How to Decipher a Whitetails Rub

By Cody Larrimore


A tree that has been shredded by antlers is the most obvious sign that a buck has been in an area. But with some knowledge of deer behavior and a little scouting, a rub can tell you a lot more. You can determine when the rub was made, what the deer was doing when he made it, and the buck’s probable age. Rising levels of testosterone circulating in the buck’s blood toward the end of summer have caused the final maturation of the antler and the death of the antler velvet. In only a matter of days, the velvet covered antler is transformed into a polished weapon of competition.

These rising testosterone levels (which will continue to rise until levels peak during November) result in a number of physiological and behavioral changes that prepare bucks for the competition for breeding privileges. Whereas bucks during the summer tend to be somewhat docile creatures content to ‘hang out’ with the guys within a fairly small home range, anticipation of the upcoming breeding season literally get ‘in their blood’. Metabolism changes and muscle mass increases, particularly in the neck and shoulders.

Behaviorally, bucks become more aggressive and increasingly intolerant of each other. Brief sparring matches begin to occur as bucks try out their new headgear, and test the strength and will of their future opponents.

Activity of certain scent glands increases and bucks begin to make their presence known to other deer in the area. And, as a result, buck rubs begin showing up in the deer woods – to be followed later by scrapes.

Mature bucks make two distinct types of rubs—early-season and breeding—that correspond to late-summer feeding patterns and to the rut. To unravel a buck’s routine as he progresses through this period, you must understand the difference between the two types.

An early start

Bucks make early-season rubs for several reasons: Scraping antlers on trees builds up neck and shoulder muscles. It allows bucks to release aggression caused by rising testosterone levels. And the markings designate a buck’s territory, both visually and by scent deposited from the forehead glands. Other bucks may rub the same tree, adding their signature smells.

Mature bucks make their initial rubs in September and early October on stout trees, usually 2 to 4 inches in diameter. These mark a buck’s primary home range. Clusters and lines of them usually indicate that they were created either as the buck traveled from food sources to thick bedding cover at dawn or on his way back to feed in the late afternoon. Hunting these spots may be your best chance to take a mature animal before the rut.

Start scouting in September and October. Since the most dominant bucks make the first rubs, getting out early will put you onto the oldest deer in the area. Keep the locations of the rubs in a notebook or on a topo map and follow any trails to pinpoint likely bedding territory and early-season foods like alfalfa, clover fields, oak flats, or abandoned orchards. After you’ve found some rubs near the food sources, backtrack and look for potential stand sites such as funnels, ditches, benches, and saddles where the deer rubbed more trees as he approached his bedding cover. Rubs that face the food source probably were made in the morning as the buck returned to his bed; ones on the opposite side most likely were from some time in the afternoon.

The late show

Once the rut begins, you can forget the rubs you found during the early season. The change starts toward the end of October when bucks’ testosterone levels build up and does begin to release estrous scents. At this point, bucks will move out of their home ranges and into doe territory where they continue to scrape trees and travel widely, searching for ready mates.

Bucks make breeding rubs primarily to display their prowess, but these visual and olfactory signposts often psychologically and hormonally suppress small bucks to the point where their testosterone levels stay so low that they do not attempt to mate.

Lush areas with gentle terrain near food sources can be good places to look for breeding rubs, particularly in spots with pockets of doe bedding cover like cedar, pine groves, honeysuckle, or sapling thickets.

Even though it might seem as if rubs at this time of year are too random to be of any help, they can be a quick ticket to success in November and December, and even into January in areas where the mating season extends late. The trick rests in finding the rubs that have been made within the last day or two, since they were left by the most fired-up bucks on the scent of does that are going into estrus. But only a brief window of opportunity exists for catching that buck before he moves on. Fresh sap and very ragged bark will help you judge a rub’s age. Once you find hot sign, the strategy is simple: Set up quickly downwind and watch the area for as many hours as you can.

Big rubs and bib bucks

Any buck might rub a tree of any size. I’ve seen 5-year-old bucks demolish finger-size saplings and yearlings rub 4-inch trunks. That said, it’s true that you can often guess a buck’s size by the proportions of the tree he rubs. These are the general rules:

  • Small saplings and thick-stemmed brush, such as autumn olives, attract all sizes of bucks that like to fight with the flexible brush and thrash it to a pulp.
  • One- to 2-inch-diameter trees attract yearlings and 2-year-olds.
  • Two- to 4-inch-thick trunks draw 3- and 4-year-olds.
  • The rare rubs you may find on 4- to 8-inch trunks are typically the hallmark of mature bucks, 5 to 7 years old.

I hope these insights on buck rubs helps in your success this season. Good luck & Shoot straight!

Via:: How to Decipher a Whitetails Rub

Charles is the editor for 248 Shooter a midwest based gun news and gear review site as well as Online Content Director for On Target Magazine. He is an avid student taking classes from top tier trainers around the country. Charles shares his love for training as well as experience and opinions on some of the most talked about gear and products used by competitive shooters, military, leo and civilians.