By C.J. Winand
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My pap once told me, "boy, if you ever get the chance to see the buck that made that huge rub you will see one hell of a buck". To this day, whenever I see a freshly raked rub I remember his words. Back then, pap would have spent countless hours in the woods in hope of seeing the buck and then, there was no guarantee. Today, with the use of a TrailMaster infrared game camera, research and technology have come together to observe and photograph the behavior of deer at rubs.

If your not familiar with the TrailMaster, it's a monitoring system with an infrared game camera that records and photographs animal activity at a particular site or along a trail. Hunters have recently started using this innovative technology to help predict the daily movement patterns of deer in their hunting area and hence, maximize their chance for success.

In 1994, noted deer biologist Grant Woods completed his Ph.D. work at Clemson University in South Carolina. Woods' dissertation addressed the physical characteristics of traditional rubs and whitetail behavior associated with them. Woods defines a "traditional rub" as any species of tree that had been rubbed for at least three consecutive years and is three inches or greater in diameter. A buck rub that does not meet this definition is termed a "non-traditional rub".

For two years, from August 15th to January 1st Woods used nine TrailMasters units to monitor deer behavior at traditional rub sites. At the same time, he ran various transect lines to observe 186 non-traditional rubs. Woods photographed a total of 379 occurrences at his nine traditional rub sites. Based on these photographs, Woods discovered that more than half of all traditional rubs occurred on sassafras, Southern magnolia and Eastern red cedar. This was surprising because these aromatic tress comprised only four percent of the forest community.

Non-traditional rubs occurred predominantly on sweet leaf, wax myrtle and Eastern red cedar. Considering the composition of woody plants in the area these species composed less than five percent of all trees. Once again, even on non-traditional rub sites aromatic trees were definitely preferred. It is interesting to note that bucks in the study addressed the sassafras more than any other tree. The end result to hunters is that most rubs were associated with aromatic trees.

Some hunters may ask, "How can I find these traditional rubs without any prior knowledge of the area?" Woods found from a habitat or cover point of view, traditional rubs are generally located in areas with 80 yards of minimal, unobstructed ground cover. Apparently, bucks want to advertise or maximize their effectiveness by creating rubs in relatively open areas. Thus, with good field notes from previous years and a little extra scouting in open areas, traditional rubs are not difficult to locate.

Overall, most of the deer behavior(s) at rubs occurred at night. For example; 74% of all buck, 60% of doe and 51% of fawn photographs were taken between 9PM and 6AM. During the entire study only one mature buck was photographed during daylight hours (7:39 AM). Needless to say, this is not encouraging to most hunters. Although, it should be pointed out that this area was heavily hunted and activity just beyond the TrailMaster cameras may have varied substantially.

Furthermore, night-time visits may have been in response to deer modifying their daily movements to avoid hunters and researchers. Different biologists have found that deer will readily adjust their active periods to avoid potentially dangerous situations. This pressure may account for the high number of photos taken at night.

Pen studies have shown that bucks commonly rub during daylight hours. It is reasonable to assume hunters who hunt in areas with low hunting pressure can expect more bucks to rub during daylight hours, then those experienced in Woods' study.

Woods observed buck activity around traditional rubs was strongly associated with the first conception dates. In fact, buck activity around traditional rubs increased during the rut. This generally contradicts previous studies where rub activity has preceded the first breeding. Since this work was conducted under a quality deer management program most would agree that the difference in herd composition and social biology probably accounts for this discrepancy.

Like many hunters, I always thought bucks were cueing in on a certain clumped distribution of scrapes. Evidently, during the rut, compared to scrapes, bucks mainly utilize traditional rubs. Although, Woods did not monitor daily home ranges of does during the rut, traditional rubs may be associated with a buck or doe core area?

Woods noted bucks with five or more points rubbed earlier than bucks with four or less points. Throughout the literature this holds true. In fact, some biologist believe when mature bucks rub earlier they deposit a priming pheromone on rubs that may synchronize breeding cycles, bring does into estrus earlier and suppress the testosterone in smaller bucks. If this is occurring in your area, smaller bucks may be suppressed or lack the experience needed to make a rub. Thus, a decreased number of rubs are present and observed later in the year.

Reuse of existing rubs has always interested hunters. Some believe every time a buck checks a traditional rub, he wants to establish his dominance by re-rubbing. Woods found six of the nine traditional rubs experienced some reuse. One buck was monitored at six of the nine traditional rub sites during one year. One traditional rub had at least 13 different bucks photographed. Nine of these bucks were estimated at more than 1.5 years old. Apparently, mature bucks are more likely to address a traditional rub than yearling bucks.

I always wondered what percentage of reuse is there on non-traditional rubs? Using a pencil lead to mark existing rubs, my own field experience has indicated the number is probably very low. This suggest that hunters should focus in on traditional rub sites and plot them on a map. Woods agrees, his data found older bucks will definitely re-rub the same tree more often.

Most of the photos taken by the TrailMaster units were fawns, with only one actively addressing a rub. Bucks, does and fawns all addressed rubs, but bucks were more likely to exhibit a behavior. In all, six behaviors were observed at rubs: antler touch, forehead touch, body touch, smelling, rubbing and butt touch. All behaviors are self-explanatory, except the butt touch. Although I have never witnessed the butt touch it involves deer literally rubbing their posterior against a rub.

Although I can not prove it, I believe deer may have some unidentified anal gland which deposits some type of chemical signal on the rub. Woods has one photo of a doe rubbing her vagina/anus region against a tree. Last year I was giving a seminar at the Michigan Deer and Turkey Classic when a hunter explained to me why she was exhibiting this behavior. He said, "she had a itch from a yeast infection"! I do not know if he is correct, but it makes you wonder about the biological significance?


Traditional and non-traditional rubs are hunters best field clue as to the antler potential in an area. Knowing the difference can give you the extra edge on bringing home a good buck or nothing at all.

TIP: With the help of TrailMaster infrared game cameras, research has shown that hunters would be wise to focus in on traditional rubs sites (trees rubbed for three consecutive years and three inches or more in diameter) specifically during the breeding season. This may help to determine a trophy deer from one that is better passed up!


C.J. Winand is a whitetail biologist from Randallstown, MD. He is a staff writer for Bowhunter as well as Deer and Deer Hunting Magazine.