Perhaps deer hunting’s greatest charm is that one routine head turn can flip your day from “ho-hum” to “holy Hillary!”
Or words far stronger.
While hunting the vast forests of northeastern Minnesota in November 2008, I nestled into the cover of a large spruce in the breezy, pre-dawn darkness. Although my view was limited, the site overlooked a good travel junction for whitetails along uplands studded with poplars, spruce and balsam fir. Behind me, the land tapered into lowlands of tag alders, dogwood and black spruce.
About 10:10 a.m. I fired up my GPS unit, thinking I’d kill time by naming and locking in my location. When glancing up from its “welcome” screen, I saw a buck walking between poplars 40 yards away. As I jammed the GPS back into a pocket, the buck went to a large balsam about 50 yards away, bit down on a low-hanging branch, and hooked and thrashed the boughs overhead.
I first judged its antlers too small, but then reconsidered when the buck turned broadside. His blocky body seemed to overload his legs, making them look stumpy. I raised my binocular for a better look. As the buck twisted its antlers in the boughs, I saw that the right beam looked like a magnum celery stalk topped by a caribou shovel.
My rifle replaced the binocular, and the buck collapsed seconds later when the .35 Whelen slug broke his shoulders. My wait of four-plus seasons covering 20-plus days of hunting near Ely ended in less than 30 seconds, the time it took to turn my head, spot the buck, dismiss it, rethink it and shoot.
After admiring the buck and agonizing over how close I’d come to letting him walk, I studied the shredded and gnarled boughs that had held his interest just long enough to doom him. The ground beneath those overhanging branches was rock-hard and snow-covered. I knelt and brushed away the white stuff, revealing a frozen oval slate scratched and pocked by hooves, almost like a fossil.
I couldn’t help but smirk. I had hunted here before, but never knew I was downwind of a scrape until the buck marked the balsam boughs above. Without trying, I had verified what researchers have said for years: An individual scrape is seldom a destination. If deer trails were highways, scrapes would be points of interest along the way. Just as few people go out of their way to read historical markers, deer seldom visit scrapes unless they’re conveniently located among other attractions.
In other words, I shot my buck while he checked in from a wayside. He hadn’t come here to cross this particular scrape off his daily “to-do” list.
The Purpose of Scrapes
“Peak scraping activity is always about two weeks before peak breeding,” said professor Karl Miller at the University of Georgia (UGA). “We see a lot of buck activity at scrapes as they mark branches, paw the ground and urinate. They’re establishing their presence and affirming their hierarchal position. Once breeding starts, scrape activity goes down. But how do we explain the doe activity we’ve documented at scrapes? Their presence isn’t a coincidence.”
Research at UGA by Karen Alexy in 1999 recorded 562 visits to nine scrapes over two autumns by wild, free-ranging deer. By using motion-triggered video cameras, Alexy documented that females accounted for more scrape visits than males (62 percent to 38 percent), but only 21 percent of females pawed, licked, urinated or otherwise “interacted” with a scrape. In contrast, 52 percent of buck visits included one or more of those actions.
Alexy conducted her study with professor Miller’s guidance. “Does are smelling the scrapes and sometimes even licking the branches,” Miller said. “They’re getting information. They’re probably identifying the most fit reproductive partners, as well as the more inferior ones. It’s likely that rubbing, scraping and urinating by bucks is very important in ending the nonbreeding season and synchronizing the onset of breeding.”
Miller notes that UGA researchers found buck urine in autumn causes a two- to three-fold increase in a doe’s progesterone levels. As hormone levels rise, the ovaries start working, and within two weeks, the ovary’s follicles release eggs needing fertilization.
“Does do not visit scrapes to breed,” Miller said. “Peak breeding is still two weeks away. But as the buck’s testosterone levels increase, the doe probably detects those changes in the buck’s urine. It’s like people giving a urine sample at the doctor’s office. It reveals what’s going on inside the body.”
Is it possible does are leaving signals, or “calling cards” about their readiness to breed, as some hunters speculate? The timing of peak scrape activity, and the lack of routine scent-marking by does, suggests no.
“This idea that does urinate into scrapes and bucks smell their urine and take off after them is a misconception,” said professor James Kroll of Stephen F. Austin University in Texas. “The tests we’ve done convince me you cannot put doe-in-heat urine into a bottle. There are at least 90 compounds in doe urine and most of them are volatile fatty acids that evaporate in seconds.
“We even put does into estrus, collected mucus from their vaginas, immediately put it into an ultra-freezer, and tested it on bucks,” Kroll continued. “We didn’t get any reaction. It was worthless, but that’s logical. If a doe left a long-lasting scent every time she squatted and urinated during the rut, the woods would be a very confusing place.”
Likewise, by itself, buck urine does not trigger scraping activity. “Much of what releases the buck’s scraping activity is the physical structure of the scrape; the overhanging branch, the pawing, the dirt,” Miller said. “I mean, if you have maybe five bucks per square mile of woods, and each buck urinates 10 times a day, you have 50 new urine spots daily. That would be lots of new scrapes every day.”
Place and Size
We can also read too much into a scrape’s size. A large scrape might suggest lots of buck activity, either by individual bucks making repeated visits, and/or many bucks making individual visits. But scrape sizes can be misleading. Grant Woods recalls a two-year research project on his Missouri property by graduate student Josh Braun. They used 11 motion-activated video cameras to monitor active scrapes.
“In one case we had a 2-foot-diameter scrape that recorded more events than an 8-foot scrape,” Woods said. “The 8-foot scrape just happened to be where one buck got really excited and tore the place up. Of the many scrapes we studied for two years, we didn’t find any scrapes that were like a major buck hub. There was no scrape where all the bucks came in and hung around.”
And contrary to some long-held theories, scents left in scrapes by older bucks don’t keep inferior bucks away from the site. Young bucks remain wary while scraping, but they do scrape. Alexy reported as many as 13 bucks visited one scrape, while other scrapes got hit by nine different bucks.
Even though about half the bucks Alexy identified revisited at least one scrape in her study, she found no evidence that bucks systematically roamed the property, checking and monitoring a scrape network. In fact, she reported it was rare for a buck to visit more than one of the nine scrapes she monitored with her video cameras.