Reading Buck Rubs

Next to scraping sign, few things grab a hunter’s attention more than the sight of a big buck rub. The mere presence of rubbing sign adds to a hunt’s excitement. As intriguing as rubs are, the “why” and “how” bucks make them is often overlooked by hunters.

Time Line

Prior to velvet peel rubbing is nonexistent.  Rubbing behavior begins with velvet peel in late August and early September in the north and ends once antlers are cast.  After years of studying rutting behaviors I believe a buck’s desire to rub brush and trees is driven by shortening day length and fueled by the amount of testosterone in his body.  Between mid-August and mid-September a buck’s testosterone level will increase nearly 100% from what it was in June.  And from mid-September to November 1st it will double again, reaching its peak by the first week in November in the north.  A doe’s estrogen level will also peak around November 1st, setting the stage for breeding to take place.  Here in my home state of New York velvet peel is full-blown around the first of September.  From this point on rut behaviors begin increasing until reaching their apex in November.

Two hunters analyze a big buck rub

Why Do Bucks Make Rubs?

Many believe bucks make rubs to strengthen their neck muscles in preparation for the rut.  Though this is a byproduct of rubbing behavior the primary reasons they rub is to show dominance and leave their scent on the rub.  When making or reworking a rub, bucks leave scent from their nasal, preorbital, and forehead glands on the brush or trees they rub and they will almost always lick the rub throughout the process.  It should also be noted that does will on occasion rub their nasal and preorbital glands on rubs they encounter.

Though other bucks can no doubt visually relate the size of the rub to the size of the animal, it’s the odor left on the rub that often lets other bucks know who’s been there.  It’s been my experience that this, as much as the size of the rub, works to determine an adult buck’s social status within a given territory.  Also, many researchers believe that the scent (pheromones) bucks leave on rubs serves as a priming function that influences the timing of breeding.

Rub Types

After witnessing and photographing hundreds of “battles” between bucks and tree trunks I’ve concluded there are four kinds of rubbing behavior: random, rub-line, traditional sign post, and aggressive breeding.

1 – Random rubbing is a byproduct of increased testosterone in a buck’s system and his desire to leave his calling card.  He does this by randomly rubbing trees and brush while roaming his territory.  At times there appears to be a pattern to these rubs (i.e., along travel corridors) but more often random rubs will appear wherever a buck feels the urge to rub.  Most random rubs will not be a prime location to hunt.

2 – Rub-line rubs are made by a buck as he travels back and forth between bedding and feeding areas.  Most are made along well used trails and are the “mother lode” of rubs to hunt because of the way they can tip off a hunter to a buck’s travel pattern.

a rub line made by a buck in a transition zoneHere’s an obvious rub line. Notice how all the rubs are facing the same direction.

RELATED: Finding and Analyzing Rub Lines

3 – Traditional Sign Post rubs occur more often in a balanced herd where there are many mature bucks.  Such rubs are usually found on trees 6 or more inches in diameter and rubbed year after year.  Unfortunately, it takes a good population of mature bucks for a true traditional signpost rub to exist, so, in most of the whitetail’s range, where 75+ percent of the buck kill is yearlings, there are very few traditional signpost rubs.

Sign post buck rub made along a travelling corridorHere’s a traditional sign post rub along a travel corridor.  Notice the tree scars from previous years of rubbing.

4 – Aggressive Breeding rubs are a result of a buck’s attitude at a given time and are caused by competition within the buck population during the breeding phase of the rut.  They are made wherever a breeding party of two or more bucks attempt to breed the same doe.  This type of rubbing takes place when one of the bucks aggressively makes a rub in sight of the other buck(s).  This often prompts one or more of the bucks in the breeding party to repeat the process by making his own rub to telegraph dominance.  Such rubs take on the appearance of clusters and are a good indication where the actual breeding took place.

Importance to the Hunter

Often, where you find scraping you’ll find rubbing.  The more of each the better your chances of harvesting a buck.  Locating a line of rubs, usually made along a well-worn trail between the bedding and feeding area (what I call a transition zone) will be a prime ambush site.  Also, rub lines can often reveal the way a buck was traveling.  If the scarred side of the tree faces the feeding area, the rub was probably made in the morning when the buck returned to his bedding area.  If the scar faces the bedding area, the rub was undoubtedly made when the buck exited in the evening.

Doe rubbing her preorbital gland on a buck rubDoes will also communicate by leaving scent and smelling buck rubs.

If there is a good doe population, there is even more reason to be excited about hunting a transition zone that contains many rubs because does will also rub their nasal and preorbital glands and forehead on rubs bucks have made.  With doe groups in the area, the chance of killing a buck increases dramatically as the rut moves through the chase phase and then climaxes with the breeding phase.


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