A Closer Look at Whitetail Scrapes
September 22, 2010
I read an article not long ago that described the different kinds of rubs. The writer named many different types of rubs. One type he called "boundary rubs," and in his story he stated that boundary rubs are used to mark the outer limits of a buck's territory. He further stated that a buck would not go outside of these marked boundaries. The writer went on to say that he could always tell a boundary rub because the buck would stop and turn 90 degrees to his trail and make the rub so it faced his trail.
I suppose that bucks also have a trail going all the way around their boundaries so that they make boundary rubs along that trail! The trails must be like a perimeter road a landowner might have around his property line. I suppose we could call it "a boundary trail." It's easy to throw stuff out there when your subject can't dispute what you are claiming!
Therefore, let me say that I don't claim to understand everything about scrapes. I don't believe there is a human on earth who understands everything there is to know about a deer's very complicated communications system. However, this is my interpretation of scrapes through knowledge gained from a lifetime of observation, thought and study.
LET'S GET SERIOUS
When it comes to the true purpose of whitetail scrapes, I believe that scrapes are made by rutting bucks as a place where does in heat can come together with these bucks. A buck lays out his scrapes like a fisherman lays out a trotline. He'll bait the woods with scrapes hoping a hot doe will find one of them (more on this later). What about the different kinds of scrapes, you ask? This is a reasonable question, especially when you consider all the things that have been written over the years concerning scrapes.
I believe the differences we see in scrapes are caused by the maturity of their maker. I don't think one buck makes many different kinds of whitetail scrapes. Nor do I believe that one age-class of bucks makes different types of scrapes with different purposes. The age of the buck is responsible for the differences we see in scrapes. The age of the buck dictates the scrape's purpose, and ultimately its usefulness to a hunter. Let's explore my beliefs along these lines.
First, let's look at an immature buck's scraping habits. In the fall, 1'‚1/2-year-old bucks have dispersed from the places they were born. They usually wander haphazardly through the woods until they settle in a new territory and work out a travel pattern. Once they are filled with testosterone, young, immature bucks will make scrapes anywhere they happen to be. These scrapes will be around the edges of fields, on logging roads and in any other locations the bucks happen to travel.
Young bucks are still trying to figure things out and are still trying to refine their rutting skills. The scrapes are seldom revisited. That is to say, a yearling buck will not make his rounds for the express purpose of checking the scrapes he has made. However, very seldom does an older rutting buck that happens upon a scrape walk near it without giving it some attention. These older bucks simply cannot help themselves. It's nature's way. It's instinctive.
Scrapes made by immature bucks are easy to identify. They are usually small and not well defined and the overhanging limb is usually small in diameter and close to the ground. This limb usually does not show much use. A close examination of one of these scrapes may reveal a doe-sized track in them. I have never seen a scrape made by a 1 1/2-year-old buck that was cleaned out completely down to bare earth. A yearling buck simply doesn't have the weight and muscle mass to tear up the ground like a mature buck can. He does not have the strength of body or purpose to make the large deeply worked scrapes like a mature buck makes. In addition, he really doesn't know what he is doing. He is making scrapes mostly because of instinct.
By the time bucks reach 2'‚1/2 and 3'‚1/2 years of age, however, they've developed a definite travel pattern. As they travel during the pre-rut, they'll make scrapes along their trails and travel corridors. A so-called "scrape line" will form. These scrapes will be large -- averaging 2 to 3 feet in length -- and they'll be well worked, showing that their maker has increased in weight and muscle mass from the time he was 1'‚1/2 years old.
These scrapes will also show signs of continual use because as the buck travels his trails and corridors, he'll continually rework his scrapes. While these scrapes definitely show some serious efforts, these 2'‚1/2- or 3'‚1/2-year-old bucks still haven't matured enough or gained enough woods savvy to realize where the best locations are to place his scrapes (baits).
If they are fresh and still being worked, these "scrape lines" may be beneficial to hunt. If there is evidence that the buck is still visiting the scrapes, don't delay in hanging a stand if you believe the buck is a shooter. Keep in mind that you must set up quickly before any does come into heat. Once this happens, the buck will temporarily abandon his travel pattern.
Set up downwind of the scrape that shows the most use. A buck may travel through his corridor using different routes at times. However, the scrape that shows the most use is the one that his travel patterns intersect most of the time. Another reason one of the scrapes may be visited more often than the others is that one or more does may start urinating in the scrape as they come into estrus. This will be especially true if there are no older age-class bucks in the area, which is sometimes the case.
BIG BOYS ARE DIFFERENT
As a buck matures and reaches the age of 4'‚1/2 or older, he by now has learned a lot about the breeding ritual and how deer, and particularly does, travel through their territory. Mature bucks will make scrapes in a particular location for a purpose. They'll make scrapes in the same locations that you'd hunt if your purpose were to shoot as many does as possible. They'll place scrapes where two or more doe trails cross, at funnels where many does pass through, in feeding areas and anywhere else does might congregate.
Mature bucks don't have to be filled with testosterone before they start scraping. They no longer are working from instinct alone. They know what is coming. The most dominant buck in the area will start scraping early to let the does know that he is still around and available. It might surprise some hunters to discover just how early in the fall a mature buck will make a scrape.
On Aug. 14, 2007, I was scouting in central Tennessee for a stand location to hunt a 5'‚1/2-year-old 8-pointer that I had named Mountain Mike. (See the July and August issues for the complete story about my hunt for Mountain Mike). I'd been keeping tabs on this buck for three years. I found a large breeding scrape that he had been working for at least a week. The scrape was 7 feet across and 10 feet long. The scrape was located about 100 yards from Mike's bedding thicket. It was also located within 20 yards of a woods pond.
At that time, Mountain Mike was still in full velvet. It was very hot and dry and we were in the middle of a severe drought. The streams had dried up and all of the deer in this location were watering at the pond. With all the local does using the waterhole, there was no better spot for Mike to make a scrape than here. Several months later when the does started coming in heat, they'd all remember where Mike's scrape was located.
A SCRAPE WITH A PURPOSE
Made by mature bucks, these "breeding scrapes" (or whatever you choose to call them) are made in strategic locations and will receive plenty of attention just before and during the time that the older does start coming into heat and using them. However, you must set up on them at the right time. These scrapes will not be productive places to hunt all throughout the rut. You must hunt them during that short window when the rut urge has moved a mature buck from his nocturnal pattern to being out during daylight, just before the majority of does come into heat.
I believe a mature buck's main purpose for making scrapes is to find that first old doe that is receptive. He has been waiting all year and if he has reached dominance, it is his desire and right to breed with the first doe in heat. Does, particularly old does, want to breed with mature bucks. When the majority of does come in heat, a mature buck's scrapes will be abandoned because of the availability of hot does. However, when things start slowing down, or when he is between does, he may start revisiting his scrapes. These scrapes will be large -- often 3 to 8 feet in length.
Mature bucks have developed the muscle mass and body size to tear up the ground and they will. They don't want to keep their scrapes secret. These scrapes will be well worked and they'll have a major limb hanging over them. There may even be two or more limbs that are being used. Sometimes the limb will be as large as a man's thumb and it will often be mangled.
OTHER IMPORTANT SIGN
Finding large rubs close to large scrapes is another sure sign that these scrapes were made by a mature buck. I have seen rubs made on the sapling or tree that the overhanging limb was attached to. I have also found small saplings in or near scrapes that were twisted and broken off at the ground by buster bucks. Don't be fooled by the size of the sapling rubbed. If you find saplings, even small ones, that are twisted and mangled, the damage was done by a mature buck.
Never assume that just because you find one or more scrapes near or in the edge of a field that a young buck made them. A field may be a prime location for the area does to feed and mingle in. This may be the most productive place for a mature buck's scrape, particularly if there is little to no hunting pressure at that spot. If you find large, overhanging limbs with considerable damage done to them, or if you find large rubs and tracks around the edge of the field, you can bet that a mature buck is working the field. However, if you hunt in an area in which there are no older age-class bucks, you may never see one of these scrapes because they're made by the masters of the woods, the "super" bucks that have reached the older age-classes. Seldom is one of these super bucks killed by a hunter!
Of course, you can call large scrapes made by mature bucks "breeding scrapes." Because the buck that made them had this in mind at the time. You could also call them "community scrapes" because once the does start using them, it causes a chain reaction. Any buck that happens upon one will put his scent in it, as long as there is not a more dominant buck close by. Furthermore, you could say that these scrapes suppress the breeding of younger immature bucks by intimidation.
THE DOMINANCE FACTOR
Let's look at an illustration. Say you have a young male dog a year or so old. Say you put him in a pen with a female that is close to coming in heat. He'll immediately start strutting around and urinating on everything in sight. But throw a healthy 4-year-old male in the pen and see what happens. The young dog will cower down. His strutting and "marking" will be over. He won't even challenge the older and more dominant male, especially if he was raised around this dog and dominance has been decided.
The same thing happens with whitetails. As mature bucks start expanding their range and laying down scrapes during the pre-rut, a 1'‚1/2- or 2'‚1/2-year-old buck that once was the "bull of the woods" will no longer be king in his little core area. When a young, immature buck comes upon a large scrape that has been vigorously worked by an older mature buck, he'll immediately know that the boss is back in town. He'll know this not only because of the way the big buck paws the ground, but also because of the scent the mature buck leaves in his scrape.
A mature buck is a strong, musky, rank-smelling animal. I have many times smelled this strong, musky scent in a large, heavily worked scrape. I also have smelled areas where a mature buck recently passed through the woods, especially on wet days. If you've ever been close to a dead mature buck that had been rutting, you know what I'm talking about. They are rank. Of course, this is not a rank smell to other deer. Instead, it's a smell of dominance to the other bucks, as well as to does.
So, could a scrape made by a mature buck suppress the breeding urge of younger bucks? Of course it could. It tells the younger buck in the area that a more mature, dominant buck is making his rounds in his little part of the world and that he'd better move over and respect the more dominant buck or there could be consequences.
THE 'SCRAPING RITUAL'
I also believe that a large, active scrape made by a musky-smelling, mature buck could cause a doe to come in a few days early. These musky odors contain pheromones that are sexually stimulating scents. I was raised on a farm and I've been around stock all my life. I've bred, raised and trained working and sporting dogs most of my adult life. I have seen animals, and dogs in particular, come in heat a few days earlier than they were scheduled to when another female in the same pen came in.
I have also seen this happen after a male was put in the pen with her. However, I have never seen this effect change things more than a few days. So, in my opinion, when a mature buck suddenly shows up on the scene, a doe close to estrus could be influenced by his sight, his behavior and his odor.
It's very difficult to hunt one of these major scrapes made by a mature buck. The problem lies in the location that a mature buck usually selects for his scrapes. They are most often in a hub of doe activity. This makes it difficult to set a stand up in a location where you will not be winded. Your job is to find the direction in which there is most often a void of deer activity. Hang your stand on that side of the scrape and make sure the wind is blowing toward the void before you hunt the stand.
This brings us back to the purpose of scrapes. The "scraping ritual," as I see it, is as follows: A buck will travel through his territory making scrapes. As mentioned, mature bucks don't waste much energy making haphazard scrapes just anywhere. They always make their scrapes at locations where the most does will pass by them.
After the buck has worked the ground and put scent on the overhanging limb, he'll rub/urinate in the scrape. He will then move on and make other scrapes at other prime locations. When an estrous doe or one close to estrus, passes by one of the scrapes, she will know if the buck that urinated in it is mature by the scent he left. If the buck is one she wants to breed with, she'll then urinate in the scrape as well.
She may continue on her way or she may travel a short distance and bed down to wait on the buck. It depends a lot on her state of estrus as to how far she may move from the scrape. If she is close to estrus, his pheromones or scent will stimulate her into coming in more quickly. When the buck returns to the scrape, he will check for estrous scent. If he finds it, he will follow her scent trail right to her.
This is the main purpose of a scrape as I see it. However, you must remember that there are no absolutes when there are so many variables in nature. Also, whenever you're dealing with as many individual personalities as you find with whitetail bucks, there are always exceptions.
SOME SITUATIONS VARY
Following are some different situations you might encounter other than what I have outlined in my simple illustration of how bucks and does use scrapes. A mature buck sometimes makes small scrapes at random locations, and he'll have no intention of revisiting one of these scrapes.
One situation where we might find this is when a rutting buck smells the spot where a doe urinated, especially if she is close to estrus. He will usually paw the ground a little at this location, and if there is a limb close by, he'll rub his face in it.
A mature buck may also intentionally make one or more large scrapes in a prime location that he does not revisit. This will happen if he makes the scrape just before he begins tending a hot doe. Once the doe comes in, a mature buck may go from one hot doe to another without returning to his travel corridor and the scrapes he has made for several weeks.
Next, we must realize that it is of little consequence whether a hot doe has urinated in a mature buck's scrape or not if he runs up on her and she is willing to mate. In many situations, especially in the South where there are numerous does for every buck, it's easy for a buck to go into a doe feeding area during the rut and "pick up" a date. When it comes to scrapes, the "hand of man" has removed much of Nature's intentions by interfering with natural one-to-one buck-to-doe ratios.
You might also observe an immature buck working a large scrape. Any time a rutting buck of any age happens upon an active scrape in the fall woods, he'll usually paw the ground and put in his two cents worth. When we see a buck working a scrape, it does not necessarily mean that he is the one who originally made it.