Rub Line: Rubs, scrapes and licking branches

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— By Dana R. Rogers

Deer communicate via scent dispersion quite a bit, primarily through rubs, scrapes and licking branches.

Rubs, particularly large hub-type signpost rubs, are a communal area where deer of all ages come and deposit forehead gland scent and smell who else is around. Signpost rubs are one of my very favorite locations to get some fantastic trail cam photos in late October through November.

Here in the Upper Midwest many times deer rub on old fence posts. If you ever see one out on the prairie from an old fence or even a telephone pole, you’ll recognize it immediately. Depending on their location, they aren’t necessarily hit during daylight hours, but they are a great place to get photos to know what’s roaming your hunting grounds.

Scrapes are another great visual indicator of deer activity. Scraping occurs year-round but is far more noticeable and common leading up the rut. It’s another scent-dispersal location where both bucks and does deposit urine to alert each other they are there and this is their “status.”

Rubs, particularly large hub-type signpost rubs, are a communal area where deer of all ages come and deposit forehead gland scent and smell what other deer are in the neighborhood.
Photo by Frank Hildebrand, Thinkstock

Bucks will rub urine on their tarsal glands and then deposit scent into the fresh earth of the scrape. The vast majority of scrapes will have a licking branch 4-5 feet above. Those licking branches are critical and are active year-round, even when pawing and urine isn’t being actively deposited below them.

Although bucks may not put a scrape under a licking branch in March, they do use licking branches to let other bucks in the area know of their presence. Look for scrapes with live limbs over them with some moisture in them. If the branches are dried out and brittle, they will easily break. When that happens, it can significantly reduce activity.

Sometimes I’ll break a small limb off the licking branch, mangle it slightly and then place it in the scrape. That’s just one more visual sign for a deer to see. Now I’ve turned this spot into a calling card. These setups work extremely well along old logging roads and field edges.

These licking branches are a key part of my herd monitoring and hunting arsenal. They are located throughout their range, and many times you won’t even find a scrape under them. It’s a communication location to deposit scent. Think of them as a community bulletin board or office water cooler. Bucks come, deposit their scent and smell to absorb knowledge about who their competition is.

This means the licking branch is critical to understanding buck behavior. But the main activity at the licking branch isn’t the licking, or the chewing, or scraping the ground under it. The main activity at the licking branch involves contact of the pre-orbital gland area to the branch. The pre-orbital gland is located in front of each eye. Every deer has its own unique scent or olfactory signature, if you will. This helps the bucks in a local bachelor group keep tabs on each other and helps establish the pecking order. When a new buck shows up the others want to know who the interloper is.

So, in summary, deer often communicate by depositing their scent all over their home range in communal areas such as rubs, scrapes and licking branches. If you can’t locate any, you can always create your own. You can dig a post hole in a good shooting location from your stand, place an old cedar fence post or medium diameter tree and go to work rubbing it with a saw or rasp. Be very careful with your own human scent. Cutting and positioning a tree in a field may seem silly, but secure it well in the ground and it can become a hotspot for bucks to use for scraping and rubbing.

Mock scrapes are certainly nothing new, but I use them annually near stands I have along field edges or anywhere you want to set up a camera to see what’s around. There are many scent products you can use on the earth you dig up, but I’ve actually had quite good success with human urine. It’s a curiosity to deer more than a fear factor, a myth that was long believed.

The vast majority of scrapes will have a licking branch 4-5 feet above them. Those licking branches are critical and are active year-round, even when pawing and urine isn’t being actively deposited in the scrape below them. Photo by Tony Campbell, Thinkstock

As for the licking branches, you should pick a good tree with a low horizontal limb to put your mock scrape under. Twist and break up the limbs and hang them down vertically to the mock scrape itself. Be sure to wear clean gloves and keep your human scent in control.

Another great trick I’ve used the last several years is to simply buy some thick hemp rope and either wire it to the limb or use a zip tie. Then hang the end of it about 4 feet above the ground. Untwist the end of the rope and use a good quality scent product like Smokey’s pre-orbital gland lure on it. Deer will start frequenting it out of curiosity. Then, after they take it over, their own natural scent keeps them coming. All of these natural and mock scent-dispersal areas can be used for scouting as well as hunting at the right time of year.

Why wouldn’t you have a licking branch or mock scrape near your stand? Anything you can do to increase your chances of bringing a buck over to your location can only help your odds. Licking branches and scrapes are perfectly natural to deer. They’re a big part of a buck’s communication system. So bucks certainly won’t shy away from them.

All of these areas become local hubs for deer traffic. Sort of like a trapper setting out a trap for a coyote. Because we often put up our stands weeks before we use them, the deer have plenty of time to adapt to the new licking branch and use it every time they pass by.

When a buck puts his own scent on the licking branch, he simple touches the branch to his pre-orbital area. But to get the scent of another buck, he may lick it or bite it, analyzing the scent he picks up. Closer to the rut, bucks behave and react far more aggressively in these areas.

So get out there and seek out these rubs, scrapes and licking branches. Set up a camera on the site and see what’s out there. If you can’t find them or if you just want to position something of your own closer to an area of high activity or near a good stand location, you can do that, too.

Rubs, scrapes and licking branches are very high-traffic areas in October and early November. It doesn’t matter if they start naturally or not. So get out there and get after it. As always when afield, please respect the land, respect the landowner and respect the wildlife.

About the Author: Deer columnist Dana R. Rogers grew up in central South Dakota and now calls the Black Hills home. Contact him with comments or questions at [email protected]