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Time of the Signs

By John Trout Jr.

A button buck smells the glandular scent left on limbs above a scrape.
A button buck smells the glandular scent left on limbs above a scrape.

Four hot scrapes followed a trail along the side of the ridge. Nevertheless, I remained skeptical after climbing into my stand just before dawn. You see, I had been beaten by so-called “hot scrapes” too many times. You know how it works. You come across a fresh scrape and realize that not long ago a buck was there. It looks like a no-miss situation. The sign is right and all you must do is return and wait on him to show.

As best I can remember, two hours had elapsed when the 9-point buck came into view from the north. He slowly ambled along the route, stopping once to check one of the scrapes less than 30 yards from me. I assume he would have checked the next one had it not been for the roar of my slugster.

That incident occurred several years ago in southern Indiana just a few days before breeding kicked into high gear. I had located numerous scrapes that year, like always, but none had paid off.

Since that day, I’ve become a firm believer that it’s “when” you hunt buck sign that matters. You can find signposts throughout the hunting season, but there is a short window of time when they provide action.

Pre-Rut vs. Rut

Bucks rub and scrape from late summer through the winter months. It begins long before the peak of the rut and doesn’t close until long after it’s over. That’s no big news.  However, it’s all for one purpose: breeding. The question is, just how long does the sign hold hunting potential?

Be aware that the best possibility of ambushing a buck occurs only when a buck is likely to return to rubs and scrapes. When the breeding begins, few bucks remain in their home ranges. Scraping and rubbing continues even as bucks move long distances. Hunters often find this sign, which leads them to set up stands nearby. However, the bucks that made the sign could be long gone.

Consider one study of a Georgia buck that added 400 acres to his home range during the rut.  Researchers also claimed that six of 19 Georgia bucks dispersed 2.8 miles from their previous range, noting that sexual competition among bucks was responsible for the major change of their range size.

A recurring scrape is promising if you get to it before it gets cold.
A recurring scrape is promising if you get to it before it gets cold.

The size of a buck’s home range varies by region, which could be affected by terrain, disturbances and other factors. However, one Texas study indicated the home range of does varied from 60-340 acres while bucks appeared to stay within 240-880 acres. Another study in Missouri showed that does had a home range of about 400 acres, while bucks preferred 1,000 acres.

Although we can’t predict with accuracy just how far a buck might roam during the rut, or how one buck’s habits compare to another’s, we do know that many bucks leave their home range and widen travel zones as the rut progresses. Meanwhile, the hunter’s chance of intercepting a buck while hunting old sign decreases. Thus, it comes down to being there at the most opportune time.

Rubs and Rub Lines

It was once said that rubs show where a buck has been, while scrapes show you where a buck will soon be. That’s just not true. Rubs are visual and valuable signposts that provide communication signals. Forehead scent is typically left on every rub, which other bucks will notice. It’s also possible that rubs made by mature bucks warn insubordinate bucks. And rubbing builds neck muscles, which assist in sparring and fighting.

Sporadic rubs are those discovered here and there that do not appear to connect. For instance, I have observed bucks become angry and thrash a tree violently out of frustration when another buck was near, particularly as the rut nears and testosterone rises. There are also rubs that appear here and there when the time comes to shed velvet.

Rub lines are a little more complex, but probably provide more potential for hunting, when timed correctly. Rubs that connect are usually termed as a rub line. In other words, when a hunter can visually walk from one rub to another, or at least find additional rubs that appear directional, they consider it a rub line. It’s like connecting pieces of a puzzle.  I have walked some rub lines for considerable distances, but could follow others for less than 100 yards. The length of a rub line is often difficult to determine if the hunter does not find them at the starting point or cannot follow them accurately.

Sporadic rubs and rub lines tell us two different things. Rub lines are not spur-of-the-moment occurrences. They are often discovered along travel routes. These trails might appear well used, but most rub lines I’ve discovered did not follow master trails.  Rub lines indicate a trail used by a buck while he remains in his home range - before the breeding begins. Once his range expands during the rut, it isn’t likely a buck will follow the trails where the rub lines exist. Of course, this is dependent upon a buck’s habits and whether he will venture far when the breeding accelerates.

Scrapes and Scrape Lines

All scrapes are valuable scent-posts, but not all scrapes are the same. There are sporadic scrapes and scrape lines, yet both types must be hunted at the right time.

Sporadic scrapes are sometimes found long before the rut. In areas I’ve hunted where a high buck-to-doe ratio existed, I have found scrapes in early autumn, many weeks before the breeding period. Like sporadic rubs, though, they seldom become scrape lines. However, sporadic scrapes are not necessarily duds, either. On the contrary, sporadic scraping continues as the breeding draws near, and sometimes it’s that one individual scrape that attracts many bucks.

You can find sporadic scrapes nearly everywhere - from the fringes of fields to the middle of woodlots and thickets. Scrape lines can also be found in the same vicinities.  Last archery season, along a clover field in southern Illinois, there was a line of no less than 15 scrapes along the 200-yard stretch of woods that bordered the field. In past years, I had found only a sporadic scrape or two bordering the same field.

Scrape lines are more commonly found along trails that follow natural travel zones, such as funnels, fencelines, rows of thickets, etc. The buck that I mentioned at the beginning of this article followed a scrape line along a narrow plateau.

Scrape lines are not as common as rub lines and not as easily found. Who knows why? I would assume that it is because rub lines are connected to pre-rut, while scrapes relate more to the breeding period. It could be that bucks spend more time in their home ranges while gearing up for the rut than they do out of their home range once breeding begins.

Still, we are fully aware that scrapes, like rubs, contain communicative scent for all deer that pass. So which scrapes are more likely to put you on a buck?

Subscribe Today!Most hunters claim that those scrapes with licking branches above them are the hottest. I agree, to some extent, since the branches above the pawed area serve as scentposts, as does the scrape itself. Bucks rub their forehead glands on the limbs. They also chew, lick and even thrash them. I have also observed does smelling the limbs above the scrape, leading me to believe these scrapes are of great importance.

However, I’ve found the best hunting to be near recurring scrapes - those that occur in the same location year after year. While finding recurring scrapes is a bit more difficult since it could require post-season scouting, it is possible to recognize one as a previous scrape that is active once again. There are often broken dead limbs within a foot or two of the active scrape.

In summarizing scrapes, you can assume that sporadic scrapes, those that are recurring and/or those with valuable signposts above, offer the best potential for hunting. Scrapes are usually placed in strategic locations, at least from a buck’s point of view. He wants the scrape to be noticed. As for scrape lines, be aware that these scrapes do not always have communication signposts above. The scrape line appears to be restricted to travel routes and not necessarily in strategic locations. The question is whether a buck will return to a scrape or scrape line.

When to Be There

Although we know that certain rubs and scrapes will bring in bucks, it will do you no good if you don’t hunt them at the right time. You must be there when it’s hot, and leave ‘em when it’s not. There’s a time for hunting signposts, and a time for hunting trails, food sources and bedding areas.

Although yearling bucks might visit scrapes long before the breeding begins, the mature bucks know when a scrape or scrape line will become serious business. This doesn’t mean you couldn’t ambush a buck near the right scrape long before the rut, but the odds are not favorable. Scrapes offer the most potential about two weeks before the breeding begins. A buck does not have to be in his home range to visit a scrape or scrape line, but he does want to visit the right scrapes to locate an estrous doe. He might cover a mile or two in a 24-hour period, but you can rest assured he is aware of the best scrapes in the area and will check them occasionally.

Once the breeding accelerates, scrapes tend to subside. When bucks are not with does, they continue moving with hopes of finding willing does. The once-active scrapes begin to deteriorate. The second rut could spark more scraping activity, but it’s never as noticeable as the first. The small percentage of doe fawns that come into estrous triggers the second rut. And the second rut is not limited to a certain period following the first rut; in fact, it often goes unnoticed by hunters.

Although rub lines provide more potential than sporadic rubs, they seldom provide the action once the rut nears and bucks are on the move. Many hunters get fooled by rub lines, setting up stands near them during the rut. I will admit that numerous rubs in a given area remaining visible for long periods are hard to pass up, but it’s unlikely the buck - or bucks - responsible for them remain close by.

See More Buckmasters Feature StoriesRub lines provide the most action during the pre-rut, often several weeks before the breeding begins. Many bowhunters have patterned bucks with the assistance of rubs only because the bucks responsible for them remain in their home range. The buck deserts the rubs once he widens his area in search of does. Of course, many bucks do not survive the rut and, instead, wind up in the freezer!

-- Reprinted from the July 2006 issue of Buckmasters Magazine