Whitetail Deer: Sign Language
What rubs, scrapes, and tracks can tell you about where to find big bucks in your hunting area
Scouting for whitetails is like piecing together a giant jigsaw puzzle. You start with a clean slate of, say, 200 acres, you scout the area for deer sign and then you put it all together. “Breeding rubs,” like the one this awesome 12-pointer (right) was captured making, are key clues. Tracks, beds, scat and scrapes provide other pieces to the puzzle. But before you can add all of these things together, you have to be able to interpret what each sign is telling you. This photo tutorial is designed to help you connect the major puzzle pieces, so you can see the complete picture and find the best locations for your stands.
Rub 1 can be ignored. A buck of indeterminate size (though he was likely small) was passing through and made it. Unless it is part of a rub line early in the season, it doesn’t tell you much. Rub 2, however, has a story. It’s a “signpost” rub. You might find one on a tree between 4 and 10 inches in diameter as early as September 15. Biologists have found that soon after stripping their velvet (as a buck did in rub 4), some mature bucks make signpost rubs around their core areas to let does and other males know where their turf is.
Check out rub 2’s deep gouges. A good buck probably pressed in tight and worked his stout brow tines up and down to cut so deep. The tine marks located 8 inches or so to the left of the rub indicate that the buck’s rack was fairly wide–I’d guess at least 16 inches. Once a buck establishes a signpost, other deer come to it. A few deer have utilized rub 2. Many of the deer on the open ridge where rub 2 is located have likely veered over and smelled it, licked it, rubbed it and smeared pre-orbital and forehead scent on it. Some biologists speculate that all those pheromones on signpost rubs might kick-start a few does into early estrus.
Rub 3 is probably the work of a single buck. This buck is probably an older, aggressive buck. Sometimes a young and feisty six- or eight-pointer gets fired up during the rut and works a big tree with the sides of his main beams, but this rub has tine marks or gouges all around it, indicating this deer has a wide rack and at least eight points.
A testosterone-addled buck likely snapped off the top of the sapling on rub 4 as he removed his velvet (notice the blood on the sapling). Violent rubs say a lot about a buck’s aggression. Since the deer is on the prowl and ripping trees, there’s a decent chance you’ll see him in daylight hours.
Studies have found that whitetails defecate about 13 times a day. While piles of 20 to 30 pellets are common, some contain 40 or more. Pellet size varies from 1/2 inch to 1 3/4 inches. In late summer and early fall, when deer feed almost entirely on greens, you might find sticky 1- or 2-inch clumps. In fall and winter, when deer feed on acorns and woody plants, their pellets will often be hard and dark.
The pile on the left (below) is several days to a week old. Judging by the dry, light-brown texture of the pellets, the deer fed on acorns, twigs, woody browse or maybe corn. The pellets are average size, about 1/2 inch, and might have been dropped by either an adult doe or a buck. The small pellets on the right are a few days old and were probably dropped by a yearling or perhaps a well-grown fawn. Their dark coloration and partial clumping indicate the deer ate vegetation or soft mast.
Use scat sightings not so much to pin down an individual buck, but to determine where a good number of deer are active at any given time of the season. Lots of fresh pellets or clumps in a thicket or swamp tell you several deer are bedding there. If they’re dry and light brown, look for the nearest cornfield or oak flat and set up an ambush. If the scat is moist and greenish-black, check a nearby green plot or apple orchard for deer and plan your hunt accordingly.
The front foot of a whitetail varies from 1 3/8 to 4 inches long and from 7/8 to 2 7/8 inches wide (whitetails’ rear feet are smaller than their front feet). A track approximately 2 inches long was made by a deer born the previous spring, whereas a track that’s nearly 4 inches long was probably made by a mature buck. When you are examining tracks around 3 inches long, look to other indicators to determine age or sex.
The rifle cartridge near track 1 is 3 1/8 inches long; the track appears just slightly shorter. But when a deer steps in sandy soil, its hooves slide forward a bit, making a print look longer than it really is. This track is 2 1/2 to 3 inches long. It might have been left by an adult doe or a buck 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 years old.
A deer that was recently spooked made track 2. These running tracks are about 3 inches long and smoking hot. Note their sharp edges and especially the fresh, moist sand in the wake of the back print. Either a young buck or a medium-size doe left them. They are definitely not the prints of a heavy old buck–they’re too narrow and far too shallow.
The body size of whitetails, as well as the hoof size of individual deer, varies considerably from region to region. The only time you can shout “old buck!” with reasonable certainty is when you find a print that is noticeably large for your area.
Sauntering along, a whitetail places its hind feet in or near the tracks of its front feet; hence you get overlapping or stacked prints like those in track 3. A doe likely left the tracks, but exactly when she walked through the area is uncertain. If it doesn’t rain, the clay in this soil will hold the prints’ sharpness anywhere from a day to a week. These tracks are in a main doe trail. During early bow season and four to six weeks later in the rut, expect some bucks to walk on the trail. During the intervening pre-rut period, watch for a big deer circling 50 to 100 yards downwind of the run and winding it. If you’re lucky you’ll find a set of huge, deep tracks on a buck’s “checking trail.”
Deer beds vary from about 25 to 42 inches wide. If you find a bed that is at or near the high end of this scale, you’ve found a mature buck’s bed. If the bed is smaller–say, 35 inches wide–you’ll need to look for other clues. For example, you can sometimes do a “pee test” to find out. Bucks generally leave urine in the middle of their beds. Does pee at the back end of their ovals. Look for moisture or stains on the flat leaves or weeds. Also, a small bed or one or two beds nearby seals the deal that a doe and fawn(s) lay there.
A mature buck is 50 or more pounds heavier and thicker than the other deer in an area and leaves a bed up to 42 inches long. Generally, you’ll find a king-size bed off by itself, but in September and early October, three to five huge ovals together indicate that a bachelor group rests there.
The doe and well-grown fawn pictured here bedded on a ridge where they could see and smell well. Many whitetails do that, though the animals typically prefer a spot with more cover. The only time you’ll catch a giant like this wide-racked 10-pointer bedded in an open field is after dark or, in this case, when he’s tending a hot doe for a day or two during the rut. A mature buck typically beds on a ridge, bench or hillside with moderate to thick brush; in a steep, rocky pocket; or in a secluded swamp or marsh–anywhere he can hide from hunters and smell or see danger coming. Big deer also like to have escape routes handy in several directions. If you stumble across a king-size bed in such a spot, get the heck out of there and never go back. It’s always best to hunt the fringes of a bedding area.
When you scout for scrapes this fall, keep these five things in mind:
1. In most states you’ll find a few random scrapes in mid-October, but the big, stinky ones to key on litter the woods from around Halloween until just before the peak of the rut.
2. While the fantastic old buck pictured above might paw 20 to 30 scrapes along the edge of a food plot to tell does and other bucks that he’s prowling the area, your chances of killing him at the field are slim. (Recent research confirms that about 85 percent of scraping and tending occurs at night.) Set a stand on a scrape-laced ridge 100 to 200 yards back in the woods off a field.
3. Hunt a scrape if it has a prominent, freshly mangled limb over it, even if the dirt below isn’t turned over much. Several bucks, young and old, are likely depositing saliva and pre-orbital scent on it.
4. Biologists at the University of Georgia recently found that a bunch of scrapes on a ridge might suddenly go cold, while bucks might tear up old scrapes and open new ones on a nearby ridge or in a bottom 200 yards away. Therefore you should keep poking around to make sure you’re hunting the hottest scrapes.
5. To determine if a trophy is hitting a scrape on and off, look for huge tracks in or around a scrape and scout for big, thrashed rubs nearby. Set up downwind of a scrape where all the pieces seem to fit.
What Deer Eat
TYPE DESCRIPTION SCOUTING TIPS
Common Varieties of white oak are Trees 12 to 16 inches White Oak found across North America. in diameter tend to Eastern (or common) white produce the most oak trees grow 80 to 100 feet. acorns. Individual The white oak’s 4- to 9-inch trees may drop elliptical, round-lobed leaves hundreds of nuts from turn reddish-brown in fall. late August through Acorns are 3/8 to 1 1/2 inches mid-October. Hunt long. Trees grow best on near trees that are ridges, slopes and flats just beginning to that drain well. drop ripe nuts.
Northern The red oak ranges from Maine Glass the tops of Red Oak to Minnesota to Alabama. Trees big red oaks for grow 60 to 90 feet. They have green nuts in elliptical 4- to 6-inch leaves August. They’ll with pointed tips that turn become ripe and brown to dark red in fall. The fall from September red oak has 5/8- to 1 1/8-inch through October, acorns. Red oaks thrive in depending on the moist, loamy soil around region. Check oak swamps and creeks. Deer prefer trees that have white oak to red oak acorns. Uncrowded tops; they produce the most acorns.
Common Persimmons are found Check for persimmons Persimmon throughout the South. Trees ripening to brown, grow 20 to 70 feet high and wrinkly fruits. have blackish bark. The Watch for deer elliptical leaves are 2 1/2 picking them off to 6 inches long and turn reachable limbs or yellow in fall, and the round, gobbling up the nickel-size berry is orange ones that drop. or brown. It becomes ripe from Eastern Indian September to mid-October, tribes noted the before the first frost. fruits were sweetest Persimmons thrive in moist, after the first rich soil around swamps and frost. Deer know streams. that, too.
Crabapple Three varieties of crabapples While crabapples are range across most of the East. smaller and sourer Trees grow 10 to 30 feet and than common apples, have gray or brown bark. Their deer eat them a lot, 1- to 3-inch oblong leaves especially in lean turn brown in fall, and their hard-mast years. small yellow-green apples Crabapples become mature in late summer. The trees ripe in early fall. grow best in old field and They are found on along fencerows. edges and in fields.
Wild Also known as “muscadine,” Check for deer Grape this high-climbing woody eating berries early vine ranges from Missouri and in archery season. eastern Texas east to Delaware From October into and Florida. Its winter, scout for purple-to-black berries animals browsing ripen from July through leaves and vines. September. Look for grape Wild grape grows thickets along the edges alongside of logging roads and in other honeysuckle openings. and greenbrier in many areas.
Forbs Forbs include hundreds of If you spot deer varieties of small, soft, walking by food broad-leafed herbaceous plots to feed in plants, such as wildflowers a pasture, CRP and weeds, but not grasses. field or clearing, Forbs sprout in pastures, in you can bet some clearings and along the sides type of herb has of logging roads from spring popped up there. through autumn, until cold Forbs often sprout temperatures take over. up lush after a field or strip is mowed or disked.
Winter This annual cereal grass is In early September, Wheat adaptable to a wide range of back off and glass soils. It grows fast and full your plots or strips in fall and is perfect for for a good buck 1-acre “attractant” plots or coming to the or strips in the woods. fast-growing wheat. Biologists with the Missouri Hang a tree stand wildlife department recommend where bucks are you mix and plant half a entering a plot and bushel of winter wheat with 5 try to get a shot pounds of red or ladino clover the first week of per acre in August. Pray for bow season. Deer can rain. In September the wheat eat a small wheat will come up thick and attract crop down to the a lot of whitetails. The ground in weeks. following spring some leftover Also, when mast wheat will grow lush one more crops such as acorns time, and the clover will begin to fall, deer flourish. will switch to them.