Does the Tree Size of a Buck Rub Really Matter?
It was a drizzly, overcast morning in southwestern Kansas – a welcome change from the unseasonably hot and sunny days that had been pounding down all week. One hunter was jacked, and not just because of the weather. His treestand was set 50 yards downwind of a trail set on something he loves to hunt. No, he had not yet seen the mythical “Monster Buck,” nor had he found any huge tracks. Instead he had found something even more exciting – near an old, abandoned farm building was the apex of two traditional rub lines. Anchoring this junction was a classic signpost rub. In this case it was an old fence post that had been rubbed for so many years it now had an hourglass shape. Obviously this particular spot had been drawing rutting bucks for generations. The hunter was waiting for grandpa to show up.
When he did, the deer hunter about wet his pants. He snuck in with the wind at his back, of all things, and the wet ground prevented the hunter from hearing him coming. The hunter didn’t see him out of the corner of his eye until he was 25 yards to his right, where the buck had stopped behind three head-high cedars to check the scrape.
The buck remains to this day the largest the hunter has ever seen in the wild. A typical 10-pointer, the buck had massive antlers, eye guards that had to be at least 10 inches long, and super-long tines and main beams. A couple of years prior the hunter had arrowed a typical 10 that scores a tick over 180, and this buck dwarfed him.
The deer hunter drew on that buck five times during the 10 minutes he stood stock-still, simply sensing the environment. All he had to do was take two steps forward or backward and he would clear the cedars and be a gonner. Instead, for reasons known only to him, he turned and walked straight away from the hunter, the cedars protecting his every step. He watched the buck for a hundred yards until the deer dipped back into the tree line. The hunter never saw him again.
The hunter has replayed that scenario over and over in his mind since that day 10 seasons ago, and still cannot come up with something he could have done differently that would have given him a clear shot. Just seeing him was a special experience he’ll always remember.
It was also an experience that reinforced his belief that rub trees and rub lines can be your best friend when it comes time to hunt that monster buck.
Sorting Through the Confusion
With the exception of actually seeing a whopper buck, few whitetail signs get your adrenaline surging quicker than discovering a huge fresh rub, or a rub line featuring one or more over-sized trees. There is no indicator that can be more confusing. Obviously, big rubs tell you that there has a mature buck right here, at some point in time. Depending on the time of year, he may still be here, or – in the case of the early stages of the deer rut – he may have simply been passing through on the prowl. ken together with other sign – large tracks, a preferred food source, bedding thickets frequented by does, and so on – they might help unravel the mystery of which tree to set up in, and when to sit there. However, if you misread this sign, it will certainly send you on a wild goose chase that does nothing more than waste precious hunting days.
In recent years, more and more serious whitetail hunters have begun using rub lines as a key in learning where mature bucks live and how they travel during the early seasons. One of the first to expound on this theory was an outdoor television personality who even wrote a book on the subject. To be brief, he said he believes that bucks begin relating to rub lines before shedding their velvet. “Whitetails are creatures of habit, and they like to use the same basic home range, bedding thickets, and feeding areas year in and year out,” he told our hunter years ago. When in velvet these bucks will travel the same corridors that have proven themselves to be safe and secure for them in years past. Often they travel right past the rub lines they, or others like them, have made in previous years.”
The theory goes something like this. Deer, like people, tend to travel along familiar routes that they have found to be both secure and, just as important, where the walking is easy. Given a choice between travel from a bedding thicket to a food source along a fairly level trail or a brushy, rocky route that traverses the side of a steep hill, most of the time the deer will choose the former. When it’s time to rub their velvet off, they’ll scrape their antlers on trees along this route. Later, as the rut begins, they’ll start rubbing trees along this same trail in earnest, leaving those old traditional rub lines we’ve all encountered.
You should use this knowledge in two ways. First, it is a good place to begin early-season scouting when you spend days cruising the woods looking for tracks, shed antlers, and other sign of bigger deer. Also use this knowledge when hunting early-season bucks.
Early-Season Rub Hunts
Common theory tells early-season bowhunters to concentrate their efforts on food or water sources to hunt. Many would argue that is the key to success. Lately, though, hunters have been combining old rubs and crops in a 2 + 2 = 4 theory that has paid off more than once. Here’s what that means.
In the early season, bucks tend to be in bachelor groups, and they love to hit the crop fields late in the afternoon, feeding well after dark before cruising back into the woods. Deer hunters have hunted them successfully this time of year by simply scouting the fields at long range with a spotting scope, patterning their movement into the field, and then, when wind conditions are right, setting up an afternoon ambush near the field’s edge.
However, sometimes the bucks do not enter the fields until it is too dark to shoot. Now you have to find out where they are traveling from bedding thicket to field. One way to locate their favorite travel corridors between bedding and feeding areas is to find an old rub line. By back-tracking a well-defined trail leading from a field the bucks are using to feed in the afternoons and evenings, locating a rub line that might be present along this route, and setting up as close to the bedding thicket that will inevitably be on the other side of that rub line, you’ll up your chances at a look at a mature buck during legal shooting hours.
The Pre-Rut – Time To Rock!
Is there a time of year that gets a whitetail hunter’s heart beating any faster than the pre-rut? This period is also the key time to be hunting rub lines. The week to two weeks prior to the first does coming into estrus is the best time of all to ambush a big buck along a rub line. Now is when you can find fresh rubs almost daily, and this can, in turn, help pinpoint a buck’s most preferred travel routes. You should actively and aggressively scout the woods during this period seeking out new rubs and rub lines, keeping your eyes peeled for over-sized trees that have been shredded by a mature deer. It’s a great time to scout on the go, set up, and hunt a new area that afternoon, using fresh rubs, rub lines, and perhaps a scrape as the apex of the hunt.
The difference between the pre-rut and earlier seasons is simply that mature bucks are more active now, and more apt to travel during daylight hours. Early in the pre-rut, the best stand sights will still be near bedding thickets, but as the season progresses treestands set over or near the edges of preferred feeding areas visited by bucks traveling down their rub lines can be dynamite. These bucks are not only grabbing some food at these locations, but trolling them in search of those first estrus does.
Sometimes, though, the best stand site is in a funnel marked with a big rub. One time in Missouri our deer hunter was hunting the tail end of the pre-rut, and for five days things had been futile. So he strapped on a lightweight climbing stand and took off, spending five hours scouring the farm for some sort of hot sign that he could hunt then and there. What he found was classic. Near the top of a ridge separating a deep, brushy hollow from some crops was a saddle. The barbed wire fence ran along the spine of the ridge. About 20 yards from the fence, on the hollow side, was a long pine tree abut eight inches in diameter. It was tore up! A trail leading up out of the hollow led to that tree, then the fence, where he found some large fresh tracks in soft dirt where the deer had been jumping the wire to get across.
The deer hunter found a straight tree nearby, and about 2:00 p.m. climbed it and got settled in. About 4:00 p.m. a 2 ½-year old 10-point walked along the spine of the ridge, and made a small deer scrape. But it was not until almost slap dark that the hunter saw movement in the hollow. Like an attack submarine surfacing, the blocky shadow came up out of the bottom, heading the hunter's way. It was a huge 8-pointer, with a body like a Sherman tank and antlers as thick as Louisville Sluggers. He strolled right past that rub tree and headed for the fence, not 25 yards away. That’s the good news. The bad news was that by the time he got into the hunter's shooting lane it was just too dang dark to see the sight pins. No matter, though. Just putting that puzzle together made that hunter's heart sing. He considered the day a rousing success.
The Deer Rut & Post Rut
The one time he forsakes rubs and rub lines is during the deer rut. Once the rut kicks into high gear, rub line hunting in generally an exercise in futility. While bucks will still occasionally travel their rub lines now, activity patterns are dictated much more heavily by the movement and activity of the does. While you should never forget about a rub line you’ve stumbled across earlier in the season – especially those located in saddles between bedding areas and preferred food sources, like green fields -- during the rut, concentrate your hunting on doe pockets and food sources, knowing the bucks will eventually show up where the does are.
The post-rut is one tough time to kill a big buck. Once the majority of does have been bred – and many of the older bucks have been harvested by other hunters – it’s just plain difficult to locate a big deer that’s moving much. However, many mature bucks will relate to their rub lines at this time much the same way they did during the early seasons.
The biggest difference between now and early is that the late season deer hunting generally have more hunters in the woods. This pressure will cause the deer to alter their movement patterns and routes slightly in response to this pressure.
While there is no one sure-fire, find them every day system of hunting mature whitetail bucks, rub lines and oversized, single rub trees can be the hub in a sea of spokes that funnel your energies to success. While it is difficult to generalize, using these age-old indicators of buck activity can lead you to a successful season, whether you hunt with a bow or a firearm.