By Clint McCoy, DVM
I like cats. There, I said it. I’m a cat guy. Not in a “crazy cat lady” sort of way, though, so don’t judge me.
A few years ago, my fluffy 20-pound hunk of a ginger cat Thomas was pestering me for attention. I was studying deer timber via Google Earth on my laptop when the big guy started petitioning me. The more I tried to ignore him, the more he proceeded to rub his face and cheeks on my hands and the edge of my laptop with gusto, a process known in the feline world as “bunting.”
Thomas was pushing so hard against my computer screen that it finally snapped shut. As I put my hand out to meet his vigorous head-rubbing behavior, a light bulb went off in my head. Thomas the cat was doing with his cheeks and forehead exactly what a mature buck does at a licking branch over a scrape: socializing. He was placing his “I was here” tag in the form of pheromone signals from facial glands.
The more rigid the pushback, the more Tom seemed to enjoy the experience and seek more of it. The veterinarian in me had seen hundreds of cats display this behavior, but the hunter in me had never made the analogy to deer behavior. I’d been looking at scrapes all wrong. It’s not the pawed-out dirt that’s paramount — it’s the licking branch above it that makes the magic.
SCRAPE ANATOMY 101
For the September issue, I wrote a feature illustrating a whitetail’s superpower of scent detection. Our bodies give off a few thousand volatile organic compounds, which are simply “odor chemicals” interpreted by the cervid brain. Whitetails give off their own VOC signatures, some in the form of pheromones that act as chemical communication between deer. Nowhere in the deer woods do these pheromones occur with more frequency or complexity than at the social hub for deer, the scrape and its licking branch overhead.
The anatomy of the animal is specifically engineered for pheromone deposition at scrapes. The interdigital glands between the toes place scent into the dirt as a buck paws the earth. The tarsal glands between the hock joints secrete an individual buck’s scent into the earth as he postures to urinate over them in a behavior known as rub-urinating. The forehead and preorbital glands of the face and head give off other scent signals as a buck vigorously rubs his face all over the scrape’s licking branch above.
This “pheromone buffet” serves as a communicator to other deer in the area, antlered and antlerless alike. Does, fawns, young bucks, old bucks: All use the scrape as their No. 1 scent communication device. And they all use them year-round.
What’s the biological purpose of a scrape? Researchers such as Dr. Bronson Strickland of Mississippi State University’s Deer Lab say it best.
“Deer don’t need social media to let everyone know where they have been, where they are going or their current relationship status,” he says. “But they do have a specialized sensory system that relies on chemical compounds to convey similar information.”
In today’s human world, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat rule our online social signature. Deer use scrapes and licking branches to get the same job done in theirs.
TYPES OF NATURAL SCRAPES
Natural scrapes are seen as gold mines for trail camera setups. But are they all created equally? I say not.
We’ve all seen those giant scrapes located along field edges. There’s a manhole-sized patch in the dirt, with several twisted and frayed licking branches overhead. These are likely “hub” scrapes, and they tend to be usually visited with frequency all year long by does and bucks alike. Even fawns can be seen interacting with these scrapes.
Hub scrapes are excellent areas for trail camera placement and are often repeatable year in and year out. As long as the overhanging branches remain at a proper height for the deer to reach, these will be used with stellar frequency.
Likewise, natural scrapes I find within reasonable proximity to suspected buck bedding cover make me giddy inside. These could be visited by mature bucks with daylight to spare.
Conversely, natural scrapes in transition zones seem less predictable. I feel these are made by sexually frustrated bucks in a haphazard manner, so I call them “frustration” scrapes. When a big scrape pops up in a random spot in the timber during the early pre-rut, I never hunt it. Most likely it was made by a buck just passing through, and I’ve had poor luck hunting such sign.
Finally, I sometimes will hunt over a natural scrape in an area I call a “receiver.” A receiver can be thought of as a turnstile at an amusement park. It might be a triangular-shaped waterway that leads across a large expanse of open field from one block of timber to another, with the contour of the grass “receiving” a lot of extra traffic as deer enter the next block of trees.
Another receiver area might be a long, brushy fencerow that leads to a pond dam grown up in willows where many deer pass. Receivers could also be seen as ridge saddles in deep timber where the contour appeals to drawing more deer traffic or where small bands of timber cross roadways in a pipeline effect. If I find a big scrape in one of these “turn-stile” areas, I’m definitely going to monitor it and might even hunt it.
TYPES OF MOCK SCRAPES
A professor in veterinary school once told me to “fake it till you make it.” I figure it worked in some of my scholastic pursuits, and it certainly is the case with mock scrapes.
For me, a standard mock scrape is one I simply want to create in a given area for either hunting or trail camera purposes. And to make one is child’s play. I like to pack a 12-inch steel mini prybar to create the scrape in the dirt. Think of the kind you’d use to do nail and molding work during a home remodeling project. I can clear the weeds and grass and till up enough dirt to make a plausible dirt scrape with this little tool in my pack, so I don’t have to lug a clunky garden rake or machete around with me.
The scrape in the dirt in my opinion is just to draw attention to local deer to the location; it isn’t the main course. When it comes to importance, the licking branch above the ground is the real calling card on my fakes.
I prefer to use bushy white or pin oak branches for these. I’ll often trim some elsewhere, then pack them to where I need them. Red oak and beech also make good licking branches. All these species seem to hold leaves long after they’ve been trimmed and transported to a mock scrape site.
I’ll use a series of zipties to secure the branch to a nearly vertical position, making sure to leave it about belt height. Hanging too high ensures deer can’t reach the branch to interact with it. Finally, I use some polypropylene rope cut to proper length and ziptied in such a manner to the branch that a stiff, ridged scent wick is achieved.
I’ve taken a liking to using blue polypropylene rope about as thick as my thumb. Deer have an extraordinary ability to see the color blue, and I feel this gives my mock scrapes a unique curiosity factor that gets tangible engagement from afar.
The goal for the vertical branch and stiff rope wick is simple: provide spring tension. As with my cat Thomas, the more the branch pushes back into the face of a whitetail working at it, the more scent glands can engage the rope and the more satisfaction a deer has in laying down his calling card.
I’ve tried dangling hemp rope and grapevines, and my field photos and videos show deer just “chase” the thing about and end up getting frustrated and quit. With a stiff, spring-tension vertical branch and rope system, bucks seem to go into spaz mode and really have a good time with the “push back” provided.
Another trick I like to employ is the “hijack” method. I simply harvest a licking branch from a natural scrape and place it as the vertical branch over one of my mocks. I’ll also hijack a natural licking branch with a blue poly rope and use a scent of my choosing, leaving it in the same location. These scrapes tend to do well as trail camera positions for monitoring buck activity.
There are other creative ways to make scrapes. One I like is the “tightrope” scrape. Where no suitable tree limb is to be found, I’ve been known to stretch a clothesline across a gap between trees and, using a turnbuckle and some eyelet screws, make a tightrope to attach a vertical licking branch to. I really like doing this in timber that’s been logged, especially if old logging roads are being traveled by deer.
Using a climbing stick to set the height of the tightrope, I attach the vertical branch to the midpoint, run the cable to a tree on the other side and presto. The result can be a novel way to put a mock scrape right where you need it.
Another neat way to make a mock scrape where trees are lacking is to use a transplanted tree or fencepost. The middle of destination food sources or food plots can be great areas for this. Lately, I’ve used a product from a company called ScrapeStick for this purpose. The Iowa-based company uses a hard-plastic branch-holding device that’s super versatile and adjustable to almost any situation that calls for a mock scrape licking branch.
The device can be secured to a tree void of proper limbs via a provided strap or even slipped over a steel T-post in the middle of nowhere to hold your licking branches. This little item makes it much easier than cutting a tree and sticking it in the middle of a food plot with a posthole digger. I’ve grown fond of it for ease of deployment, packability and durability.
Another creative way to make a scrape is to use what I call “spraypes.” If in early summer I find a suitable overhanging branch along a field edge covered in super-thick weeds or grass, I’ll come back with a small hand sprayer full of RoundUp and spray a manhole-sized circle underneath. When I revisit the area a few weeks later, the undergrowth will have become exponentially easier to remove and the earth easier to till with my pry bar. Work it up, add a camera, and you have a nice monitoring site for your data collection.
PRACTICAL USES FOR MOCK SCRAPES
In making scrapes, I’m mainly looking to inventory the bucks in my area. In states that don’t allow mineral licks or supplemental feeding, mock scrapes are the best option for taking inventory on the herd.
Furthermore, I find running cameras set on video can help reveal the behavioral profile of potential trophy bucks in the area. Videos of big bucks can give subtle behavioral clues still images lack.
Another use for mock scrapes is for an attractive effect near a stand or blind. Though scrape activity has been shown in studies to occur about 85 percent at night, that still leaves 15 percent in daylight A couple well-placed mock scrapes near the upwind side of a tree stand can be a nice way to sweeten a setup.
The afternoon of Oct. 15, 2014, I hunted such a stand on a transition trail in a timber near standing corn. I pulled a camera card on the way in and checked it with my phone once in the stand. In doing so, I found a buck I’d seen in summer had visited the field edge that morning, well before legal light.
A half-hour before sunset, the buck from the SD card approached one of my mock scrapes boldly from the left. As he began toying with the licking branch, he set himself up for a quartered-away chip shot. It wasn’t long before I drew on him. The arrow found its mark, lodged into the off shoulder, and dropped him chin first into the scrape with the branch above him still bobbing back and forth.
It doesn’t happen this way often, but when it does, the bucks engaging a mock scrape are usually oblivious and not moving, allowing for good shots.
Lately, I’ve been hinge-cutting around my tree stand mock scrapes to further help guide traffic to my setups. I know killing a buck standing in a fake scrape isn’t going to happen every season, but I find that if I don’t crowd these hunt-site scrapes with cameras or stands and am mindful of my wind direction and thermals, they can attract and distract the subject in the moment of truth.
SCENT SELECTION & MOCK SCRAPES
As stated, deer of any age and either sex use scrapes year-round. With this being true, I feel most people who deploy mock scrapes do so way too late in the year. I usually begin making my fakes around mid-July and through Labor Day and stop. I want my scrapes to be integrated into the local whitetail social circle before velvet peel happens, when days get shorter and bucks start making their own scrapes.
Time of year also plays a role in scent choice, Every licking branch I make gets a heavy dose of Smokey’s preorbital lure or the new Black Widow Branch Butter. In the dirt below, I’ll usually place buck urine September through mid-October, then begin placing doe estrus urine in it at peak breeding times. Once winter hits, I boomerang back to buck urine or plain doe urine.
I keep my scent use careful and light. A little goes a long way. I always wear rubber boots and gloves when I doctor up a scrape during the season and tend not to linger any longer than necessary to get the job done.
Once established, a mock scrape might not even need more scents if deer are engaging it with frequency. Let your cameras and instincts be your guide. Some mocks won’t become box office attractions, while others will turn into gold mines year after year.
Adding mock scrapes to your bag of tricks can be rewarding and fun. Again, hacking into the whitetail’s social network is all we’re doing here. Using the aforementioned techniques can provide tangible trail camera data to inventory the herd and can be used to give a selected stand site a little razzle-dazzle.
I’m not saying that hunting over mock scrapes is infallible. But the old saying about how curiosity killed the cat seems to ring true here. It could be applicable to the trophy bucks in your area that flirt with danger near your mock scrape stand setups or stand in front of the watchful lenses of your trail cameras.