I literally stumbled over my first fresh rub of the year as we scouted out one of our deer hunting areas, just after Labor Day.
There’s nothing quite like seeing that first fresh buck rub on a sapling to stoke up the fires of anticipation for the fast-approaching whitetail season!
But this was an early rub for the Southern Tier of Western New York, especially the twisted, aggressive kind of rub.
Buck rubs are not all the same any more than the bucks that created them are all the same.
Rubs are as individual as the bucks that made them.
Understandings about these white scars on trees have come to light as decades of deer hunting has flashed by.
The meaning of deer rubs is deeper than the old standard text that says, “deer rub their antlers to remove the velvet.”
Years ago I closely observed a nice nine-point buck literally stripping the velvet off his antlers. He did it very carefully and deliberately in a thick patch of willows in an old drainage ditch.
Even though he was only 20 yards away, I used my binos and watched how he rubbed the willow saplings.
Slowly, carefully, with great concentration, he would rub, then eat the velvet strip and bark at the same time. I was fortunate to watch the process for about 30 minutes. The top of the willows barely shook from his rubbing, but enough to draw my attention so I could slip in close.
Antler velvet is packaged and sold as a testosterone booster, and is a worldwide multi-million dollar business. Many people across the continents believe in the health benefits of antler velvet. Chinese Herbal Medicine practitioners consider deer antler velvet near the top of the Superior Herb list in their pharmacopeia.
So we know that at least some whitetail bucks make rubs and eat their velvet, with the bark strips and get a chemical/hormonal boost from the process.
But velvet-shedding rubs are only one type of rub.
Another early type of rub is what I call “aggressive rubs.” Aggressive rubs are created by bucks that use saplings and small trees that have “give” as sparing partners.
Bucks use these saplings like a boxer does a punching bag in the gym.
We can discern “velvet rubs” and “early aggressive rubs” as two different types of rubs.
These early aggressive rubs often show the sapling “twisted.” That is, the upper branches are twisted around, as if we tried to break a green sapling branch with their brand new hard-horn antlers!
Take a pair of shed antlers to where we found one of these “aggressive rubs” and try to replicate the damage to a similar sapling. It would be tough to do. Whitetails demonstrate amazing force. I just don’t know quite how they get some of the “twist” in the limbs of the sapling with their “fixed” antlers.
When bucks are rubbing aggressively, they will stop, look around and lick the bark, evidently enjoying the scent that they leave, and these pheromones may further stimulate their rutting or breeding behavior, analogous to velvet eating at a rub. But the velvet is long gone.
After a moment, the buck attacks the tree, pauses, licks it, and then hits it again. This off-and-on behavior continues until the actual living cambium layer of the sapling is stripped off and the center core of the sapling is exposed.
A third type of rub is the “sign post rub.” These rubs can be on anything a couple feet off the ground; from telephone poles, old fence posts, even the corner of an old broken down hay wagon in a forgotten corner of a field. On these types of rubs, whitetails leave their scent.
“Sign Post Rubs” have two categories, those that are annual and those that only seem to be hit that year.
In my “neck of the woods” a favorite tree for annual sign post rubs is sumac. Certain trees are hit by different bucks each year and the deep scars of annual rubbing often eventually kills the tree. And then another sumac will be chosen, nearby, to replace the dead tree.
Sumacs are edge trees, often bordering a field. Prime spot for a signpost rub.
When I would let my English Setter run, he had certain corners and spots on the hedge or trees where he wanted to mark. And he went to them in a beeline. No doubt another dog had left his calling card there too. I believe “sign post rubs” function in the same way. They sometimes function as a whitetail olfactory “message board.”
This quick discussion of different types of buck rubs would be remiss if it didn’t include three more types.
One other type of rub would be “rub-lines,” which have received a lot of attention in the last few years in hunting articles as “what to look for” when scouting. Rub lines have been defined as a series of buck rubs in a relatively straight line that show us the travel corridor of a buck. These rub lines often face the same direction.
Personally, I think more often than not, these rub-line rubs are created by a few bucks (as opposed to just one) and the “rub corridor” happens to be a favored path of a bachelor group. But nonetheless, they are a prime place to hunt, prior to the rut.
And second would be the “scrape-rubs.” Scrape-rubs are rubs found in conjunction with ground scrapes and the “overhanging branch.” Scrape rubs are the “whole deal,” as far as rutting sign goes and gives us our best clues, with analysis, to determine the current stage of the rut.
And finally there are the “hooking rubs.” These are great rubs to find too, to get us fired up during the hunting season.
Hooking rubs look as if someone took a big knife and gouged a tree for about 10 seconds. Sometimes we can see successive hooking rubs down through the woods.
They tell us one thing: a very aggressive, ornery, and dominant buck was in the same woods. But I have found that hooking rubs do not repeat at that spot as some of the other types of rubs do.
But when we look at a rub of any kind, one question is bound to bubble up to the surface. And that is, can we tell how big the buck is that made that rub, a big buck or a youngster?
A big buck will rub on any size tree, from pencil-sized on up. But yearling bucks stick with the smaller stuff.
So if you find a big rub on a big tree … chances are best it was made by a big animal.
Oak Duke writes a weekly column appearing on the Outdoors page.