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Hunting Pre-Rut / Rubbing Phase Bucks

A Deer Hunting Article

Written by T.R. Michels


In much of North America late summer and early fall is the start of the pre- rut and/or rubbing phase for white-tailed deer. As their testosterone levels begin to rise the bucks start rubbing trees and shrubs to remove the dried velvet from their antlers. While many hunters know that bucks begin rubbing at this time, they may not realize that bucks may also begin making scrapes at this time. These early season scrapes often go undetected by hunters, because they are either not looking for them, or they don't recognize them as scrapes.

Scientific research has shown that bucks may mark overhead branches at scrapes with their foreheads - and chew or lick the tips of these branches - all year long. If these year-round licking branches are in an area that the deer use in late summer or early fall, the bucks may also scrape the ground beneath them. However, they are often fairly recognizable as scrapes, because they are lightly used.

When a buck first opens up a scrape it may only paw the ground 3-5 times with first one hoof, then with the other hoof. As a result of this, a small amount of ground vegetation may be torn up and pushed toward the back of the scrape. There may be very little of the ground torn up, and very little vegetation at the back of the scrape, until one or more bucks paws the ground two or three more times. I often find these early season scrapes at the edges of clearings or near agricultural fields, where the deer may be feeding from late afternoon until early morning, before they return to their daytime core areas.

During my 10 years of whitetail research I found that these scrapes are often irregularly used between early September and mid October, and that they may not be used at all after mid October, because the bucks have moved from their summer home ranges (which they may use up until mid October in the Midwest) - to their fall home ranges (which they may use from mid October to late November or later). I also found that while many of the bucks in the area may use some of these scrapes, not all of the scrapes were used by the same bucks, nor where they used by all of the bucks. Some bucks (often 1.5 year olds, and older non-breeding bucks), may not paw scrapes at all - and some bucks may not scrape until peak breeding begins (often early to mid November) or later.

The good news is that even if they are infrequently used in September, these scrapes tell you where bucks are traveling; and because bucks are becoming more secretive at this time, they can tell you approximately when they are traveling (between late afternoon until early morning). Once you locate these scrapes you are better prepared to determine when they are being used, by either watching the trails and scrapes in the area, or by using a trail timer or game camera. Watching the area yourself (during scouting and observation sessions), or using a game camera, can also tell you the size of the racks of the bucks in the area.

If you determine when and where the bucks are traveling, and if there is a buck using the area that you want to hunt, you can set up to hunt. But, you should remember two things: 1. These scrapes may be infrequently used (due to food source and/or weather changes, or the amount of human related activity in the area), which means you may have to hunt several days in order to see a buck. 2. Some of the bucks may move to their fall home ranges anytime between late summer and early fall, which means you may only have a few days to hunt them before they move.

My research in the upper Midwest has shows that some bucks may begin using different feeding areas at this time (while still using the same daytime core areas), and some buck may move to a completely new seasonal home range (with a completely different core area). I refer to this as the fall home range shift. Bucks may move as little a 14 of a mile, or as much as several miles during this fall home range shift. No matter if it has moved to a different home range, or how far it has moved, if you are hunting a buck older than two years old, it is probably using the same travel corridors and trails it used the year before. Either way, if the buck has begun using different travel corridors and trails, you need begin scouting again, possibly in a new area, to locate them. Wherever a buck has moved you should be able to find evidence of old rubs and scrapes (from previous years), and some new rubs and scrapes. If you find fresh rubs or scrapes, where there weren't any fresh ones earlier in the year, it tells you that a buck has moved into that area. To determine which buck it is (and at what time of the day it uses particular areas, trails or rub routes) you can either watch the area, or use a trail camera.

So, how do you hunt early season bucks?

After years of researching and hunting these bucks I've found that the best way to hunt them is to locate the areas they use, by looking for early season rubs and scrapes, and then either watching the area or using a timer or camera, and then, get into the area as soon as I can - to locate the exact trails the bucks are using - by looking for fresh tracks, and especially fresh rubs, or at least those rubs that have been made that year.

Once I locate the trails/rub routes the bucks are using (in the evening) I walk them back toward the direction the buck came from, until I'm fairly confident I'm in an area where I will see the buck during daylight hours, and then look for a good place for a stand, whether it be a ground stand/blind or a tree stand. If I've been seeing a particular buck in the morning, I walk the trail in the direction the bucks was going, until I find spot where I think the buck will be moving, and again choose a stand site. In either case what I don't want to do is get too close to the buck's daytime core area, where it beds during the day, because I don't want to alarm it and/or run it out of the area.

Although you can use scents (including estrus urine, because bucks are interested in does at this time), calls and decoys at this time, you may not want to use rattling (because it may alarm some bucks, especially younger ones), or any other method to attract bucks. I've found that if Im in an are the bucks are using, and I've set up in the right location (usually along a buck trail/rub route, near a semi-regularly used scrape, or near a feeding/staging area), and if I've spent enough days in the area (at the time when the bucks are using it), and nothing causes the bucks to change their travel patterns and the time they travel (including me hunting them), that they may walk right by me; just like they normally would.

I've also found that this technique will work the very first time I see a buck for several reasons: because they are often less wary early in the season than they are later, because they are often going to the same food and water sources each night, and because most of the does are not in estrus (which means that they will not change their daily routes and travel times to follow an estrus doe).

However, you do have to be careful not to leave too much scent while you look for trails, rub routes and stand location, or while you hunt. You should get to your stand site well before you expect the buck to get there, just in case it (or some other deer) gets there before you do. Be sure to use odor control products like Scent Killer or Scent Shield, and possibly an odor control suit (Contain, X-scent or other clothing using silver threads). I don't recommend you use Scent Lok, because it appears there is not enough activated carbon in the newer suits to control perspiration odors, especially if it has been worn and reactivated more than a couple of times.

Scout hard, hunt harder and enjoy the great outdoors that God gave us.

This article is based on The Complete Whitetail Addict's Manual ($49.95 + $5.00 S&H), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products catalog.