Mapping Whitetails #04: Finding and Analyzing Rub Lines

In Mapping Whitetails #04 we will be covering the best spots to find rubs, what they mean, and how they should be hunted.  First off, like any Mapping Whitetails tip, this is not your standard repeated jargon about white-tailed deer rubs.  We make it our primary focus to illustrate what keys to look for on actual maps.  It’s our goal to provide you with a sense of hands on whitetail knowledge that’s truly applicable to all hunters.  With that said, let’s dive into the subject at hand – buck rubs.

Deer Hunter by Buck Rub

In an article put forth by QDMA, author Bryan Kinkel explained the results of his study in determining the correlation of rubs in relation to the distance from edge habitat.  If you are an experienced hunter it may come to no surprise that there was a much greater density of rubs found near an “edge” compared to away from an “edge”.  Also, the density of rubs was greater along old logging trails.  Having hunted many years in big timber country of northern Wisconsin, these have always been features to hone in on during scouting missions and hunts.

Rub Density Graph | QDMA The above graph illustrates the occurrence of rubs in proximity to edge habitat.  Rub lines = Travel corridors, which equal great hunting locations. (Image Courtesy of QDMA)

Before we dive into how you can find these features on an aerial or topo map, let’s define just what an “edge” is in the deer world.  There are two main types of edges – an internal (soft) habitat edge and an external (hard) habitat edge.  An internal edge is referring to a change in the forest composition.  For example, a hardwood stand butting up to a conifer stand or an alder swamp transitioning into a mixed hardwoods stand. Next, there are hard edges which can be a crop field butting up to a timber stand or timber butting up to a food plot, some type of edge where there is a drastic change in habitat composition and height. Big timber stands are often lacking in the hard edge category, which is why it is so important to be able to locate and distinguish a soft edge when you see one. As Bryan’s article points out, bucks prefer to travel along these soft edges over walking through an open hardwood stand. The reason is because edges typically offer more cover.

Mapping Tip

When it comes to finding these edges on a map, an aerial image will be much more effective than any other type of map.  From a topo map you can typically identify some trails and whether an area is forest land, open land, or swamp land (hard edges), but you can’t tell where there are transition lines within forested habitat.  Thus, you’re going to want to use an aerial photo from Google Earth or Bing Maps.

Rub Lines and Edges

Rub Lines and Habitat Edges on Topo MapThe above two images are maps of the same area.  Which one is easier to decipher edges on?  Notice how the interior edges within the forest are not visible on the topo map. 

Advantage Google Earth

I prefer Google Earth because you can alter between historical photos with a click of a button.  How does this help you as a hunter?  Let me show you.

Summer Aerial Photo of Deer Hunting LandSummer

Early Spring Aerial Photo of Deer Hunting LandEarly Spring

See the difference?  By switching the historical photo date you can hopefully bounce between the seasons in which the photo was taken.  I prefer early spring or late fall photos where the leaves are off of the deciduous trees.  The above photos should make the reasons fairly obvious.  For one, you can clearly see the edges of deciduous and coniferous stands.  Secondly, trails are much easier to see through the tree tops without leaves.  And thirdly, you can decipher potential logging activities that have recently took place.

Aerial Image of Recent Logging EventOnce you develop a good eye for aerial imagery, you’ll be able to see the faint lines of a logging operation like this one.  The hardwoods on the left with squiggly looking tracks/trails was recently selectively cut and thinned.  The one on the right in which you see somewhat curvy parallel striations is a result of a clear-cut.  

Another added bonus of Google Earth’s historical imagery function is that you can toggle through the years to get a pretty good estimate as to when logging or clearings happened.

Identifying the Best Edges

Not all edges were created equal.  It may take some time and practice to learn which edge is preferred over another, but here’s a couple of pointers to keep in mind when determining which edge to scout or hunt.

  1. Look where they are in terms of food and cover. If it’s a linear line between the two, chances are this is the main travel route for the deer.

Edge habitat for deer between food and beddingHere’s an example of an edge created by a power line clearing.  Located between bedding and food, this is a great edge to hunt.

Deer edge habitat between food and coverFood and bedding areas are much harder to determine in big timber country, but here’s an example of an edge we found and ended up killing a mature buck out of.

  1. Some edges double as a funnels. Funnels can be effective hunting locations throughout the fall, but they turn to gold during the pre-rut and rut phases of whitetail.

Examples of funnels for white-tailed deerCha-Ching! Here’s two funnels us whitetail hunters dream of come November.  Funnels and pinch points are often the result of a band of cover being shrunk down due to two imposing hard edges.

Now that you know where and how to find the best high-traffic deer edges, it’s time to hit the ground to verify your computer scouting efforts.  Remember, edge habitat is strongly correlated with buck rub density.  Thus, if you don’t find any rubs, it’s in your best interest to scout a different edge.


Once you find a rub near edge cover, chances are you’ll find several of them as you progress down the edge.  If you do, you’ve just located a rub line.  Now it’s time to understand what this rub line is telling you.

  1. Is it a mature buck or a scrappy buck? There will likely be a mix of the size of trees that are rubbed, but matures bucks will generally rub on trees that are greater than 4 inches in diameter.  However, some wooded areas just don’t have many of those mid-sized trees in which case, a small sapling could mean a big buck.  Get your trail cam out there and figure out what’s cruising the edge.
  2. What side of the tree is the rub on? Depending on the side of the tree, you can determine if the buck is likely to be using it during the morning or evening.  How you ask?  To understand this, you must first know where the likely bedding and feeding areas are.  If the tree is rubbed in such that the deer would be facing the feeding area when he makes the rubs, then it’s likely his afternoon travel route to the food.  An evening sit would be your best chance to tag this buck.  If the rub is made as if the buck would be facing the bedding area, then a morning sit would be the best time to get a crack at the buck before he goes to bed.

With many bucks recently casting their velvet, trees are shaking across the whitetail woods.  Take some time this fall to identify these hot travel zones for big bucks and you won’t be disappointed!

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