Suddenly the woodland silence is broken as female deer scatter. Yet instead of pursuing the doe herd, the 8-pointer heads straight to a pine tree. The scarred bark reveals years of vigorous buck rubbing activity.
He scents the tree, hesitates and then lays his head into the old conifer. His rub motions are slow, smooth and precise. With steadfast rubs, the mature deer reinforces his scent on the pine.
This tree, as well as others like it, serves a very distinct purpose. Though similar to random rubs, rub-lines and trees targeted with outright aggression, the old traditional rub is crucial for signpost scent marking - not only for whitetail breeding but hunters as well.
Reading deer sign can reveal a lot about a buck's routine. At times, a rub-line and mode of travel can be assessed. Other times confusion sets in - especially when random tree rubs are spread out with no pattern.
When hunters sight an old rub, questions may arise. Should the ancient marker be ignored? The old marked tree could have been just a random rub, or bucks ceased marking it because the tree is no longer able to effectively hold and dispense scent - losing its aromatic ability. Even if the old rub was part of an active rub-line, the deer marking it could have been harvested, died or moved on due to aggressive younger bucks trying to establish themselves on the ladder of whitetail dominance.
Even so, the old signpost tree could also be a hidden goldmine - luring in mature dominant bucks. Although bucks have a tendency to mark new trees due to absorbing fresh scent, there are still numerous old rubs that are active and act as a magnet in attracting deer of all ages and both genders.
Traditional tree rubs are hit repetitively year after year. They are distinguished not only by the actual rub mark that removes bark, but the tree also shows where bark grows around the core rub, and clearly shows more abuse than trees rubbed just once. Also, sap will occasionally build up around a traditional rub. In fact, some trees die prematurely from all the foreheads and antler strikes of rutting bucks.
Old tree rubs are occasionally associated with a rub-line leading to where females consistently congregate - particularly doe core areas. There are also old rubs related with buck feeding and bedding sites as well as travel corridors.
Once bucks get within a certain distance, they can visually detect an old rub. Sometimes bucks will stop, briefly scent the rub and move on. Yet they can also start rubbing their antlers into the old tree. Although there is no definite pattern here, bucks tend to rub the opposite of a traditional rub. If the old rub faces south, then the buck usually rubs the opposite side facing north and vice versa.
If this type of rubbing pattern takes place, then determining which direction a buck is traveling can be rather challenging. Typically when examining a rub line, the deer moves in the direction of the freshly exposed rub. Yet here again, if an old rub gets marked on the opposite side, it could be misleading - giving the impression the buck is headed in one direction, when in reality he is going the opposite direction.
Bucks can also just hoof paw the ground at the old rub's tree base - making a scrape site. So here the old rub is still active for signpost activity; yet the pawing, while it dispenses scent from the interdigital glands, most likely serves as a release of aggression - similar to what is know as a frustration rub. Bucks get belligerent with the presence of other bucks - be it through vision or smell - and a rub can signal competition.
Though not as common, even young bucks, 2½ years old, will occasionally forehead rub trees previously marked by mature bucks. And whether its mature or young deer, old rubs can be on an assortment of trees - particularly those with aromatic odors like pine, hemlock, cedar, sweet gum and others. Trees of this nature are able to hold a deer's scent for longer periods of time, which in turn assures scent communication.
Whitetail biologist Grant Woods defines traditional rubs as trees that are consistently scent marked for several years. These signpost trees are usually at least 3 inches in diameter. Yet there are incidents where bucks do establish a traditional rub on smaller trees. This typically occurs in old-growth fields, watersheds or drainage areas where there are not very many large trees.
Woods' research discovered that even though females and their offspring investigated old rubs, they typically did not perform any scent-marking behavior on the rub. However, his research did capture photos of a female rubbing her genital area on a traditional rub. His studies also discovered that traditional rubs were scent marked in the heat of the rut. So, although most trees are aggressively rubbed prior to the rut, when it comes to the traditional rub, the tree can be consistently hit before and during the rut. Woods also discovered that the presence of traditional rubs reveals an old age structure of bucks.
The old marked trees still have a place in the whitetail's system of communication. These ancient markers could very well set the stage for signpost activity.
For example, during the velvet tissue peel, some bucks have removed their velvet on old rubs. However, removing velvet on traditional rubs is not a common event. Even though the majority of velvet tissue shedding is random and wildly chaotic, being that bucks have targeted old rubs indicates, in theory, that velvet peeling could be the onset for pre-rut signposting behaviors along with a rise in testosterone.
Though not as common, large old trees, in diameter of a foot or larger, can become a centralized location for rubbing activity. Here, the old tree attracts bucks year after year. Bucks of all ages and sizes test strength and pronounce their presence on the old tree.
All this rubbing behavior clearly shows that old traditional tree rubs aid mature bucks in depositing scent/pheromones in specific areas. In turn, these trees could strongly contribute to stimulating breeding receptivity through tree scent communication - much like the "community scrape" tree that attracts both bucks and does. Simply, the old tree, rubbed continuously, serves to be a type of check-in-station where bucks and does correspond.
So what's so vital about old tree rubs? Some are simply a beacon where deer commune year after year. Yet branching out from these old rubs are usually detectable modes of travel for rutting bucks. In some cases, rub-lines can become circular - eventually leading back to the old rub.
For the hunter afield, don't ignore the old rub. Eventually a dominant buck will make the rounds. As to whether a hunter should place a blind or stand near an old signpost rub, well that's controversial with both success and non-success stories.
Yet by studying the land and how whitetails lay their marks, hunters should increase their chances of accurately patterning buck activity - even by the old traditional rub.