I believe that whitetail rubs play a number of roles in a whitetail's life. Rubs are made for different reasons and with different intentions. If we know how to interpret them correctly, they can tell us much more than the simple fact that a buck passed through the area. Therefore,
I believe it would be beneficial for us to spend a little time discussing this common type of buck sign.
The first whitetail rubs made by bucks in the fall woods are made during the time of velvet shedding. Whenever you find small saplings with stripped and broken branches during the month of September, it's a good bet that these mangled trees were a result of a buck peeling off his velvet. If you examine one of these whitetail rubs closely, you might even be able to find some strips of dried velvet nearby. If you find a velvet-shedding tree soon after a buck used it, there may even be fresh blood on the limbs and velvet.
On some occasions, a buck will really get into his velvet stripping with a vengeance.
Sometimes he'll even rip up a sapling or several saplings until all the limbs are broken off. The trunk of the sapling itself might be mangled. However, this is not the norm. Most of the time rubs made by a buck shedding his velvet are not very noticeable.
Velvet-shedding rubs can teach us several things. First, the larger the sapling that was rubbed and the more damage inflicted, the better the chances are that its maker was at least 3 1/2 years old. It does little good to put a trail camera over a velvet-shedding rub if it is not associated with other buck sign. If the buck's only purpose was to peel velvet during his random traveling, he will probably not return to that particular spot. However, if the rub is on a travel corridor such as a logging road or trail where there is other old or fresh buck sign, you may be able to use a trail camera to get the maker's photograph!
If the rub is fresh, look closely at the ground around the sapling for tracks. If the buck spent a lot of time there, he may have worked up enough bare ground so you can see his tracks. Large tracks are one of the most reliable indicators that the rub was worked by a mature buck.
If your findings do indicate that the rub being investigated was made by a mature buck, you've found significant sign. During this time of year bucks don't stray far from their core areas. If you find a fresh rub in September or early October made by a mature buck -- whether it be a velvet-stripping rub or any other type -- you can bet that rub is inside the maker's core area. And when you find a mature buck's core area, you have at your disposal a very important part of the puzzle.
Velvet-shedding rubs also indicate that it's time to begin looking for other rubs in earnest so that you can locate the core areas of as many mature bucks as possible.
I once stood in amazement as I watched a fully mature buck engage in mock combat with a poor, defenseless sapling. And although I don't like to associate human characteristics with deer, this show reminded me very much of a boxer hitting a speed bag as he trained for a fight. This buck would throw his rack into the sapling and vigorously shake it back and forth. Then he would quickly back off. He repeated this several times. He was not using body strength or weight to push against the sapling like we commonly see in other rubs. It appeared to me he was working on his speed and agility. He was no doubt preparing himself for dominance bouts with other bucks.
I have also witnessed other types of mock combats in which bucks engaged saplings. I have seen mature bucks brace their bodies and throw all their weight into larger saplings with such force that a person could hear the sounds 75 yards away. Bucks will often work themselves into a frenzy as they rake their horns up and down the tree while ripping the bark off. Many times during such endeavors, a buck can be heard groaning and grunting.
A buck may spend 20 seconds working the tree over or he may spend 20 minutes.
This action reminds me very much of a boxer using the heavy bag to build his strength, power and stamina. I believe this is one of the main reasons a buck develops large neck and shoulder muscles during the fall. Their bodies are flowing with testosterone, and when you combine this hormone with aggressive rubbing, you'll get the same results as a bodybuilder using steroids while working out with weights.
BIG RUBS = BIG BUCKS
Common rubs appear anytime in the fall after velvet shedding has taken place. However, as a buck's hormone level rises, rubbing intensifies. Rubbing actively will increase weekly until breeding begins. Even during the peak of the rut, mature bucks still make quite a few rubs.
As is commonly believed, the size of the rub has a lot to do with the size and maturity of its maker. If the rub is the size of a person's finger and the tree is only barely skinned up, the rub was probably made by a 1 1/2- or 2 1/2-year-old buck. Young bucks do not make a lot of rubs unless older bucks (3 1/2 years old or older) are noticeably missing from the area.
I have occasionally seen small bucks rub big trees. I once watched a spike rub a tree that was the size of my calf. However, he only hit it two or three times and did little or no additional damage to the tree. The spike was not the original maker of this rub. When you find a rub on a tree that big you can bet that it was made by an older-age-class buck. The reason I believe that young bucks rub big trees is that these rubs also serve as scent-communication rubs (more on this subject in Part 2).
Can we carry rub size far enough to say that a rub the size of a man's upper thigh is made by a really big buck? Not necessarily. Last season, my good friend Kevin Boyer from Century, Illinois, placed a trail camera on a telephone pole that had been ripped up. Of course, visions of monster Boone and Crockett bucks always enter our minds when we find such sign. This was definitely a scent-communication rub. During the seven-day period that he had his camera set up to view the pole, six different bucks rubbed it. But not one of those bucks scored higher than the mid-150s. Two of the bucks did not appear to be over 3 1/2 years old.
I believe mature bucks are apt to rub trees of all sizes, both large and small. But obviously bucks 3 1/2 years old and older are prone to rub larger trees. Therefore, just about any rub you find could be made by a buck 3 1/2 or older. If a large rub shows sign of repeated use, it's always a good idea to put a trail camera on it before you set a stand nearby.
Large bucks will also engage in mock combat with small trees. Oftentimes, the amount of damage done to the tree indicates the size of the buck responsible. If the tree is mangled, and especially if it is twisted off at ground level, you can bet that a mature buck did the damage. As a matter of fact, several of the older bucks that I've hunted in the past preferred to work on clusters of small trees or twist off single saplings more often than they rubbed large trees. Many times a mature buck will make scrapes around the mangled sapling.
I also pay special attention to the height of the rub on a tree. I have heard hunters' comment about a buck having long tines because the rub was high on a tree. However, we must remember that rubs are made primarily with a buck's antler bases. In every situation in which I have found rubs as high as 5 feet up certain trees, the buck that made them was extremely large in stature.
Occasionally I see trees that have been rubbed right down to the ground. Like high rubs, this seems to be a characteristic of an individual buck. Keep in mind that you may be able to use certain characteristics like these to pattern a particular buck.
Common rubs are not scent-communication rubs per se. They can serve both purposes, but many do not. If you find a rub that has been absolutely shredded, it probably was not being used for scent communication at the time it was made. However, this same rub could develop into one as it is continually used.
THREE TYPES OF COMMON RUBS
Common rubs are found in three distinct situations. A study of these situations may help you better understand their usefulness.
1) Single rubs: Occasionally you'll find a random rub out in the woods that is not associated with a travel corridor, a trail or any other buck sign. This type of rub probably was made by a buck traveling across the countryside looking for a hot doe, and it's not of much significance to hunters.
2) Rub-line rubs: Rub lines are good indicators of a buck's travel pattern. It's no big secret that these types of rubs can tell you the direction the buck was traveling. This can be very beneficial. For instance, if the majority of the trees are rubbed on the side facing away from a feeding area, that travel corridor or trail was probably being used in the evening when the buck was on his way to the feeding area. However, if the majority of the rubs in a rub line are facing away from a possible bedding thicket or sanctuary, the buck was likely using the travel corridor early in the morning. This information can be used to decide when to hunt a particular travel corridor.
Set up downwind from the rub that shows the most use or near the spot where the most rubs are located within a small area. I advise this because a buck may travel through his corridor using slightly different paths each time. And since the rub or rubbing spot that shows the most use is the one that his preferred travel patterns most often intersect, it makes sense to set up as close to this spot as possible.
3) Cluster rubs: Rub clusters usually appear very close to or in a buck's bedding area/sanctuary. Or they might appear near a staging area where a buck spends time waiting for darkness to fall. Whenever you find a cluster of rubs that were rubbed at different times by what appears to be a mature buck, you've found an excellent stand location with great potential. In 2000, I killed a big buck known as The Tennessee Monarch. The cluster rubs he had made helped me pinpoint his sanctuary and told me where to place my stand.
The fact that these rubs are made at different times is very significant. Whenever you find a cluster of rubs, take time to examine them and make sure they were made at different times before you get all excited about setting up a stand nearby. Sometimes a rut-crazed buck will come into an area and mangle 10 or more saplings at one time before he moves on. Obviously, it would not be a good idea to set up a stand in this situation. However, it may not be a bad idea to keep an eye on the area to see if any new rubs show up.
It's hard to say where you should set up a stand in a promising cluster-rub location because each situation is different. You'll first have to evaluate the buck's travel pattern and consider the wind direction and the lay of the land in order to figure out where the best spot is to place your stand. Of course, a funnel located at or near the cluster rub site would be an ideal stand location.