By Mark Kenyon

While doing some scouting this past weekend, I came across the biggest tree I’ve ever seen rubbed in Michigan. It was a 10 inch diameter pine tree, and it had a big ole rub on the front of it. The sight of it gave me chills, and I thought to myself, “you know what big rubs means”!

Big bucks.

Or so common knowledge tells us. But is that all we can determine from rubs?

A torn up tree is one of the most visually obvious and exciting pieces of deer sign found in the whitetail woods, but what these markers tell us and how we use them to develop hunting strategies has been up for debate for many years. With that said, lets take a step back, examine the facts around rubs and then circle back to what rubs, and especially big rubs, really mean.

What’s A Rub?

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As most of us know, a rub is the sign a deer marks on a tree after rubbing his antlers against it, stripping and gashing away bark along the way. But why do deer do this? A small number of rubs are the result of bucks removing velvet from their antlers in early September, but this a very small percentage of rubs. Most rubs are in fact created leading up to and during the rut, and are produced as visual and chemical sign-posts, territorial markers, and messages. When a deer rubs his antlers on a tree he leaves a visual cue, and then deposits a number of chemicals from his forehead glands that identify that he’s been there, and any number of other messages.

What Can You Learn From Rubs?

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That said, here’s the million dollar question. What does a rub actually mean for us as hunters? How can we use this piece of information to our advantage? It’s a tricky question, and one with a number of answers. So below I’ve compiled a handful of different lessons we can learn from a rub.

Approximate Age/Size of a Buck: Here’s an important one and one of the main ways I use rubs to help illuminate the current situation on a hunting property. Small rubs can be made by smaller/younger bucks or by older/larger bucks. But large rubs, those on trees larger than 3 or 4 inches in diameter, are almost only made by older/larger bucks. Another sure sign of a rub being created by an older deer is how high up a rub is made. I’ve read that younger bucks typically will rub a tree 14-30 inches up, but older bucks can rub up to 48 inches high. Additionally, another indicator of an older deer being the culprit for a rub is a seriously torn up or frayed rub, with many strips of bark hanging off the tree. Typically it is the “pearling” (little bumps and knobs on antlers), large brow tines, or extra sticker points on an older buck that create these most tore up rubs.

Presence Of Older Deer: Another indicator of the presence of older deer is a large number of early season rubs. According to respected wildlife biologist and researcher John Ozoga, on average, yearling bucks create half the number of rubs that older deer create, and very few if any of these are created in the early or pre-rut seasons. That said, if you have a large number of rubs in September or Early October, it’s a good sign of the presence of 3.5 year old bucks or older. If these rubs are made on large trees, it’s even more of a sure thing.

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Bedding Areas: When bucks bed, especially mature bucks, they tend to make rubs on surrounding trees intermittently throughout the day. Sometimes rising from their bed, walking a few steps, taking out some aggression on a nearby sapling, then heading back to their bed for a few more hours. The result of this behavior is that frequently used buck beds will often have clusters of rubs surrounding them. If you find a likely buck bedding location, for example a brushy point coming off of a ridge, and you find clusters of rubs surrounding it, you can be confident that this is most likely a favorite resting area for a big buck.

Travel Routes: Rubs can also be indicative of a buck’s travel routes, as many times a deer will make occasional rubs as they travel to and from feeding and bedding areas during the rut. Over the past ten or twenty years hunters have sat over these “rub lines” and hunted with varying levels of success, but the consensus today seems to be that these aren’t necessarily that great of spots to hunt – as often these rub lines are created after dark. None-the-less, it can help you better understand travel patterns of a deer, and if the size is right, it can be another piece of the puzzle in understanding how mature bucks use the area. The direction of travel of a buck can also be guessed, based on which side of a tree a rub is found. This sign, combined with your knowledge of nearby food sources and bedding areas, can help you better understand where a buck is commonly coming from or heading to in the morning and evening.

What Does A Big Rub Mean?

As you can see, there’s a lot of things that a rub and especially a big rub can tell us. If analyzed carefully and examined in conjunction with other sign, a rub can help us better understand the quality of bucks in a given area, they can illuminate travel patterns and even help identify bedding areas.

But despite all this, my mind still races to one simple realization every time I see the bright orange and yellow slash of a big rub on a nearby tree.

Big bucks.