February 25, 2022
By Gordon Whittington
Back when the point of hunting whitetails shifted from needing a buck to merely wanting one, nearly everything else about it changed, too. In the wake of this paradigm shift, we were left with a very different hunting culture. There was a sweeping revolution in not just why people hunted, but also how. And in a sense, it directly led to the advent of a tactic that for years was right on the cutting edge: scrape hunting.
A Practical Approach
In the mid-20th century, as restocked whitetail herds were growing and wildlife agencies were reopening seasons, most hunters still mainly wanted meat for the pot. Does were legally off-limits in broad parts of the landscape, so bucks were the target. Anything with antlers was good enough.
Yearning for fresh meat in an era of short gun seasons, and with no firm stigma against taking iffy shots, the average hunter was open to any opportunity presented. He wasn’t picky as to effective shooting range, ideal shot angle or waiting until a buck was standing still. As a result, many of the shots taken back then would now be considered marginal, at best. But not many folks seemed bothered by the shot-up carcasses draped over thousands of city-bound sedans each autumn.
Mix this all together and it’s easy to see why mobile methods were widely used in many areas. Theodore Van Dyke’s classic book, The Still-Hunter, had been in print since 1883, and it had inspired many individual sportsmen to take the quest to their quarry. That was an era in which night hunting and shooting swimming deer were common practices, so any book promoting daytime still-hunting through the woods was in itself a huge step forward in ethics.
Also popular were drives, often conducted by large groups. Most pushes were made by human drivers, though in some areas, dogs were used to get deer moving toward waiting gunners. Hunters might watch a meadow or field for an hour or so after daybreak, but with poorly insulated clothing and a lack of comfortable stands/blinds, there was a strong urge to get up and try to make something happen. This was especially true in big woods with low deer densities, where the odds of picking the right place to sit were stacked against the hunter.
A Change Occurs
Lured by industrial jobs in the cities, many farm and ranch workers by this time had already begun leaving country life behind. With the rise in standard of living, and with commercial food supplies becoming more reliable, a former subsistence mindset was replaced by one centered around having fun.
Drives and still-hunting certainly didn’t vanish during that time, but many whitetail hunters did start to seek alternative tactics. With more kills under their belts, but with few if any of them being big bucks, these avid whitetailers were eager to step up their antler game.
By this point seasons were getting longer, and many hunters found themselves with more leisure time available. Thus, they no longer felt as much pressure to shoot the first antlered buck that walked out. A trophy mindset quickly developed, one calling for a calculated approach to picking out and pursuing more mature bucks. That required not only finding one but also figuring out how to hunt him.
Pushing deer around certainly wasn’t the best game plan for bowhunters, who were becoming a bigger part of the hunting population every season. A close shot at a relaxed trophy buck would take figuring out his patterns, creeping onto his home turf and patiently waiting for him to offer the right shot
While it sounds far-fetched these days, back then even some of the most skilled hunters had never tried to target specific deer. Thus, the process was poorly defined and not widely understood.
How could you go from just dreaming of a big buck to actually finding one? There weren’t any trail cameras. That left only three practical means of confirmation: through a visual sighting, by finding shed antlers or by locating, identifying and interpreting sign a big buck had left behind.
Some hunters focused on tracks during snow season. Naturally, there was an understanding that the bigger the track, the more likely the maker was a mature buck. But lacking fresh snow or recent rain, tracks of any size were hard to find and base a hunting strategy on, whether in the North Woods or elsewhere. Something more was needed.
With the overall lack of published information on buck sign back then, there was confusion about what it was and what it meant. Even as North American Whitetail was getting off the ground nearly 40 years ago, some hunters called rubs “scrapes.” They’d heard the term and knew it referred to buck sign, but they assumed a scrape was a tree trunk that had been scraped by antlers.
Some other hunters referred to rubs as “hookings,” and some called true scrapes “pawings” or “scratchings.” Still others preferred “ground scrape,” presumably to make sure people knew they were talking about scrapes and not rubs.
As detailed features on scrapes began filtering out to the public, the confusion in some cases actually increased. That’s because you didn’t just have scrapes — within that broad category you had “community” scrapes, “primary” scrapes, “boundary” scrapes, “field” scrapes and even more. Whatever the author deemed worth calling a category in essence became one. It’s just unfortunate that the result might have caused more confusion than clarity.
One of the early misconceptions revolved around what scrapes even were. Yes, they’d been pawed out by bucks — but why? Back then, it was widely held that a scrape was a place a buck would create, urinate in and then assuredly return to again and again, hoping to find a “hot” doe waiting for him there. Hunt that spot often enough and sooner or later, you’d catch Mr. Big on the scene.
Of course, we quickly realized there was more to it than that. For one thing, there were a lot more scrapes than most hunters realized, and not all were worth setting up over. Even the good ones weren’t worth hunting for long. Sure enough, after spending untold hours watching scrapes grow cold and eventually fill in with leaves, many hunters grew disenchanted with the idea.
Especially frustrating were those obvious scrapes on the edges of fields, meadows and clearcuts. They looked so good! Sadly, even if they continued to be reworked, the best action almost always occurred outside legal shooting hours. And back then, no one had trail cameras to confirm which bucks had done the nocturnal pawing or branch licking. It was easy to wonder if you were going about it in the right way.
To my knowledge, the hunting media’s first highly detailed look at scrapes and associated hunting strategies was a series written by NAW cofounder Dick Idol. It ran in several of our early issues and proved to be a hit with readers. Some were interested because they knew very little of scrapes; others perhaps were trying to figure out why their own forays into scrape hunting hadn’t been as productive as hoped.
Having grown up in North Carolina before moving on to chase big bucks in Texas, Montana, Canada and other such trophy frontiers, Dick was uniquely qualified to explain how scraping fit into the bigger picture of a buck’s overall fall movements. Hunters were offered a glimpse into the everyday world of wild, mature bucks as they traveled about their home range.
As you might imagine, illustrating that series was no simple task. Long before mapping software became available, staff artist Allen Hansen spent days working with acetate sheets and an X-ACTO blade to construct Dick’s color-coded scrape maps for our pages. Despite the amount of time and effort involved, it proved worth doing. An aerial perspective on the points being made helped readers see the bigger picture of fall buck patterns and apply that insight to their own hunting.
From there, the fascination with scrape hunting seemed to grow quickly. So did reader interest in mock scrapes; at least as far back as 1988, those also were being discussed in our pages. It was a time of rapid innovation and excitement. The number of big deer was on the rise, and everyone was looking for any little edge that might make the difference. And armed with the right knowledge and tools, many hunters experienced success hunting over scrapes.
Because most scrape use occurs between mid-October and early November, bowhunters often enjoyed the best of this action. The advent of portable tree stands went hand in hand with this, as did new rut scents formulated for use in and around both natural and mock scrapes. Electronics such as the Trail Timer (see our July scouting issue) and later, the trail camera itself, helped clarify when activity was happening. That intel allowed hunters to focus their efforts on the better scrapes and times.
Of course, as with any other tactic, many hunters tried scrape setups, had poor results and gave up. Whether they were unlucky, unskilled or impatient is hard to say. What we do know is that food plots were coming into vogue around that time, as was baiting in a number of places. Given those options, some hunters probably just abandoned scrapes and started to focus more on feeding areas.
Big Bucks Still Use Them
Today you don’t hear nearly as much talk about scrapes as you did in the 1980s. But the bucks continue to use them. Sometimes it happens in shooting light — and sometimes those bucks are monsters. Just ask a couple young whitetail fanatics named Stephen Tucker and Luke Brewster.
Early on the morning of Nov. 7, 2016, as Stephen watched from his ground blind in Sumner County, Tennessee, a 47-point non-typical came in to check out a nearby scrape. The hunter triggered his muzzleloader, and by the time smoke had cleared, history had been made; the world had its highest-scoring whitetail ever taken by a hunter. The 315 1/8-inch mammoth shattered the muzzleloader mark and instantly put the Volunteer State on the trophy whitetail map.
Just five days shy of two years later, it happened again. On the afternoon of Nov. 2, 2018, Luke Brewster was set up over a scrape in a timbered finger in Edgar County, Illinois, when a mega-buck walked in to check it. The archer put his arrow into the deer’s vitals, and once more the record book needed to be updated. Luke’s spectacular 39-pointer finished with a net score of 327 7/8 inches, making him not only the world record by bow, but also history’s top whitetail ever taken by a hunter. This summer Luke fittingly was given the Pope & Young Club’s Ishi Award, considered to be the highest honor in all of North American bowhunting.
So, two of the very greatest bucks of all time, taken within the past five seasons, were shot while checking scrapes? Maybe that new tactic everyone was buzzing about 35 years ago still has a place in your own bag of tricks.