this hill, I was pleasantly surprised to see a rubline that ran from the top of the hill down to the swamp. There were some 20 trees of varying sizes that were torn up from recent buck activity!
Never one to look past a gift horse, I quickly hung my stand and climbed aboard to take vigil over the rubline. Fortuitously, the wind was easing out of the northeast and blowing my scent over the deep chasm behind me. Considering the impromptu nature of my hunt, I felt pretty darn good about my stand placement. An hour later, I was further elated when I observed a brawny 4x5 buck materialize from the swamp and head for the rubline.
The buck was in no hurry to get anywhere, and he spent nearly an hour browsing on acorns and occasionally making sawdust by vigorously rubbing his polished antlers on the many saplings. Then he unpredictably ambled off on another trail I hadn't noticed, which was taking him away from me and not up the hill to my stand. I solved this problem by throwing a few soft buck grunts at him with my deer call, and amazingly he slowly changed course and started up the ravine.
The hillside was fairly open, so I ceased calling and brought all my attention to bear on the buck's vitals. It took him a half-hour to meander within bow range because he paused often to browse and deposit scent at numerous rubs along the way. Finally, while he was rubbing a small tree in earnest only 11 yards out, I carefully drew my 55-pound recurve, touched anchor, and sent a vintage Bear Razorhead-tipped arrow whistling through his boiler room.
The buck was so engrossed in rubbing that he merely raised his head and then slowly sauntered down the trail I had come in on and simply toppled over with no fanfare whatsoever!
There may have been heaps of luck on that hunt, but it was smattered with a good deal of buck rub behavior I've learned over many seasons spent hunting and photographing whitetails. That information unquestionably tipped the odds a tad more in my favor and helped me hunt more confidently, despite not having set foot on the grounds prior to my hunt. I'm hoping the whitetail rubbing behaviors I'm going to describe in this article will help you locate and bag more bucks in the coming seasons.
Let's start with the rubbing activity timeline as it relates to archery season — from shedding velvet to post-rut.
Most hunters recognize that whitetail bucks begin rubbing in earnest when shedding the summer's antler velvet. Since many bow seasons begin in early September, knowing when and where bucks on your hunting parcel do the lion's share of their rubbing can be an invaluable step in taking a nice early season deer.
The gamble with scouting for rubs in the early season is the woods are generally very thick and you run the risk of spooking a wall-hanger out of his lair. However, it's a good bet to take if you go in a couple weeks ahead of bow season and are in and out fast while garnering practical information.
This way you can allow the spot to cool off for a time before actually hunting it. Through untold hours spent scouting and photographing whitetails in late summer and early fall, I have a good lock on what their typical rubbing days look like.
Almost without exception, I've learned early season bucks in my area go through a concentrated rubbing ritual after feeding all night. Velvet bucks and those that have just shed their antler coverings focus their rubbing efforts very near to or in their bedding areas. Many times, several good bucks hanging out in bachelor groups will rub in the same locale.
Since the peak rut is still a couple months off, these deer tolerate each other well, which is good news for early season bowhunters as opportunities for success rise with multiple bucks using a small area.
To find suitable stand sites, focus your scouting on densely foliated bedding areas containing many rubbed trees. Don't worry about the size of the rubs, as early season bucks are as likely to rub pencil-thin saplings as they are fencepost-sized trees. Matter of fact, early season bucks prefer to rub dense stands of smaller trees like dogwoods, willows, and ash.
My guess is that it allows them additional antler coverage and helps them deposit more preorbital and saliva-borne scent over a greater area. The only downside to hunting some early season rubbing bucks is that many times the substantial but undersized tree and brush cover doesn't work well for treestand use.
To waylay a nice buck here, I suggest placing a pop-up ground blind and fully brushing it in before the season. Or, simply become a blind yourself by donning a Ghillie suit to conceal your human form and blend in with your surroundings. Since you'll be hunting in close proximity to bedding areas, get in extremely early in the morning to avoid spooking deer as they return from nighttime feeding.
As fall moves into October, bucks will start to range further in their preliminary search for does. At this point they will begin making rublines along their new travel routes. These rublines normally run from bedding cover through browse areas and on to their main feedlots. These are the rubs most commonly seen by bowhunters, as they appear in lines and occur on everything from saplings and wrist-sized trees on up to mature trunked trees with serious diameters in relatively open terrain.
These rubs are a little easier to read and come with many options for ambushing bucks. Pick the end of the rubline that finishes at a bonafide food source, and you've got yourself a killer evening spot. Choose a stand site farther back in the woods, and you may kill a shy buck while he browses and waits for darkness to fall before entering a field.
Opt for the bedding end of the rubline for a morning stand site. If you find a concentration of rubs at the junction of several rublines and trails, erect a stand on the predominantly downwind side, as that marks the precise spot where a buck will establish his first scrapes.
This is just what my pal and longbowman, Paul Ziegler, and I did a few years back. We were set up 100 yards apart along distinct intersecting rublines that ran through a huge, undulating oak woodlot. The wind was howling through the woods, and after sitting "deer-less" for a few hours, I wasn't too excited about the prospect of any bucks showing up.
As if to squelch my pessimism, a line of does followed by two teenaged bucks crested a small rise and browsed within spitting distance of my stand. After letting them pass, I settled back with some satisfaction to wait out the remaining minutes of the hunt. That's when I spied Paul descending sloth-like from his stand and disappearing into a shallow ravine.
I couldn't figure out what he was doing, as it was well before our predetermined post-hunt meeting time. The curiosity was killing me, and frankly, I was a tad upset that he could be spooking bucks off the rub trail. I swiftly descended the tree and pussyfooted over the rise to see Paul standing over a monster 4x4 buck!
It seems Paul wasn't too optimistic about our chances of scoring that day either. He related how, after a short wait, he had hung his bow on a hanger and tightened his harness to sit back and daydream the hours away. That's when he heard muffled crunching — a sound made only by large hooves compressing dry oak litter. He peered down to spy an imposing buck meandering the rubline five yards under his treestand!
He quickly scooped up his home-crafted longbow and perforated the buck's lungs with his own classic Bear Razorhead as the buck paused near a large rub. Our mutual cynicism was definitely put to rest when that buck walked right into our rubline hunt plan.
Unfortunately, hunting some of these October rublines can go ice cold once the rut really kicks in and bucks break their routines to find mates. This is exactly why many deer experts say hunting rubs during the rut can be a waste of time. However, it doesn't have to be that way.
There is one type of rub that practically guarantees buck action during the rut, and that's the community rub. These are pretty easy to locate, because they are larger trees that show years of antler abuse by numbers of big whitetail bucks. Community rubs stand out from their surroundings with brutally battered and shredded bark and trunks polished with mirror brightness amongst the adjacent foliage. Which, by the way, is usually a thicket ideally suited for a buck to hide an estrous doe.
Find a community rub, and your odds of scoring on a buck will rise. This tactic works best right before and after the "lockdown" phase of the rut, when bucks are covering ground to find does nearing estrus and venting their frustrations and placing scent on the community rub to show territorial dominance.
But what if you're a late-season bowhunter who loves to chase whitetails in the snow? No worries, as rub clues can lead you right to a buck. After many years of photographing late-season winter whitetails, I have learned that after a morning feed, bucks will frequently visit the same dense early season rub sites to browse and work their antlers and scent glands.
With good snow for scouting and tracking, you can retrace a buck's tracks from a feeding field and see where they pass by rub thickets. This is another killer early morning ambush site. Bucks will spend quite a bit of time browsing and rubbing in these thickets, leaving ample sign to discern like bark shavings on top of the fresh snowpack. The best part is that often several nice bucks will be feeding and rubbing in the same location.
Find a heavy trail leading from a feedlot back to ample rub sign, and your odds of tagging a late-season buck will surely skyrocket.
To bag a crafty buck, you need to use all the evidence whitetails make available. Paying close attention to the clues provided by community rubs, rub clusters, and rublines will greatly boost your confidence and probability of securing a tag to a wall-hanger whitetail.
I captured this photo of a 5x5 as he scent-checked a rub cluster before beginning a rubbing session near a thick bedding area.
Here I am with a newly discovered rub that subsequently produced images of a great buck.
This is the buck I describe killing at the beginning of this story.
Although the peak rut is long over, this handsome 10-pointer checks his handiwork on a jumbo rub.
This gorgeous early season 10-pointer paused to rub a group of saplings in his core bedding area.
I photographed this eight-pointer while he hammered a community rub during the chase phase of the rut.
This claw-horned buck stopped to take a break from chasing does and shredding tree bark.