Hunting > Whitetails

Reading Rubs in Pre-Rut

A decade-long study of rubs done by Dr. Bryan Kinkel on a 488-acre property in Tennesee sheds some light on buck behavior to help plan your fall setup.

When you find a sapling with bark shredded off one side with antler-tine gashes above and bark shavings on new-fallen leaves below, you pause. A buck, maybe a good buck, stood right there to work out his pre-rut angst. You wonder, Will this buck be back in daylight? Would a stand in this spot make sense? Some answers to these questions can be found in a decade-long study done by Dr. Bryan Kinkel on a 488-acre property in Tennessee.

Rubs Along the Edges
Kinkel’s study area was classic ridge-and-valley habitat, a terrain type found in much of the whitetail’s range. Each year Kinkel counted the rubs on the property and sorted them by terrain type. Before long he saw that habitat edges stand out as rub zones. Kinkel recorded an average of nearly 28 rubs per acre within 5 meters of habitat edges, whereas from 5 to 10 meters from an edge the number of rubs dropped to 17 per acre; beyond 10 meters there were less than eight per acre.

Kinkel then separated “hard edges” (the transition from a forest to an open field) from “soft edges” (transitions in a forest between ages of timber, swamp edges, old logging roads …). He soon began getting a detailed picture of how bucks in the pre-rut use terrain.

Hard Edges and Staging Areas
Rubs along hard edges are easy to find. If bucks in your hunting area are coming into fields before dark these rubs can give you clues where you can ambush a buck with your bow along a hard edge. What’s even more useful, however, is that rubs along hard edges can lead you to buck staging areas—places where bucks hang out as they wait for darkness before entering open feeding areas. Put on some rubber boots and slip off the field edge during midday by following these rubs.

Mature bucks typically rub earlier and more often than younger bucks. This is because the testosterone levels in younger bucks increase slower. So if you find a concentration of rubs in September or early October near a feeding area, you’ve likely found an older buck’s staging area.

A staging area can be a great place to waylay a buck in the evening in the pre-rut. For a stand to work in a staging area it needs to be in a place where prevailing winds aren’t likely to swirl. Also, you need an exit route that keeps you from spooking deer when leaving your stand.

Soft Edges
If the staging area is not in a good place for a stand (many are too thick or are located in bottoms where winds swirl), follow rubs along a soft edge away from a staging area and toward likely bedding cover. When Kinkel mapped out the rubs in his study he determined that a majority of the rubs were parts of long rub lines along soft edges or were associated with staging areas.

In the pre-rut a buck’s evening routine will change as food sources ripen and wane, but bucks can be remarkably predictable for days or even weeks at this time. To hunt a rub line in the morning you’ll need a stand closer to where the buck is bedding. In the evenings you can set up closer to the feeding area. Either way, hunt low-impact. A lot of bowhunters won’t hunt near a buck’s bedding area in the pre-rut. It’s just too risky. For me it depends on the setup. If I have a good entry/exit route and a true wind I will, as a buck’s schedule is never more predictable.

Deeper back in the terrain, Kinkel broke his property into ridges, valleys, hillsides, primary points (the end of a long ridge) and secondary points (smaller spurs off a main ridge). While Kinkel found rubs in all terrain categories, the rub frequency on secondary points and wooded valleys was much higher than in other terrain types.

Kinkel notes that bucks prefer secondary points that lead to ridge tops. Secondary points are typically situated lower than the main ridge, so there will likely be some swirling winds on them. If this is the case, look for a way to set up where the wind is more predictable along the soft edge away from the secondary point and where you won’t bump bedded deer, as bucks often bed on secondary points.

Keep in mind Kinkel also found that “high localized habitat diversity usually goes hand-in-hand with high deer sighting rates.” In other words, if you follow a soft edge back from a staging area while looking for places where habitat edges come together and where the wind is likely to be true, you might find the perfect pre-rut stand location. Then all you’ll need is the right tree and entry and exit routes that will keep you from bumping deer.

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