Editor’s note: Tommy Kirkland has spent years photographing white-tailed deer, and this article is based on his observations.
Moving along the woodland edge, the morning dew saturates the footwear. As the sun breaks through, you finally find evidence of whitetail activity — a fresh tree rub.
Approaching the battered pine, you’re quick to notice that this isn’t just your typical rub: An explosion of several new rubs is just beyond the edge. They’re all about the same height and with the same degree of intense rubbing.
Yet why just three to five rubs within such close proximity to one another? Beyond this cluster of battered trees, the adjacent woods are devoid of any more deer activity — not even a rub-line can be made out.
The new rubs aren’t random nor are they associated with old, traditional rubs used consistently year after year (see the story “Old Traditional Rubs” in the November 2011 issue of Louisiana Sportsman).
No this scent-marking behavior is something quite different and out of the norm when it comes to reading deer sign.
Seasoned hunters know all to well of how to discern a buck’s established rub line — deciphering his travel routes and times. Yet when it comes to trees rubbed at random or in an isolated grouping of rubs (also called cluster rubs) without any other deer sign visually connecting circular sign-posting activity, determining whitetail movements can be a labyrinth of chaos.
However, by trying to understand what function particular tree rubs serve will help decipher the behavior behind the rub.
In short, random rubs (one rub with no others nearby) are typically scattered with no distinct pattern. Usually it is just one rub and no others are in the vicinity.
Random rubs are not associated with the classical rub line that leads from point A to B; these rubs are not linked with old, traditional rubs that are consistently scent-marked year after year.
A rub done at random can be related to an erratic, frenzied buck that was removing velvet tissue, especially if pesky insects were swarming and annoying the buck due to bloody velvet tissue. Simply a bug invasion can put deer into erratic flight.
Random rubs can also unfold when a buck is disrupted from his normal routine. For example, say a mature buck is working his rub line — going from female feeding and bedding areas — and suddenly a rival buck shows up. The two briefly engage with antler clashing, and the intruding buck takes the submissive route and evades the rub line.
The buck working the rub line maintains his status, while the rival buck moves on and unpredictably slams trees at random. These rubs are spread out with no pattern. Instinctively frustrated by losing the recent encounter, the rival buck releases built-up aggression at these random rubs.
Young bucks, particularly 2- to 3 ½-year-olds, are usually the true culprit of random rubs. Trying to establish themselves on the whitetails’ ladder of dominance, young bucks will periodically hit trees at chance, sometimes giving the impression of a mature buck roaming the woods.
Once random rubs have been determined, some hunters strongly caution against focusing on these sites because the buck activity is not consistent.
So with the basics of distinguishing between rub lines, traditional rubs and random rubs, where do clusters rubs fit into the whitetails’ world of scent communication and hierarchy?
Cluster rubs are made up of individually marked trees that are spread anywhere from just inches to 30 feet apart. They are usually in a defined radius of 5 to 30 feet, but sometimes a little more.
The rubs are on separate trees, and usually the height and intensity of the rubs are the same because one buck usually initiates all the rubs. However, a host of other bucks can get in on the action, as well.
Though there are variations, most cluster rubs consist of three to five or more individual trees.
Bucks are, by far, easier to pattern with rub lines that work from feeding to bedding sites; although cluster rubs are usually isolated, sometimes a common rub-line will be unexpectedly disrupted by an outbreak of cluster rubs.
As mention before, unrelated tree rubs near or on a rub line can indicate a rival buck moved in and instigated aggression, creating random and or cluster rubs.
Aside from cluster rubs erupting on or extremely close to an established rub line, the main problem with cluster rubs is they tend to frustrate one’s efforts to determine a buck’s travel route.
In turn, it can be extremely difficult to verify which direction a buck is going. There can also be more than one set of cluster rubs in a given area.
For example, a buck can rub one set of trees, and then proceed to perform another patch of clusters some 20 to 40 yards away from the original site.
Yet this is typically uncommon. Cluster rubs formed in this pattern appear to be associated with outright buck aggression and concentrated food sources more so than scent rubbing for breeding.
Cluster rubs can be the work of just one dominant buck or a number of bucks remarking the original rubs or creating new ones adjacent to the original rubs.
One interesting aspect of rubbing is that, although it is generally accepted that the height of a rub indicates the size of the buck rubbing, there are variations. For example, with intense rubbing, mature bucks can place their heads low to a tree’s base and focus rubbing just a foot or two off the ground. Rubs in this type of fashion give the impression of a smaller-bodied deer rubbing, while in reality a larger buck wrecked the tree.
Cluster rubs & nutrition
Rubs and cluster rubs performed around supplemental feed sites and agricultural plots are not always a trustworthy way to decipher deer in relation to breeding.
Concentrated food sources can instigate communication amongst whitetails. Even though whitetails are considered not to be territorial, they can become aggressive over food sources.
In turn, some rubs associated with nutrition are actually the results of bucks in close proximity instigating aggression.
However, if the deer continue feeding in these particular sites, scent marking for breeding can unfold.
Yet, if the bucks spread out once the rut kicks in, then all the rubs around feeding areas might become inactive as bucks become mobile. Even females that stay within these feeding locales will alter their patterns somewhat as their hierarchy dictates who is breeding and where.
Of course, cluster rubs and rub lines amid or adjacent to prime food sources are not to be ignored for blueprinting whitetails. According to early season hunters, rubs before the rut are almost always a good sign to ambush bucks simply because their movements are concentrated.
Cluster rubs & bedding
A prime, secured bedding area is a whitetail’s palace. Although bucks share bedding sites during summer’s velvet bachelor grouping, by the time the velvet peels off and polished antlers are showcased, bucks gear up for the pre-rut with various rubbing behaviors.
This activity occurs around bedding areas before the rut kicks in.
Though not always the case, bucks tend to use their late-summer bedding sites during the pre-rut. Here, a dominant mature buck might lay claim to the sanctuary by forming a circumference of rubs around the bedding area. These rubs are typically cluster rubs.
Other bucks can also work these rubs, or create new ones adjacent to the original rubs. These marked trees help establish buck hierarchy through scent communication.
Within a short time, submissive bucks will usually move on, avoiding the locale with bedding and cluster rubs.
Of course, cluster rubs are still a good indication that a mature buck or bucks are traveling to and from these bedding locales. Most deer hunters stress that the pre-rut and post-rut are the best times to hunt near bedding areas.
Cluster rubs & fighting
Whenever a grueling antler clash erupts between rival bucks on the move, there is the possibility that cluster rubs can erupt.
There are two main reasons for such tight, intense rubbing around buck fights. First, the victorious buck may hit a batch of trees, intensely rubbing two to five trees in a small radius. His dominance to breed is shown through the rubbing that not only pronounces his scent, but releases aggression.
Also, the losing buck can work a batch of trees; his cluster rubbing is an effort to establish his presence, as well.
In theory, it could be that when rival bucks see one another there is a surge of testosterone. After the duel is over, especially if it is brief, the bucks could still be jazzed up with elevated levels of this hormone.
In turn, they are rut-frenzied and instinctively bash the nearest trees. This is one reason it is difficult to pattern bucks by cluster rubs: These tight circular rubs are sporadic and unpredictable, unless the rubbing occurs with bucks locked up with females in peak estrus.
Cluster Rubs & Breeding
Once a dominant buck tends a receptive doe, the potential for rubbing unfolds. Although the majority of tree rubbing diminishes considerably as the rut heightens and females come into estrus, it can still occur while the buck guards his mate.
Young bucks are notorious for attempting to spoil the honeymoon. Even mature bucks will attempt to get in on the action.
The breeding buck typically runs them off, returning to intensely guard his mate. At times, the breeder buck might perform several rubs around the area of procreation, creating a somewhat broad circumference of cluster rubs.
The quarters have now been proclaimed by the dominant breeder buck by pronouncing his presence through rubbing behaviors.
Although there are some variations and nothing should be considered law when evaluating whitetails, older matriarch females prefer specific mating locales year after year. Usually an old, traditional rub or community scrape (see “The Community Scrape” in the January 2012 issue of Mississippi Sportsman) is in the vicinity of preferred breeding sites.
Here scent communication is signaling between whitetails, setting the stage for concentrated rut activity and rubbing.
Hunting over or near cluster rubs
So should hunters erect a stand or blind near a batch of rubbed trees? According to dedicated sportsman, it all depends on why the trees were battered in the first place.
If the cluster rubs are associated with bedding, feeding and mating locales, then the advice is to ambush a rutting buck.
However, if cluster rubs are performed by mobile bucks acting erratically, then it’s pretty much a waste of time to focus on cluster rubs related to isolated fights and buck frustration.
Of course, the trick is being able to decipher how and why the cluster rubs were created in the first place. As mentioned before, if any other visible sign can be connected to a batch of assaulted trees, then most likely the area has consistent deer activity from both males and females.
Yet, if rubs have no obvious signs nearby, then it is fairly safe to conclude that the rubbing was unpredictable and done erratically.
With today’s technical gadgets like trail cams, telemetry studies and observations on whitetails, hunters are learning more and more about whitetails. There is much more to cluster rubs and other whitetail behaviors that we may never fully comprehend, so their language of communicating through trees is challenging to learn.
The main focus is simply to enjoy reading deer sign — even it if gets a bit frustrating.