Read Rubs, Find Bucks

A rubbed tree means a buck has been in that spot, but there's much more information a hunter can learn.

Tommy Kirkland | October 1, 2022


Hunters can recognize the signpost of a buck rub very quickly. The shredded bark of trees and saplings confirm white-tailed buck activity on their property or lease—generating anticipation for the approaching hunting season.

Within the secluded woodlands, a lone white-tailed buck steadily moves through a labyrinth of deadfall and decaying plant life. The fall autumn air is settling in.

By instinct, the buck uses its eyes and heightened scent capabilities to forage for acorns, fungi and other nutrients. Suddenly he stops and briefly stares… then with briskness, the male deer approaches a small cluster of pine saplings.

Pushing its head downward, the rutting buck rams its forehead and antlers into the tiny pine trees and begins rubbing upward and downward. For a brief moment the buck hesitates, sniffs the pine, and even licks the rubbed bark, but he is quick to resume the intense rasping action. The behavior only lasts for a couple of minutes before the deer moves on to ravage other trees while traversing the woodlands.

The Reason For Tree Rubs

As summer fades into fall, male whitetails experience a rise in testosterone and begin targeting various trees to work their antlers on. Here, they excrete scent from their forehead glands, which is deposited into the tree’s rubbed area. Research biologists have determined that scent released on various trees communicates a buck’s presence to breed, as well as his status amongst competitive males.

Though not proven scientifically, it is also believed that bucks can release aggression into a tree rub. In short, there are numerous accounts of rutting bucks sighting a rival buck; and in turn, the buck slams a tree or even a foreign object like barbed-wire fencing in visual response to the competitor buck. It is theorized that bucks also  rub trees to strengthen their neck muscles—preparing for upcoming fights with other bucks.

These rubs can occur on an assortment of trees such as cedars, pines, hemlocks, maples and hollies, which are the most common. Sweet gum, juniper and other trees known for their aromatic resin are also utilized in this rubbing ritual—holding deer scent for longer periods of time. 

Scent communication through tree rubbing is diverse and complex. Though there are various terms used to describe tree rubs, here is a summary of the most common, and a look at why bucks shred bark and even kill trees over a period of time.                

Random Rubs

In short, random rubs— one rub with no others nearby—are typically scattered with no distinct pattern. Usually it is just one rub and no others are in the immediate vicinity. Random rubs are not associated with the classical rub-line, which leads from Point A to Point B. And these random rubs are not linked with old traditional rubs, which are consistently scent marked year after year.

A rub done at random can be related to an erratic frenzied buck that was removing velvet tissue, especially if pesky insects were swarming and annoying the buck due to bloody velvet tissue. A flying pest invasion can drive a buck into erratic flight as trees are sporadically targeted.

Random rubs can also occur when a buck is disrupted from his normal routine. For example, say a mature buck is working his rub-line—going from female feeding and bedding areas—when suddenly a rival buck shows up. The two briefly engage with antler clashing. The intruding buck takes the submissive route and evades the rub-line.

The buck working the rub-line maintains his status, while the rival buck moves on and unpredictably slams trees at random as he tries to establish scent and make his presence known. 

Finally, once random rubs have been determined, some hunters strongly advise not to focus on these sites—simply because the buck activity is not consistent with a pattern.

Rub Lines

By far, rub lines are the easiest type of rub pattern to determine and can provide a real clue to a buck’s mode of travel. Rub lines are usually created by mature dominant bucks and are almost always associated with feeding and bedding locales. Once a rub is discovered, a quick scan of the immediate vicinity will reveal another rub, and another. The analogy would be like flagging tree after tree with blaze orange tape from one point to another. 

Though there are variations with rub lines, typically a buck will rub a particular tree and keep traveling from Point A to Point B—periodically rubbing trees as he goes. For example, a  buck’s travel route from its bedding location to a primary food source will have a rub line, and vice versa. These travel routes are ideal for archery season and pre-rut stand locations.  

Although there are variations, most of these rubs are 15 to 35 yards apart from one another. Of course, as bucks create a rub line, they can also work scrapes, as well. Scrapes will reveal where bucks paw the ground below what is commonly called an overhanging licking branch. These are another form of signpost scent communication used by whitetails either independently or in conjunction with tree rubbing behaviors.

Most hunters highly recommend hunting active rub lines, simply because the deer using it are easier to pattern, especially in the pre-rut before the chaos of the peak rut sets in.                       

Cluster Rubs

Cluster rubs are made up of individually marked trees, and they are anywhere from just inches to some 10 to 30 feet apart from one another. Unlike a line of rubs, these are usually in a defined radius of 5 to 30 feet—sometimes a little more. The rubs are on separate trees, and usually the height and intensity of the rubs are the same –being that one buck or two mature bucks usually initiate all the rubs in a cluster. Though there are variations, most cluster rubs consist of four to six or more individual trees being marked in a small area.

Concentrated food sources can instigate intense socialization amongst whitetails. Even though whitetails are considered not to be territorial for most of the year, they can become aggressive over food sources at any time. In turn, some cluster rubs associated with nutrition are actually the results of bucks in close proximity—instigating aggression. However, if the deer continue feeding in these particular sites, tree rubbing for breeding rights can unfold as well if females frequent the area.

Whenever a grueling fight erupts between two rival bucks over an estrous doe, there is the possibility that cluster rubs can explode. I’ve watched victorious bucks hit a batch of trees—intensely rubbing three to five trees in a small radius. Tending the female, his dominance to breed is shown through rubbing behaviors, which pronounces his scent and leaves a visual warning to rival males. After being run off, the losing buck can also work a batch of trees nearby. His cluster rubbing is also an effort to establish his presence through scent and visual communication.

So should hunters erect a stand or blind near a batch of cluster rubs? It all depends on why the trees were battered in the first place. If the cluster rubs are associated with bedding, feeding and mating locations, then the advice is to ambush a rutting buck. 

However, if cluster rubs are performed by mobile bucks acting erratically, then it’s pretty much a waste of time to focus on cluster rubs that are likely related to an isolated buck fight.

The Old Traditional Rub

This tree serves a very distinct purpose. Though similar to random rubs, rub lines and trees targeted with outright aggression, the old traditional rub is crucial for signpost scent marking—not only for whitetail breeding, but for hunters, as well. When hunters see an old rub, questions may arise. 

Should the ancient marker be ignored? The old marked tree could have been just a random rub, or maybe bucks ceased marking it because the tree was so damaged it is no longer able to effectively hold and dispense scent. Even if the old rub was part of an active rub line, the deer marking it could have been harvested or moved on due to aggressive younger bucks trying to establish themselves on the ladder of whitetail dominance. 

Even so, the old signpost tree could still be a hidden gold mine—luring in mature dominant bucks. Although bucks have a tendency to mark new trees due to absorbing fresh scent, there are still numerous old rubs that are active and act as a magnet in attracting deer of all ages and sex. Traditional tree rubs are hit repetitively year after year. They are distinguished not only by the actual rub mark that removes bark, but the tree also shows where bark grows around the core rub and clearly shows more abuse than trees rubbed just once. Also, sap will occasionally build up around a traditional rub. In fact some trees die prematurely from all the grinding, rubbing and antler strikes of rutting bucks. Old tree rubs are occasionally associated with a rub lines that lead to where females consistently congregate, particularly doe core areas. 

For the hunter afield, don’t ignore the old rub. Eventually a dominant buck will make the rounds and visit the rub. These old rubs are also visual cues for young bucks to establish themselves, especially if the dominant bruiser has passed on.

In Conclusion

Scouting these rubs—the signpost of the deer woods—provides proof and to what degree deer activity is taking place. Sometimes deciphering rubs is complex and confusing, not to mention that rutting bucks are periodically unpredictable in performing tree rubs. 

Nonetheless, seeing deer sign in the deep woods or along woodland edges adds to the excited anticipation of possibly yielding a whitetail for the upcoming season.

Editor’s Note: The author, Tommy Kirkland, is a professional wildlife photographer who spends countless hours every year in the deer woods observing deer behavior first-hand. All photos in this story were taken by Tommy. 

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