Answers About The Licking Branch

Steve Sorensen

Way back when I was just learning to hunt I was like everyone else. Videos, outdoor TV and the Internet weren’t invented yet, so I gathered my deer hunting information from magazine articles and other trusted sources—mainly my dad, my uncles, my granddads, and some classmates at school. A lot of that information was wrong, but how was I to know? We had nowhere to get what wildlife biologists hadn’t yet discovered, because most of the scientific research on whitetail deer hadn’t been done yet!

Buck working a licking branchMature bucks come to your licking branches treated with pre-orbital gland lure because they need to know who their competition is. And they get even more interested during the rut.

I chalk up some of the things we believed to that social sin we call male chauvinism. For example, I was taught that bucks were much smarter than does. They were so smart that they’d check to see if the coast was clear by letting the doe enter the field first. If she didn’t get shot at, Mr. Big would know it was OK to follow.

Well, not exactly. The real truth? He probably stayed behind her because he liked the way she smelled.

Another idea handed down was that when bucks created scrapes they would also create a licking branch above the scrape. They’d chew on that branch and tangle their antlers in it as they worked out their frustration during the rut.

Not exactly. The real truth? That licking branch is not limited to the rut, and it has little or nothing to do with a buck’s sexual frustration. In fact, we now know that

  • … bucks use licking branches 365 days a year.
  • … bucks have lots of licking branches, and don’t always create a scrape under them.
  • … bucks use the licking branch to communicate with other bucks.

Buck using a Licking Branch in MarchAlthough bucks may not put a scrape under a licking branch in March, they do use licking branches to let other bucks in the area know of their presence. This buck is just beginning to grow antlers.  (Jim Riggle photo)

Although bucks scrape the ground all year ’round, they do it mainly during the pre-rut leading up to the annual breeding frenzy. But licking branches are active even when bucks don’t open scrapes under them. All through the year the licking branch is essentially a community bulletin board where bucks find out who their competition is.

This means the licking branch is critical to understanding buck behavior. But the main activity at the licking branch isn’t the licking, or the chewing, or scraping the ground under it. Nor is it the antler rubs you’re likely to find nearby. The main activity at the licking branch involves contact of the pre-orbital gland area to the branch. The pre-orbital gland is just what it sounds like—it’s a gland located in front of (pre) the eye (orbital).

Dr. Dave Samuel, 30 years a professor of wildlife management at West Virginia University, told me about a research project at Missouri State University by graduate student Josh Braun. “In Braun’s studies,” Dr. Samuel said, “57% of the interaction with the licking branch involved rubbing the pre-orbital gland.” That’s more than the forehead gland, more than chewing the branch, more than thrashing it with antlers, more than anything else.

Every buck secretes a substance from the pre-orbital gland that carries his unique smell. When he applies it to a licking branch, he announces to other bucks that he’s in the area, and he’ll be in the game when the rut comes. Knowing that, here are some answers to the main questions my early whitetail advisors didn’t know:

Why do scrapes and licking branches go together?

Most of the time they don’t. Outside of the month or so leading up to the rut, most licking branches don’t have a scrape under them. All year long bucks use the licking branch as a place to deposit their scent so other bucks know of their presence. When the rut comes the activity picks up. Bucks, especially mature bucks, know what’s coming and they begin scraping the ground and leaving other scents at the site.

What is the buck doing when he “works” the licking branch?

He’s posting his “calling card,” his unique scent from his pre-orbital gland. By applying his pre-orbital scent, he is telling other bucks of his presence. A mature buck who has been through the rut before might even be telling the others that they’ll have to reckon with him when the rut comes. This helps the bucks in a local bachelor group keep tabs on each other and establish the pecking order. And when a new buck shows up (or the scent of a new buck from a hunter applying pre-orbital gland lure), the others want to know “Who’s the new guy?”

Why is the tip of the licking branch broken?

When a buck puts his own scent on the licking branch, he simple touches the branch to his pre-orbital area. But to get the scent of another buck, he may lick it or bite it, and analyze the scent he picks up. Closer to the rut, he tends to become more aggressive, biting it more and thrashing it with his antlers. He’s saying, “I’m somebody you’re going to have to reckon with!”

How can a hunter capitalize on the licking branch?

What can the whitetail hunter do to use pre-orbital gland lure to take a nice buck? Two things.

First, by applying pre-orbital gland lure to licking branches, and placing trail cameras to watch them, you’ll capture a photographic inventory of the bucks in the area. You’ll be able to study the bucks, watch their antlers grow, and know what your “hit list” is. Scraping the ground (even outside the rut) adds a visual indicator of buck activity. It’s difficult for deer to ignore fresh dirt, no matter what time of the year it is. So a scrape below the licking branch can increase buck activity there at any time of the year.

Understanding Scrape Behavior

Second, you’ll be able to select places for treestands where the bucks most frequently visit the licking branches. Often they’ll show up after dark, but once the rut begins to heat up, they could appear at any time of the day.

How can we be sure this works?

When it comes to whitetail behavior, we don’t have many guarantees. But the way a buddy of mine discovered licking branch activity is worth mentioning. Jim Riggle got a trail camera photo of an enormous buck, and naturally got excited. But he couldn’t get any more photos, and feared the buck was a resident elsewhere and was just passing through. Finally, he showed the picture to a trapper friend who had a hunch about how to get that buck in front of a trail camera again. “I’ll make you up a lure,” Smokey McNicholas said, “and that buck might show up again.” He made the lure from the pre-orbital glands of a dead buck, and sure enough Riggle’s giant buck showed up on camera. Not only that, Riggle started getting other pictures of mature bucks he didn’t know were there.

Forest County Giant Whitetail

The first picture of a buck at a licking branch treated with pre-orbital gland lure was the Forest County giant that gross scored 195″. (Jim Riggle photo)

Riggle ended up killing the monster buck, truly a legendary whitetail from Forest County, Pennsylvania, in 2005. It gross scored 195″ non-typical in an area where the previous county record was a 160″ buck from back in the 1930s.

As hunters learn about pre-orbital gland lure, exciting things are happening. In the years since Jim Riggle’s first success with it, he has captured thousands of pictures of bucks working licking branches treated with Smokey’s Pre-Orbital Gland Lure, the original that was the key to killing the legendary whitetail of Forest County. And hunters from many states are finding success with pre-orbital gland lure.

Legendary Whitetails | Outfitter Hoodie

About The Author
Steve Sorenson

Steve Sorensen

Steve Sorensen came into the world of outdoor writing late, but was quickly recognized when his newspaper column The Everyday Hunter® was named “Best Newspaper Column” three times by the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. Topping off a long list of awards, the national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing went to him in 2015.

He has published features in major magazines, including Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, Deer and Deer Hunting, North American Whitetail, Pennsylvania Game News, and many more. He is the content editor for the Havalon Knives blog, and speaks frequently at sportsman’s dinner ministries and other outdoorsman type events.


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