Buck rubs tell more than you think, if you know what to look for.
By David Hart
The buck was only a 6-pointer. Barry Henningsen wasn’t interested in tagging it, so instead of drawing his bow, the 52-year-old Manassas, Va., resident stood stone-still in his portable stand and watched the buck ease up to a small tree. Henningsen was on a military base that he frequents – one that, despite heavy hunting pressure, has surrendered some big bucks to him over the years. The 6-pointer started working the 3-inch diameter tree with its antlers, but instead of rubbing the bottom third in typical small-buck fashion, it reached up and scarred the trunk higher than Henningsen had ever seen a buck mark up a tree.
“I was amazed that this little buck reached so high. I bet the top marks were 5 feet up, something I would never have expected a small buck to do. If I had seen that rub without knowing what made it, I probably would have thought a real nice buck was in the area,” he says.
That little 6-pointer taught Henningsen a valuable lesson: Rubs on big trees and tall rubs don’t necessarily mean a wallhanger made them. Mark Prudhomme, a guide from Georgetown, S.C., agrees and adds that while small bucks typically don’t rub large trees, big bucks will rub both large and small ones.
Even the most unseasoned deer hunters know what a rub looks like and how it got there. It’s one of the first things we are taught to recognize. But there’s a bigger story, one that even many veteran deer hunters can’t read.
Although bucks do rub trees to remove velvet, it’s not the primary purpose of rubbing activity. In fact, the period of rubbing for the sole purpose of ridding antlers of that dead velvet takes place quickly, typically in less than two days.
Most rubs are nothing more than sign posts, a way for bucks to announce their presence and, in some cases, mark their territories. Although all antlered bucks will rub to some degree, David Osborn, a research biologist at the University of Georgia, says larger bucks tend to rub more often than subordinate animals. And as the breeding season approaches and testosterone levels rise, the frequency of rubs increases.
Instead of looking for individual rubs and hanging a stand over them, Henningsen spends far more time looking for a few key ingredients. He says he doesn’t get too excited over individual rubs, no matter how large they are, because bucks can rub virtually anywhere and at any time.
“I remember finding one rub on a tree that had to be 12 or 14 inches in diameter. I did get pretty worked up about that, but realistically, the chances of seeing that buck were pretty slim, because a single rub in the area only tells me he’s been there one time,” explains Henningsen.
Prudhomme does look for larger rubs, but like Henningsen, he won’t discount sign on smaller trees, especially if there are lots of them. Mostly, however, he’s going to be fired up over rubs on larger trees, especially if the tree is marked up dramatically and if there is more than one or two in a small area. In fact, he managed to tag a dandy 10-pointer a few seasons ago simply by setting up on a rub line that consisted of larger trees.
Henningsen typically looks for core areas with high rub activity, a sure sign that at least one buck is around. He recalls one productive spot on public land that “went cold” for a couple of seasons. Although Henningsen had encountered good numbers of deer several years prior, the area stopped producing anything more than some cursory buck sign, hardly enough to keep his interest. But each season, he checked those woods, a move that finally paid off.
“I went back one year a few seasons ago and there were probably 200 rubs in a couple hundred yard radius. It was unbelievable. There were rubs on pines, beech, dogwoods, maples. I knew something was happening,” he recalled. “Some of them were real obvious and others were just a few scratch marks on the trunks, but almost all of them were on small trees and saplings.”
Despite the lack of rubs on thigh-thick trees, Henningsen figured there was a good buck in the area. Not only did the sheer number tell him that, but the nature of many of the rubs offered a clue about the size of the buck or bucks that were working those trees. After choosing a location for his climbing stand, he backed out and let the area rest for a couple of weeks, something he thinks is crucial to successful rub hunting. When the conditions were right, he returned early one morning and eagerly awaited first light. He wasn’t disappointed.
“I saw nine bucks that day. One of them was a Pope and Young class that winded me as he was coming in,” laments Henningsen, a dedicated bowhunter. “I also saw a decent 8-pointer that came to within 25 yards, but I couldn’t get a shot. After that, two other small eights came by and then I had several smaller bucks, spikes, 4-pointers, that kind of thing, come through the area.”
That spot is like so many others Henningsen has found over the years. First and foremost, he favors areas with lots of rubs, somewhere bucks have lots of “hang time,” as he calls it. Individual rubs scattered over a large area translate to either a low buck population or an area that just doesn’t hold the deer. They might just be passing through on their way to those favored areas where they hang out and feed or tend their does. But areas where bucks congregate will be obvious by the sheer number of rubs compared to other areas in the same woods or on the same farm.
Prudhomme’s formula for successful rub hunting centers on distinct rub lines along trails, although more often than not, he finds rubs along a wider swath, more like a corridor than a specific trail. However, he says his success is greatest early in the season when bucks are still more interested in eating than breeding.
“They are much more predictable when they aren’t chasing does. If I can find a good rub line leading into a feeding area, particularly a bean field or pasture, I’ve got a good chance of taking that buck, especially early in the season,” says Prudhomme.
“Early” in his home state is mid-August when bow season opens and into September when gun season begins. He figures bigger bucks tend to make the first rubs of the season, so any time he finds a rub line in August or September, there’s a good chance he’s going to hunt it. Where he hunts has as much to do with the time of day and the timing of the season.
Prudhomme tends to hunt closer to fields and other feeding areas in the evening and somewhat closer to the bedding areas in the morning. However, he’s very careful about not getting too close to bedding areas out of fear of throwing the deer off their daily routines. If he isn’t entirely sure where the bedding area is located, he simply examines the rub itself and makes a calculated guess based on the specific side the tree is rubbed on.
“I don’t have any scientific evidence to back me up, but I think bucks tend to rub most on their way to feed, so that means the rubbed side of the tree will be facing their bedding area. That helps me decide where I’m going to hunt,” he says.
Henningsen also likes rubs close to food sources, but like Prudhomme, he tends to stay back in the woods somewhere between food and resting areas.
“One thing I don’t pay much attention to, or at least I don’t set up on, is rubs in fields or right along field edges, especially on public hunting areas. Those are probably made at night, although I will try to find a trail that leads to and from their bedding areas and I might set up back in the woods if everything looks right,” he adds.
While many hunters – especially those who target large-antlered deer – might have ignored that high-traffic area where nine bucks showed themselves to Henningsen in a single day, he says experience has taught him not to judge a buck by the size of the rubs it makes. On the contrary, he often looks for small trees, even those no thicker than his thumb, when he’s searching for quality whitetails.
It’s the way the tree is rubbed that tells him far more than the actual size of the tree. He admits that bigger trees are typically rubbed by larger bucks, but he looks for what he calls aggression rubs – trees twisted and ripped in such a way that only a splintered stub remains. That’s a sign of dominance, he figures, and a fair indication of the quality of the buck that made it.
“I’m sure smaller bucks tear up saplings, but when I hunt an area with lots of little shredded saplings, I often at least see a big buck, so I think that’s a pretty good indication of what’s making those aggressive rubs,” he notes.
Although bucks that made rubs in past seasons may very well be dead, Prudhomme has enough experience to know that areas that held bucks in the past tend to attract them every year. There is something – security, vital food sources or a combination of ingredients – that keeps bucks, particularly of trophy class, coming back to an area year after year. Henningsen agrees, and he routinely hunts the same general areas year after year that surrendered good bucks in previous seasons.
“I think food sources change or hunting pressure has pushed them out, but if an area held bucks in the past, it will again sooner or later because there is a whole list of ingredients they like about a certain area,” explains Henningsen.
Even individual rubs made in previous autumns are worth a closer look. Henningsen once watched three small bucks successively rub their foreheads on a small cedar tree that had been rubbed through to the wood. It was a classic sign-post rub, one that every buck in the neighborhood probably marked as it passed through. The bark surrounding the scar on that cedar was smooth, almost polished, from bucks marking the tree with scent from the glands on their heads.
Both Henningsen and Prudhomme say they still have lots to learn about deer behavior and the best deer hunting tactics, but by paying close attention to buck rubs, they’ve become better and more successful at what they love so much.
This article was published in the November 2005 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.