Hot whitetail sign might turn your crank, but subtle funnels will fill your deer tags.
The huge rubs on the thick cedars 20 yards from my stand shined like beacons in the gray light of dawn. For three seasons, bucks had severely abused this same string of cedars, and everything I'd read told me this rub line could be my ticket to arrowing Mr. Big. With great anticipation I waited, and waited, and then waited some more. Mr. Big never showed!
My cousin Mike arrowed this buck on public land at a stand site we picked solely for its terrain features. We found no significant buck sign nearby and, not surprisingly, no signs of other hunters, either.
Surely I'm not the only public-land hunter who has whiled away many long hours sitting over can't-miss sign, only to suffer disappointment time and again. Car-hood-sized scrapes steaming with fresh urine, thigh-sized rubs, beat down trails -- you name it, I've sat it, and have occasionally got lucky. But if you want to talk consistency -- forget about it!
When I did finally manage to arrow a good buck off some hot sign, I would think I had the game figured out, only to eat tag soup the next season. After a number of frustrating seasons, I finally decided it was time for me to change tactics.
I started bowhunting in 1983, at the age of 12, and I basically applied the same strategies for more than a decade -- find sign, hang a stand, and wait. So when I decided to change my ways, it was a struggle, but I was absolutely determined to do it. Besides, what was the worst that could happen -- not shoot a buck? Heck, I had that down pat already!
Here was my new plan of attack: I would forget the sign and, instead, hunt terrain and habitat features. After all, I'd read many habitat-preference studies, and my own observations supported much of what I had read. Additionally, common sense told me that hunting key terrain and vegetation features would likely funnel more deer past my stands. Statistically speaking, the more deer I put in front of me the greater my odds of shooting a mature buck, right?
During this transition, aerial photos and topographic maps became critical tools. At first my success was sketchy, but things slowly began to come together as I learned how deer relate to terrain and vegetation. Rather than occasionally getting a chance at a good buck, I was now getting at least one solid shot opportunity per season at mature bucks on public lands.
One such buck I remember well. It was mid-December 1999, and I was hunting on public land in coastal Georgia. For three months I tried many likely spots but always avoided an incredibly dense black titi swamp, where visibility was no more than a few yards. But after failing to take a buck during all that time, I decided to take the plunge.
An aerial photo showed the swamp to be fairly wide except in one place. Easing into the narrow strip, I realized my farthest shot would be shorter than 15 yards. Feeling somewhat foolish sitting in such a suffocating spot, I literally had to force myself to stay in the tree. A few minutes before dark I heard something walking through the dense thicket. As I stood ready, a large buck suddenly stepped into view at 15 yards, and my arrow was on its way. The big, broken-browed eight-point was 6½ years old -- the oldest buck I have killed to this day.
Whose pulse doesn't race at the sight of rub trees like this? Most hunters would not hesitate to hunt near such sign, but I've found that, on public lands, hunting over such sign often produces more frustration than deer sightings.
As a wildlife biologist, I love reading studies on many species of wildlife, but I rarely miss anything on whitetails. The studies are interesting, and they often contain nuggets of information I can use in hunting. I won't bore you with lots of statistics, but I will summarize some research on scrapes and rubs conducted on pressured lands that could help you hunt more productively.
Historical research showed that dominant bucks do the majority of scraping and that their scrapes likely communicate to other deer their dominance status and reproductive condition. Additionally, the research showed that 1½ and 2½-year-old bucks rarely make scrapes, and when they do, they scrape later in the year.
However, these studies were based largely on observations of captive deer. In the late '90s, biologists at the University of Georgia studied a hunted population of whitetails in Georgia by monitoring natural scrapes 24 hours a day for several months with motion-activated video cameras. The property, under quality management for 11 years, supported a high number of 3½-year-old and older bucks. After two years, researchers found that 85 percent of all scraping activity occurred at night and that over the entire monitoring period visitation was relatively low. Additionally, they found that many bucks -- up to 13 -- used the same scrapes and that many of those were yearlings.
Most interesting to me, almost none of the mature bucks harvested on the property during the two-year study ever appeared on video at any of the scrapes, even though many were shot close to scrapes. This suggests the bucks were likely scent-checking the scrapes from downwind.
What can bowhunters learn from this study? Since bucks visited scrapes mostly at night and mature bucks rarely visited monitored scrapes, hunting directly over scrapes appears to be a low-odds gamble. Can it work? Sure. I've killed a buck or two off scrapes, as have other hunters.
But is this really the best use of your time? Possibly hunting well downwind of scrapes to catch bucks scent-checking the scrapes, or hunting trails leading to the scrapes, might prove more effective than hunting directly over scrapes.
Rubs intrigue me more than scrapes, mainly because a buck of any size could make a big scrape, but it usually takes a mega-sized buck to make a mega-sized rub. Research reveals some valuable insight into these visual and olfactory signposts called rubs.
Dr. Grant Woods wrote his dissertation on the physical characteristics of traditional rubs and whitetail behavior associated with them. Dr. Woods defined a traditional rub as any that had been reworked for at least three consecutive years and appeared on trees three inches or greater in diameter (the number of healed scars on the trunk indicates the number of years a tree has been rubbed).
For two years, Dr. Woods used nine trail cameras to
monitor deer activity at traditional rubs in a heavily hunted area. More than half of all traditional rubs occurred on sassafras, Southern magnolia, and Eastern red cedar, even though these species totaled only four percent of the forest. Significantly, all three species are highly aromatic. Also, rubs were generally located in areas with 80 yards of unobstructed view, which only makes sense since rubs are signposts created to be seen and investigated by other deer.
During Dr. Woods' studies, the majority of deer -- 74 percent of bucks, 60 percent of does, and 51 percent of fawns -- appeared on camera at night, between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Mature bucks often don't follow the obvious trails used by does. Rather they swing well downwind to scent-check the trails from a distance.
His cameras caught only one mature buck during legal shooting light (7:39 a.m.).
Remember, this study took place on heavily hunted lands. In contrast, studies of penned deer frequently showed bucks rubbing during daylight hours. Unquestionably, bucks alter their behavior in response to hunting pressure. Because I most commonly hunt lands with relatively heavy hunting pressure, Dr. Woods' "real world" findings have the most meaning for me -- and probably for you.
Other work conducted by Dr. Karl V. Miller and Dr. Larry Marchinton of the University of Georgia, and researcher John Ozoga, revealed that the number of rubs in an area is more directly correlated with the number of older age-class bucks (2½+ years) than with the sheer number of bucks. Ozoga found that immature bucks make less than half as many rubs as mature bucks, and they begin rubbing much later in the fall. So, if you find rubs early, in September and early October, you can assume that mature bucks made them. While I don't hunt over rubs per se, I'm always excited to find big, fresh rubs.
They tell me at least one mature buck is working my area.
If hunting over buck sign in heavily hunted areas is a low-odds bet, where do you hunt? I truly believe learning how deer relate to terrain and habitat features, such as the thick titi swamp described earlier, is key in putting deer in front of your stand consistently. While many other hunters are hung up on the hot sign, I'm convinced you'll do far better focusing your efforts on terrain and habitat traps of one kind or another.
Personally, I could not care less if I even see a rub or scrape all season near any of my stands. In fact, I would prefer NOT to find any sign near them so that other hunters don't key in on them. Some of my best spots have no buck sign anywhere near them, which is fine with me because they have no other stands hanging near them either.
In November 2006, my cousin Mike hunted with me for a week during the rut. The first evening I gave Mike the GPS coordinates to what I thought would be a productive stand site. I'd originally picked the spot based solely on a single terrain feature -- a steep draw running up from a creek bottom toward a ridgetop. Deer could cross the draw just about anywhere, but I was betting the steepness of the draw would funnel deer up and around the head of the draw. I'd patiently waited for the right wind direction to hunt this spot, and we got it for Mike's first hunt.
Mike climbed into the tree, and just minutes later, at 2:10 p.m., a 5½-year-old brute came by his stand, trailing a doe. Mike stopped him with a well-placed arrow, and that old bruiser just about killed us as we retrieved him from the woods that evening, and no wonder -- the big nontypical tipped the scales at a whopping 240 pounds dressed!
As you might imagine, the following November found Mike perched in the same funnel hoping for a repeat performance. The first evening was uneventful, but the next day things took a turn for the better (or worse, depending on how you look at it) when another bruiser came grunting through the trap, dogging a doe. Unfortunately, this time Mike's arrow found a wrist-sized sapling instead of the 150-inch 10-pointer. While that wasn't the outcome we had hoped for, it proved yet again that terrain traps can pay off big.
When not pursuing whitetails, the author works as a wildlife biologist for the Department of the Army in Illinois.