Nothing excites a deer hunter more than finding a hot rub site. Seeing one glaring in the morning sunlight gives a similar warmth to the body like a NASCAR driver hearing the "start your engines" command and watching the green flag waving in the wind.

Locating a rub is the start of a special relationship between a buck and a hunter with a dream. Finding a fresh, active rub ignites the fires of reason why hunters do all they do to pursue a buck every season.

The trick is to find the rubs and then interpret how best to hunt them.

A buck rub is, after all, the first in a series of signposts that indicates the whitetail buck has triggered the rutting process by marking his territory. It's like a logger painting tree trunks blue to mark the boundaries of a property. It says this is my home territory - all others steer clear.

Of course it is a lot more complicated than that. In fact, deer biologists and wildlife managers specializing in whitetails continue to have more questions than answers about the whole scheme of deer behavior. This is especially the case with bucks and the whole rutting phenomenon.

Progress is made in this field every year. Universities, state wildlife departments and other deer-research entities conduct deer studies attempting to unveil the secrets of the annual ritual of buck rubs, scrapes and the doe-breeding cycle. For the time being, we know enough to understand the general playbook. Now, we just have to figure out how to put together a winning game plan.

Buck-rub basics

So we can all start on a level playing field, let's understand why a buck picks out a particular tree, lowers his head and sometimes in a fever pitch or sometimes in a slow methodical rhythmic motion takes his antlers and wears the bark off that tree.

"Our research has indicated that rubs early in the season are somewhat light in nature and tend to be made on small saplings," said Larry Marchinton, a deer researcher from the University of Georgia. "This continues until the bucks have removed all of the antler's protective velvet covering.

"Rubbing activity generally starts about one month before scraping and breeding timelines. Rubbing declines and then basically ends when bucks transition into making scrapes, and active breeding commences."

Bucks make rubs to establish their dominance in a particular zone of their habitat. The rubs are like red flags to mark the area so other bucks will recognize the boundary lines. Exactly how precise this is or how readily other bucks yield to another's buck's signposts is not really fully understood. We know multiple bucks live, feed and breed in the same general areas.

Bucks also release glandular secretions from their forehead areas and from glands around the eyes that are left during the tree rubbing action. These secretions are also thought to further mark the rub for notice by other bucks roaming the area.

Research has also noted that this biochemical marking may be to attract or communicate with does in the area as well. We know does visit scrapes, so they may respond to rubs, too.

Where bucks leave rubs

Practically speaking, bucks can make rubs anywhere. Sometimes there seems to be no set pattern to the location of rubs. Hunters will often find one rub in an isolated spot that seems to follow no particular logic as to why it is there.

Certainly, a buck may get the occasional urge to leave a random rub that is totally unrelated to his normal daily course of activity. Be careful, though, hunting a solo rub, because a single rub might just have been a spur-of-the-moment activity, and yield no further evidence about the buck that left it.

Other times, the layout seems to be all too systematic to the point of being almost freaky in nature.

"This past season, I stumbled onto a huge rub on a cedar tree right on the edge of a little island of big oak trees and an open field. The location didn't seem to make any sense to me until I investigated further," said Joe Mainord, a dedicated bowhunter on a lease in Hinds County. "When I scouted the area in more detail, I found four more rubs within 500 yards of the original one. I plotted these spots on an aerial photograph of the whole area, and discovered they made a fairly uniform circle around that entire sector. That made more sense to me."

This buck was marking his area, leaving signposts as he made his normal rounds.

When some kind of pattern of rubs develops, which may be more of the norm than we used to think, then maybe the buck can be patterned, too. Just find the rub pattern first. Then plot them out to build a guidebook mapping template as to a buck's particular travel circuit. This information should prove very useful later when hunting tactics are implemented.

Bucks seem to leave most of their rubs along the outer parameters of their home turf or strung out in a line following their usual travel routes, but not always. This proof has to be determined by the hunter during field scouting. One has to assume also that different bucks do their rubbing in their own individual manners, thus creating signposts with signatures highly unique to each animal.

Likely places to find rubs or rub lines are ridge lines, especially if there are viable food sources associated with them like oaks dropping fresh acorns. Bucks have regular patterns of travel, so there is no reason to think that their rubs would not be associated with their usual treks back and forth to feeding or bedding areas. Wherever rubs are found, expect the buck to be living somewhere in the general vicinity unless he has been driven off by humans or to find more food.

Check the bottoms of ridges too, as bucks like to walk the cool, dark shadows of thick cover particularly if there is a water resource running along this bottom. Streamside trails down in ravines next to ditches or creeks are good places to find active rubbing activity.

Speaking of water, bucks also love to leave rubs along wetland zones like shallow swamps, ponds or even bigger lakes. Look for the rubs along the edges, but also out in the water if you can find trails leading into and out of these wet areas. Natural property drainage lanes seem to be ideal highways for buck travel. Check these areas carefully for rubs.

Since bucks start to rub roughly a month before other more advanced rutting behaviors begin, hunters need to implement a rub-scouting agenda early in the season. One tactic is to check peak rut dates for your region via the state wildlife web site at www.mdwfp.com, and then back off those dates accordingly to begin searching your hunting area for signs of rubs.

As you scout, take notes on where rubs are found, and date them. Again, it is a good idea to plot those on a map of the area so you won't forget their exact locations. Note the details about the habitat, any nearby, well-used deer trails, other deer sign like tracks or droppings, potential food resources and likely trees for hanging a tree stand or a spot to hide out in a pop-up blind. Take some digital photos, too. When back at home, spend time analyzing all this data.

Tactics for hunting rubs

Generally speaking, there are two main philosophies on how best to hunt buck rubs.

"One theory is to hunt close, but using care not to sneak in too close, being unable to get to or get away from the stand undetected by any bucks in the area," said guide Ronnie Foy of Canton. "The very last thing you want to do is spook a good buck with a face-to-face encounter.

"This tactic really requires the hunter to walk a very thin line. Planning in advance for all contingencies is a must. With Mother Nature always at work for good or bad, and given the traits of the wily whitetail, that's not an easy task."

To do this, all the prevailing atmospheric conditions have to be just right, especially the wind. One whiff of human scent wafting in the wrong direction, and the game can be up, maybe for the whole season, in that one rub hotspot. It is much easier to mess up this tactic when trying to do it right every single time you go to hunt a specific rub site. Hunting close always has its share of high-stakes risks. That's the challenge of hunting a rub in the first place.

Theory No. 2 on hunting rubs is a much more conservative approach. This translates into backing off the rub site, allowing enough flexible space between the hunting stand and the rub tree so as not to pressure the rub. Some care has to be taken with this set up, too, because scouting around the perimeter of the rub is needed to find a place to set up a ground blind or hang a tree stand. This can also lead to scent contamination or disruption.

"The idea here is to locate the most likely travel route that the buck has been using to trek to and from the rub," Foy said. "Sometimes this route can be easily spotted as a very worn trail in the woods with lots of visible deer tracks, or along the borders of the timberline and a creek or maybe where the timber or woody bushes meets an open field. These are classic deer travel routes along which bucks often choose to make their rubs."

Once an access point to the rub or rub line is uncovered, the job is to pick a good spot to hunt it at a safe distance. This is naturally easier when gun hunting because the effective range of the weapon is considerably further. It gets tougher to pick these spots when using a bow and arrow.

Tactic No. 2 may still mean maintaining sight of the rub in case the buck comes back to dress it up again. It could also mean just hunting back away from the rub on the primary deer travel lane leading past the rub. Creating good visibility all around the hunting stand is a must.

Care will also have to be taken in cleaning up the area by trimming shooting lanes either for a gun shot or for slinging an arrow. Be minimal in any work to alter the area around or nearby the actual rub. Deer can pick up on any changes in their habitat, especially the smell of fresh-cut tree limbs or removal of ground cover. Again, hunting a rub is a very delicate process.

For a deer hunter, finding a rub is an important first step in focusing on the buck that made it. The window of opportunity is short, so learn to take advantage of these signposts as soon as possible. Plan the set up carefully, and hunt smart.