Reasons to Understand Antler rubs — Part III

A good argument for Spring Scouting — notice how both antler rubs and ground scrapes are November fresh in early May — this combo is a dream maker!

Whereas most whitetail hunters consider antler rubs to be prime buck signs, along with ground scrapes, few consider their locations to be worthwhile stand sites. Perhaps rightfully so. During the latter half of November when most firearm deer hunting seasons are in progress, few bucks are interested in making or renewing previously made antler rubs, or for that matter, making or renewing previously made ground scrapes. The best period for hunting near such deer signs is the 2–3 weeks before breeding begins, during the latter half of October and the first few days of November, i.e., archery hunting season. The last time I deliberately stand hunted near a freshly renewed antler rub (with shredded bark on top of the snow at its base), it was late November (archery season) when the temperature was 27-below zero and a 20–40 mph wind was blowing. When I could stand it no longer and stood up to head to an adjacent wooded ravine to build a life-restoring bonfire, a big 10-pointer jumped from the trail I had been watching and disappeared into the ravine with a single bound, after which it snorted at least ten times as it raced away unseen (a very alarmed buck). If I had taken that buck, I’d probably be more interested in hunting near rubs yet today.

Today, however, antler rubs are mostly my starting points when scouting in early spring (right after snow melt and before leaves begin to grow), a time when rubs made during the previous fall are still brightly colored and easy to spot great distances away. Along deer trails where single rubs are found, especially those close to known feeding areas, or in buck bedding areas where clusters are found, I search for also easily spotted fresh tracks and droppings of sizes made by mature bucks. Before long, I’ll know how many mature bucks my hunting partners and I will have to hunt in fall and where they live. Trails favored by mature bucks at this time of the year will generally be the same trails they will favor after leaves have fallen in autumn, making them good starting places for final scouting 2–3 weeks before archery hunting in October or firearm hunting in November. When used for this purpose, antler rubs have great hunting value, enabling my sons, grandsons and me to quickly discover what we need to know to ensure another successful season of hunting mature bucks.

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Reasons to Understand Antler rubs – Part II

The dominant breeding buck in the photo above made one of the largest antler rubs I have ever seen. However — this size is not typical. The size antler rubs — on average — relate to specific classes of bucks.

Diameters of antler rubs are related to sizes or ages of the bucks that made them. The reason is, with testosterone beginning to peak during the season antler rubs are made, increasing aggressiveness, the creation of a rub on a tree soon becomes a mock battle. A battle between two bucks is a shoving match with antlers engaged, the loser being the buck that is forced to give significant ground (back up) and finally jump away to avoid being seriously wounded by the victor’s antlers. When battling a tree trunk, then, a buck wants to win. It wins when the tree trunk yields (bends away). Because the purpose of making a rub would be lost if the tree trunk breaks, bucks generally select trees to rub on that will yield but not break when attacked with fury. Thus diameters of tree trunks upon which antler rubs are made reflect the sizes (ages) of the bucks that made them.

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Yearling bucks, for example, characteristically make rubs on ¾ to 1-inch diameter tree trunks, usually off-trail in feeding areas and often next to ground scrapes a foot or less in diameter.

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Bucks 2-1/2 years of age prefer tree trunks 2–2-1/2 inches in diameter adjacent to well-used deer trails.

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Bucks 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age prefer tree trunks 3-6 inches in diameter, sometime more and sometimes less in their bedding areas, and adjacent to major deer trails within doe home ranges located within their much larger buck home ranges.

Reasons to Understand Antlered Rubs – Part I

A brightly colored (newly made) antler rub unequivocally means, “An antlered buck, yearling to 6-1/2 year-old, lives here.”

And more. As intended by bucks, antler rubs are easy for other whitetails to smell, being laden with scalp musk, and spot. They are signposts of intended breeding ranges of bucks. A rub is easy to spot because bucks spend considerable time scraping bark from tree trunks with their antlers to expose the brightly colored wood beneath. Depending on when they are made and where, antler rubs have different meanings.

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A nice buck. He is almost finished removing his velvet. He just swished his rack through some milkweed.

The first new rubs of the year are made about the first of September by bucks rubbing deteriorating velvet from their then fully developed antlers, usually on small diameter tree trunks or woody multi-stemmed shrubs, within or very near their spring and summer-long bedding areas. About 90% of rubs of larger sizes are made during the 2–3 week period before the first of the three 2-week periods of breeding begins in November (during which lesser antlered bucks are chased from their ranges by dominant bucks). While testosterone and resulting aggressiveness is peaking in bloodstreams of antlered bucks at this time, many older bucks also make 6–30 rubs within their bedding areas. Some rubs, especially those made by dominant breeding bucks, are renewed repeatedly (made bright again by further rubbing and re-scented with scalp musk).

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Example of a Rage Rub

While breeding is in progress, enraged dominant breeding bucks commonly display threatening behavior (rage) in sight of lesser bucks that dared to return and shadow does in heat they are accompanying by quickly mangling with their antlers small trees, shrubs or branches overhanging their ground scrapes.

Though vital to success when hunting mature whitetails, fresh deer signs soon lose their hunting value.

Droppings with dull (dry) surfaces have no hunting value. (However, you don’t need a trail cam to know you want to hunt the buck that left these droppings. This buck — a trophy-class buck — is frequenting this area!)

Wherever fresh deer signs (tracks, droppings, beds, antler rubs, ground scrapes and/or evidences of feeding) made by mature whitetails (2-1/2 years of age or older) are discovered, you are located within a currently favored portion of the home or breeding range of the deer that made the signs — a site therefore having much greater hunting value than any other site selected for stand hunting without regard for fresh deer signs. During hunting seasons, unfortunately, the hunting value of such signs is short-lived. Especially while intending to take a mature whitetail only, especially a buck 3-1/2 years of age or older, never waste time stand hunting near of newly-discovered deer signs longer than 1–3 consecutive half-days. Though there are a host of reasons mature whitetails frequently begin using different portions of their home ranges during fall and early winter hunting seasons, hunting is the likeliest cause. Within 1-3 consecutive half-days of stand hunting at one site, almost all whitetails 3-1/2 years of age or older living within a half-mile will discover and identify you, either at your stand site while approaching it, with or without your knowledge. Thereafter, they will remain out of sight of your stand site until the hunting season is over. This isn’t true of all whitetails. Most lone fawns, many lone yearlings and a few 2-1/2 year-old bucks or does will not yet be adept at doing this.

Fresh whitetail droppings provide a number of facts that can contribute to greater hunting success.

Certain viable, hunting-related conclusions can be drawn from discoveries of deer droppings. Lots of off-trail droppings, fresh (shiny) and old (dry with dull surfaces) scattered over an area several acres in size are characteristic of whitetail feeding or bedding areas (bedding areas also have beds, of course). Discovering droppings about 1/4 inch in length, fawn droppings, mean two deer live in the area: a fawn and mature doe. Lots of three-inch tracks and half-inch droppings are characteristic of mature does and their home ranges. Half-inch droppings and three-inch tracks of two deer traveling together (in fall) are likely made by a mature northern state doe accompanied by its yearling (1-1/2 year-old) buck. Droppings and tracks of normally smaller yearling does are somewhat shorter. Yearling bucks and yearling does without young remain in the ranges of their mothers until the beginning of their third spring.

Fresh droppings longer than one-half inch, made by mature bucks only, are regularly found in doe home ranges after about September 1st for two reasons: 1) larger buck ranges normally overlap several doe ranges and 2) after shedding antler velvet, mature bucks regularly visit does and their young during periods of feeding until the third two-week period of breeding ends in early January.

Droppings of whitetail bucks 4-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age (the largest of bucks) measure ¾ to 1-1/4 inch in length in my northern Minnesota hunting/study area. Though most bucks of similar ages have droppings of similar lengths, their diameters can vary considerably, some droppings appearing long and skinny and others appearing egg-shaped, revealing the presence of more than one buck of similar age or size living in the area. Where I hunt, any buck that has droppings 7/8th to one inch in length is almost certain to be “trophy-class,” a buck you’d want to have mounted. Some of our bucks with ¾ inch droppings, generally 3-1/2 year-olds with wide and tall but more slender antlers, fall into this category.

If from this day on you skillfully limit your stand hunting to trails and sites marked with fresh buck droppings ¾-inch in length or longer (usually clumped in fall) and resist the urge to take lesser bucks or does, you will begin to enjoy the most incredible whitetail hunting of your life.

One advantage provided by deer droppings is, it is easy to determine whether or not they are very fresh

If droppings are not fresh, they have little or no hunting value. If fresh, they have great hunting value. Whatever their color (tan, brown or nearly black), droppings that are soft and have shiny surfaces are “very fresh.” Unless the deer that made the droppings was alarmed, very fresh droppings, especially in or near a whitetail feeding area, means one or more of four things:

  1. the deer is near right now,
  2. the deer will likely be near sometime between first light and 10 AM this morning,
  3. the deer will likely be near sometime between mid-afternoon and dusk this evening and/or
  4. the deer will be near between first light and 10 AM tomorrow morning (unlikely after that).

Beginning shortly before making such a discovery, your relative skill as a hunter will largely determine whether or not you will spot that deer without alarming it within easy shooting range (an easy target) during one or more of the periods listed above.

One shortcoming of fresh droppings is, they do not ordinarily reveal whether or not the deer that made them was alarmed, meaning, while stand hunting near fresh droppings, you may waste a half-day hunting a previously alarmed deer that has temporarily abandoned its range (a major reason why my hunting partners and I change stand sites every half-day). Occasionally a deer will defecate along a path 5–10 feet in length, indicating it was alarmed and trotting or bounding while defecating, therefore unlikely to be seen in the vicinity for the rest of the hunting season.

Very fresh, ¾-inch-long droppings enabled author’s son, Ken, to take this buck on opening morning.

Very fresh tracks of unalarmed whitetails are not only the most rewarding of deer signs, but they enable the hunter to regularly key on specific classes of deer — mature bucks, for example. The trouble is, they can be difficult to find. A lack of snow, dry or frozen ground or falling leaves are notable reasons.

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Clumped buck droppings — hard, dry, dull — not fresh.

Second best are fresh deer droppings (scats). “Fresh” means shiny and soft with no frost crystals on them in sub-freezing temperatures. Beginning in September, droppings of antlered bucks are commonly clumped (stuck together).

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Clumped buck droppings — soft, wet, shiny — fresh.

Doe droppings remain separate. Whereas one set of droppings can contain a few larger and smaller droppings than most and sizes of droppings from individual deer can vary a bit with diet, for the most part the more common lengths (not including the little knobs at the ends) in a puddle or clump of droppings nonetheless provide two bits of information that can greatly improve odds of hunting success: 1) the class of deer that made the droppings and 2) the vicinity, trail or site currently frequented by that deer, meaning, it is likely to be seen in that same vicinity, on that same trail or at that same site within a few hours, later the same day or the following morning (don’t count on it after that). Very fresh droppings discovered in the vicinity of a current favorite whitetail feeding area (sites characterized by greater numbers of off-trail droppings, fresh and old) are the most rewarding.

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From a trophy-class buck that we didn’t get in 2016.
(Unclumped, found while scouting, before stresses of breeding.)

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From another trophy-class buck that we didn’t get in 2016.
(Unclumped, found while scouting, before stresses of breeding.)

In northern Minnesota where I hunt and study whitetails, mature does (two or more years of age) and yearling bucks have droppings measuring one-half inch in length. Droppings of fawns and yearling does are shorter. All longer droppings are those of mature bucks (two or more years of age). In fall, droppings measuring ¾ to 1-1/4 inches in length are those of bucks 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age (considered “trophy-class” by most hunters).