Reading Buck Rubs

Rubbed trees are one way bucks communicate, and they may provide you with clues to help pattern a big buck.

Brad Bailey | September 20, 1998

Few buck signs are more exciting to find on your hunting property than recent rubs. Especially bragging-sized, BIG rubs.Everyone who has hunted has had a hunting buddy come out of the woods all excited saying, “Man, you wouldn’ t believe the rub I found. It’s on a tree as big as my leg and it’ s been peeled as high as my head!”

But just what does the discovery of a rub really mean? Is a rub a good place to hang a stand?

Most biologists and hunters distinguish be-tween two kinds of rubs.

The first type, which appears in late August or September, is mostly associated with velvet removal. These rubs are usually on smaller-diameter trees and are not very visible. There is little or no “deer communication” value associated with these rubs.

The second type of rubbing usually peaks a couple of weeks ahead of the rut and is a communication tool among the bucks in the area. These type rubs are bigger, as the buck aggressively uses the base of its beams to scrape the bark completely off the tree trunk. These highly visible rubs communicate the buck’ s presence and his dominance to other bucks in the area via scent deposited in the rub from scent glands located in the buck’s forehead. The biggest of these rubs, called “signpost rubs,” may be visited by several bucks.

A buck may rub any species of tree, but they seem to prefer aromatic species that carry scent better, such as red cedars or pines.

In years past, most deer hunters thought of rubs as “hot sign,” and if you found a rub it was considered a good place to hang a stand. More recently, many hunters have taken the view that rubs are better used as a clue to the buck’s activity rather than the location of a hunting hotspot. John Seginak of Comer, who hunts in Oglethorpe County, uses rubs as an indicator of a buck’s travel patterns — if he can find a series of them.

A rub that starts knee high on a good-sized tree and continues to chest height is a great visual clue that you have buck with big antlers in the area.

“A single rub doesn’t mean much to me,” said John. “But a series of rubs can provide a clue about a buck’s travel patterns between a bedding and feed- ing area. If I find a hot rub line, I’ll use it with other information about food sources and bedding cover in that area to determine where the buck is bed- ding. Then I will try to set up as close as I can to the bedding area without disturbing the buck.”

While there may be some correlation to the size of the rub and the size of the buck, height of a rub is a stronger indicator of the size of a buck than the diameter of the tree rubbed, said John.

“If you have a rub that starts below your knees and continues up to chest height, you have a pretty good indicator that there is a buck with a good rack somewhere in the area.”

Do bucks return to a rub? “Yes,” says John.

“I’ve seen signpost rubs that were worked four or five times and I figure that the buck is just coming back to freshen up his scent on the tree.”

These signpost rubs are often in areas preferred by the buck and they are reworked year after year.

John Stanley, of Lawrenceville, who bowhunts in metro Atlanta counties and also hunts in Harris County, says the rubs can be a better indicator of the size of a buck than a scrape.

“Big bucks make big rubs,” he said. “I like to see height. If I find a rub on a tree that has good diameter and the rub comes up as high as my chest, I start getting excited.

John also reads rubs to determine which way a buck was traveling.

“You are more likely to kill a buck on a rub line than on a scrape because the rub line is an indicator of the buck’ s travel patterns. You can tell which way the buck was traveling by looking at which side of the tree that’s rubbed. If you find a rub line near a thick clearcut and all the rubs are on the side of the tree facing the clearcut then you know the buck probably made the rubs as he was leaving his bedding area.”

John says most rubs are probably made at night, but a rub line can still be a good bet for an evening hunt.

“If a buck has been bedded down and cooped up all day he may get up a little early and start making rubs and scrapes on his way out of his bedding area.”

Like John Seginak, John Stanley picks the area closer to the bedding hotspot. I’ll get downwind and set up on that rub line.”

John won’ t necessarily hunt a specific area just because he’s found a rub. He likes to see one of two things — a signpost rub or a rub line. Bucks will return to a signpost rub and does will check them, too, he says.

“I was bowhunting in Harris County one time over a signpost rub and I watched two does go past the rub. When they got downwind of the rub they stopped and put their noses in the air and they bee-lined back to sniff at the rub.”

Wildlife Resources Division Region Supervisor Terry Kile says that hunters may now place less emphasis on hunting rubs and more emphasis on hunting scrapes.

“Rubbing behavior appears to provide communication between bucks, and scraping behavior is more directly related to breeding activity and appears to provide communication between bucks and does,” he said.

Terry did his UGA masters’ thesis on the timing, spacial relationships and frequency of rubbing activity. A 200-acre tract on B.F. Grant WMA across from the check station was surveyed and 100-foot transects were run. Terry then walked every foot of the tract once every two weeks between August and December.

“Rubs started showing up during the last week of August,” said Terry. “The bucks making the rubs were still in velvet and the rubbing activity was associated with the irritation of the antlers hardening and itching. These are not the big classic rubs. You won’t see many of them and they are not hitting big trees. They may twist and break off limbs of small trees.”

Rubbing frequency on the B.F. Grant WMA study area picked up in mid to late September and there was another dramatic change.

“The earlier rubs are usually poor in terms of visual impact,” said Terry. “They may not even rub the bark off. But by mid to late September I was seeing the classic rubs — the highly visible, polished trees that are related to signposting and scent communication.”

By the end of September the frequency of rubs declined, as the frequency of scraping activity increased. Later, by backdating fetal material from does taken during late-season hunts on B.F. Grant, a direct correlation was established between the peak of scraping activity and the peak of actual breeding activity.

Terry says there is a direct relationship between the size of the rub and the size of the buck.

“A smaller buck may work a bigger buck’s rub, but the biggest rubs are almost always made by the most dominant buck.”

Too, he says bucks definitely return to signpost rubs to freshen their scent to maintain communication with other bucks in the area.

Greg Garard, of Kennesaw, hunts on a 2,500-acre Dodge County tract that has been quality managed for eight years. The tract likely has a better-than-average buck/doe ratio. Last year club members killed 29 does and nine bucks. The higher number of mature bucks and the lower number of does makes the bucks more competitive and increases the amount of buck sign the hunters see, said Greg.

When Greg was in the woods in early September to clear shooting lanes in preparation for bow season he found several rubs including one 1 1/2-inch diameter tree that had been shredded and had limbs torn off. The bigger rubs don’t show up until later, says Greg.

The rub lines on the property are predictable, he says. “When you find a good rub line you can count on it being there year after year — even if you kill the buck.”

Greg says he finds rubs just about anywhere, but usually they will be found along an edge between two habitat types.

The best kind of rub you can find, says Greg, is something he calls a “hitching post” — a rubbed tree and an active scrape. “There is more of a reason for a buck to come back to that spot,” he said.

Greg doesn’t set up over rub lines, but tries to pick out the trails the buck was using and follow them back to bedding areas.

There is a lot of controversy over the size of a rub indicating the size of the buck making the rub, says Greg, but he thinks the biggest rubs are made by the biggest bucks.

“I don’t think a 4-pointer is going to attack a four-inch tree. I like to see height on a rub and if there are limbs as big as my fingers torn off, then it’s probably a big-racked buck.

“I also like to find paw marks in the ground by a rubbed tree that show that the buck was real aggressive and pushing against the tree with his front feet. That’s usually a more mature buck.”

Terry Kile says he places little hunting emphasis on rubs and chooses to focus on bedding areas and food sources. However, finding a concentration of rubs and scrapes in the same area is an ideal hunting setup, he says.

While Terry says that rubs aren’t that important to his hunting strategies, he adds that, like most hunters, he still likes to find rubs on his hunting land.

“Especially the great big ones!”

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