After digging into a recent study on the scraping behavior of bucks done by Karen Alexy, a graduate research assistant at the University of Georgia, I was left wondering whether hunting scrapes is a waste of time. The two-year study found that most bucks visit scrapes after dark. After an in-depth analysis of the data, however, I found that the study presents some new opportunities.
This University of Georgia research project carries a lot of weight with me because it dealt not with captive deer, but with wild, free-ranging, hunted whitetails. The study was conducted on a 3,400-acre tract in northeastern Georgia that had been in a Quality Deer Management program for a decade. The buck-to-doe ratio was well-balanced and the age structure of the bucks was good. This allowed researchers to observe the scraping behavior of bucks of all ages.
From September 1997 through February 1999, researchers monitored six traditional scrape sites that deer had used heavily in previous years–four along field edges and two deeper in the woods. They set motion-activated video cameras near the scrapes. During the fall of 1997, they recorded deer activity from October 7 until February 21. The next year, the cameras whirred from August 27 until February 6.
In the north Georgia study area, the peak of the rut occurs during the first three weeks of November, as it does in most Central and Northern states. Thus, the data regarding the monthly and weekly scrape usage of bucks in a typical fall (see graph below) should be fairly representative of most parts of the country, except the Deep South.
The study produced miles of videotape, hundreds of deer sightings and some intriguing results.
The heaviest pawing and scent marking occurred from October 8 through the first of November. That is not surprising, since those weeks are typically the “pre-rut” in most of the country. Also, there was a secondary scrape-checking phase from November 19 until December 9, especially among bucks 2 1/2 years of age and older. The latter fact didn’t seem to mean much to the scientists, but it means a lot to us hunters (more on this later).
The study found that 85 percent of scraping activity occurred at night. It’s no secret that whitetails, especially mature bucks, are highly nocturnal on hunted lands. But 85 percent? That big number surprised me a little.
The findings blow holes in the myth that scraping is primarily a dominant-buck thing. Multiple males of all age classes, including yearlings, were taped eagerly pawing and working scrapes.
Lots of does were filmed at scrapes, also mostly at night. The researchers surmised that by frequently visiting scrapes, does might be taking in chemical signals about bucks.
I’ve saved the best for last. The researchers noted that few of the mature bucks (3 1/2 years of age and older) shot on the property during the two-year study were ever videotaped at scrapes. That’s fascinating, especially when you consider that hunters killed some of those trophies within a few hundred yards of camera-rigged scrapes!
My field experience suggests that the old bucks either checked the scrapes from downwind, or avoided them because of the camera. Over the years I’ve watched many wise old bucks circle past scrapes from downwind. I also know of mature deer that were spooked by the flash of a trail camera and shifted their pattern slightly.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
If you skimmed the study and focused on two of the major findings–that 85 percent of all scraping occurs at night and that some mature bucks were in the area but didn’t visit the scrapes being studied–you might never hunt scrapes again. But read between the lines and you’ll actually find several solid new opportunities.
Remember, some heavy scraping occurs right after dusk in the pre-rut. Scout for a trail or funnel that connects a bedding area with a hot food source like corn or acorns. Set up 100 to 200 yards off the feed and back toward the bedding cover. Your goal is not to shoot a buck with his nose stuck right in a scrape, but to shoot a buck just prowling nearby.
Also, the observation that multiple bucks use the same scrapes should give you hope. When you sit in a scrape-laced area, you’re not watching for just one buck. You never know what might cruise by. While most bucks come at night, you do have a good chance of catching a shooter at dawn or dusk.
Finally, this study shows that from late November through December 10 or so, some old bucks re-check scrapes as they try to hook up with the last estrous does. Go back and hunt a ridge or bottom laced with scrapes and you might strike pay dirt.
–Bucks mark scrapes primarily by working overhanging branches with their foreheads and antlers; they also deposit saliva on the limbs.
–Bucks paw and urinate in scrapes only half the time they check them.
–In early October, bucks mark and urinate at scrape sites but don’t paw yet.
–Does actively mark “licking branches,” but not a single female in the study urinated in a scrape.
–As many as 13 different bucks visited some scrapes, while few deer hit other scrapes.
–About 85 percent of the scraping activity occurred after dark.