October 13, 2023
In March of 2015, I was scouting and shed hunting a section of hardwood timber I had gotten permission to access the fall prior, when I came across a tremendous interior scrape along a ridge. It stopped me dead in my tracks. At face value, the scrape seemed to be in an unusual spot, and while I couldn’t quite understand the significance of it, I certainly began paying attention to the area. Seven years later, the location continues to produce excellent trail camera images and coughs up trophy buck information year in and year out.
Monitoring and hunting the proximity of this deep-woods scrape has been a very eye-opening experience. It has led to some of the best fall hunting my family has every season, resulting in the tagging of no less than four bucks of significant maturity. If I had only one trail camera at my disposal every year, I would place it here, spying on what I call the “master scrape.”
WHAT IS A MASTER SCRAPE?
If the reader takes away one thing from this writing, it should be this: not all whitetail scrapes are created equal. Some scrapes see exceedingly more activity than others, making them better investments of a hunter’s time and resources. In contrast, all scrapes serve the same purpose in olfactory communication between bucks and does of all age groups. Let us examine some key elements to these master scrapes.
Common Locations: It is my experience that nearly every area with a proper buck:doe ratio will have a master scrape that local deer use for communication throughout the year. Most of these scrapes are found deeper in the timber, not on the field edges. They can usually be found on the prevailing wind side of the area’s doe bedding locations; and they’re commonly located along a travel corridor, such as a skinny ridge top, a low-lying creek funnel or on a transition between open hardwoods and thick bedding cover.
Common Features: A master scrape usually has several common features that really set it apart from other secondary scrapes. And the most apparent feature is scrape size. It is not uncommon for hunters to talk about a circular patch of bare dirt that is “as big as a car hood,” or “the size of a manhole cover.” These huge scrapes almost always have one large, twisted-up licking branch overhead that deer use to rub their preorbital glands on. The most frequented master scrapes may have one thick, primary licking branch above a huge patch of bare dirt, with one or two smaller secondary scrape/branch combos flanking the primary scrape. These locations are often surrounded with old, historical buck rubs within a 100-yard radius, too.
In wet conditions where wind is light, a master scrape can often smell like a barn yard, indicating several animals have visited the area over time. Most of the master scrapes I find seem to have steady wind flow from the same prevailing direction, and they usually have multiple trails leading bucks through the area at various angles.
Finally, a fair number of these “hub scrapes” I find have a common tree that lends the licking branch to the equation. Whitetails in my area love to scrape under the low-lying branches of beech trees that hold their leaves well into winter.
Common Purpose: The biology and behavior of whitetails lends to a great deal of speculation and theory surrounding these high-traffic master scrapes. There are simply many unknowns that science cannot quantify. I find that these deep-timber scrape meccas seem to serve the whitetail buck as somewhat of a “yard stick” measurement of two distinct things. When a mature buck visits a scrape, I feel he is using his superior olfactory ability to gauge the receptivity of breeding does in the area, and the competition he has with other bucks for breeding rights.
A visit to a master scrape seems to allow a creative outlet for a trophy buck’s surging testosterone levels, and the animal may spend several minutes here. During his visit, a dominant buck will usually work the overhanging licking branches with vigorous authority, paw the dirt below with fervor, and posture to urinate down the tarsal glands along the medial aspect of his hocks. In a sense, the buck is gathering information on other deer in the area that have visited the scrape while leaving an emphatic olfactory calling card of his own.
FINDING A MASTER SCRAPE
I find the best time to locate an area’s master scrape is during winter scouting. I spend a fair amount of time during January and February walking my hunting locations in search of deer sign, and no sign fires me up more than a sizeable, high-traffic scrape deep in the timber. If I discover a bare dirt scrape in late winter that shows a large licking branch and fresh deer sign in the adjacent proximity, I pause and study the spot. I will use the onX Hunt app on my phone to mark the scrape with a colored pin that I designate to all potential master scrapes.
I will sometimes mark the scrape with a small piece of orange flagging tape nearby at eye level. This helps me easily identify the master scrape when I return after the woods have grown up the following summer. In June or July, I’ll return with a trail camera with fresh batteries and a high-capacity SD card, remove my marker ribbon, and set the camera for a nice, long summer soak. About a week before our Illinois archery opener, I like to slip into the spot and pull the card while keeping an eye out for any other buck sign in proximity to the scrape. Another great time to find a master scrape is while doing some speed scouting on foot during mid- to late October.
The key to utilizing these scrapes for hunting is to uncover them as long before the pre-rut as possible. And then strike when the time is right.
MASTER SCRAPE BEST PRACTICES
When I begin a survey over a suspected master scrape, it is imperative that I minimize the element of human intrusion to the area. I like to tinker with the scrape starting in the high heat of a dry, mid-summer day. I wear rubber boots with my pant legs tucked in while placing a trail camera for monitoring of the scrape.
I prefer to monitor these scrapes with a battery efficient, black-flash unit, and I’ll set the camera to video mode, taking 10 second video clips set on a short delay. Video captures over a master scrape can yield much more useable information in these areas than still images. With video, one can study the travel routes a buck takes to engage the scrape and interpret his behavior as he works the area. I always avoid crowding the scrape, and I’ll do my best to mount the camera about 20 yards away and well above head height to keep it out of the line of a whitetail’s sight. I don’t like to trim too much around the camera, and I attempt to minimize ground disturbance at the site, keeping the unit as covert as possible. When trimming cannot be avoided, I will usually gather up all trimmings and stash them away from the scrape as well.
Finally, I almost never use scents or make mock scrapes over these established master scrapes, fearing I’ll spoil its natural usage by resident does and bucks. When interpreting sign and trail camera video from a suspected master scrape, I often find myself questioning the viability of hunting directly over the master scrape. And I rarely do it. Instead, I will position hunting strategy in areas of suspected travel to and from the location. If I am hunting within 100 yards of a master scrape, my entry and exit strategy needs to be flawless and repeatable.
Over time, I have found the absolute best time to hunt near a deep-timber scrape is during what most folks consider the “pre-rut.” In my area of Illinois, this usually occurs the last week of October and the first week of November, when trail camera videos show an escalation of daylight, mature buck scrape activity. That’s when the mature bucks are gauging the scent left behind by lesser bucks and does.
Once the rut is in full swing in mid-November, bucks seem to visit these scrapes less often and are likely busy tending does. After the rut ebbs, master scrape activity seems to get another surge before the late season begins, as bucks search for the last remaining receptive does the area has to offer. If I am hunting a specific target buck in an area with a master scrape, I look for areas that hold water when hunting near the feature. If I have evidence a mature buck has visited the scrape during the humid doldrums of summer, it is a safe bet that the animal may return during the pre-rut at least once, if not several times; and it usually happens during legal shooting light.
When it comes to the hunt itself, my favorite time to target these locations is from Halloween through Nov. 7th. This is in stark contrast to the common field edge scrapes found in Midwest farmland, where my experience shows most scrape visits are well after shooting light. In short, ALL scrapes are fine for taking inventory of the caliber of bucks and the number of does in a given area, but targeting a deep-timber master scrape can pay off big during the fall with weapon in hand.
Finally, I try not to neglect these scrapes for winter hunts, especially if they are adjacent to suspected food sources. The master scrape I found in 2015 still yields images of mature bucks every year, and it is nestled on a ridge of white oaks that drop acorns regularly. Winter activity is not uncommon here after the rut, and it is just as useful in planning a late winter ambush.
MASTER SCRAPE SUCCESSES
After uncovering that massive interior scrape in March 2015, I began using the feature as a prime piece of trail camera real estate. That fall, I was targeting a mature 10-point in the area and got several images of him near the master scrape. I set up a tree stand about 80 yards north of the scrape, and I shot him during the first day of the Illinois gun season as he harassed a group of does feeding nearby.
In 2016, my wife took her very first archery buck in a creek bed 100 yards west of the same scrape. Two weeks later, I repeated on a heavy-bodied 10-point buck from the same tree during gun season. Last fall, I took my best archery buck to date with help from the trail camera images garnered from the persistent master scrape. The big-necked non-typical gave me a 9-yard bow shot along a creek trail not 75 yards south of the scrape’s location.
I have since become such a believer in the master scrape theory that I have begun using the tactic on several other properties, and I’m eagerly awaiting the coming fall. If you find yourself dumbstruck by a massive, deep woods scrape sometime, use it with some common sense. Limit your intrusion, use a trail camera to monitor the site and find some suitable ambush positions with flawless access. And revisit the area with weapon in hand when the leaves are changing.
You just might find your own master scrape that can pay off in fantastic trail camera images, notched tags on mature bucks, fun hunting and repeat visits to the taxidermist!