Why Buck Rubs Fascinate Bowhunters

by | Jan 31, 2017 | Featured, Wildlife

If it were possible to collect buck rubs the way some bowhunters hoard shed antlers, moose skulls and other collectibles, their homes would be paneled with shredded saplings.

But one can’t cut and carry off every young tree or aging fence-post that bucks beat and tatter with their antlers. So instead, bowhunters often photograph rubs they find while scouting, hiking or hunting the deer woods.

The thicker the rubbed tree and higher the rub, the greater the intrigue and need to pose someone alongside for perspective. In a pinch, a hunting bow provides the photographic proportions, but a kneeling hunter works best.

A bull elk ripped this aspen sapling out of the ground after rubbing off much of its bark. Photo Credit: Patrick Durkin

What’s a buck rub? For those new to bowhunting, rubs result when male elk, moose and white-tailed deer basically use small to medium-size trees as punching bags in autumn. We assume they rub trees to work off mounting aggression as their testosterone builds for their species’ breeding seasons.

In fact, some folks think bucks and bulls rub to leave visual signs of their presence. Others think all that rubbing stimulates the animals sexually. Still others say they do it to intimidate nearby bucks and bulls. And yet others think they target aromatic tree species because they like the smell of freshly torn fir, pine, cedar or sassafras, depending on the region.

Bucks and bulls usually target smooth-barked trees with bare, branch-free trunks so they can easily rake their antlers up and down to pulverize the bark. When they’re especially agitated or hold their antler tines just right, they’ll rub and cut through the outer bark and inner bark to lay bare wide swaths of the cambium.

buck rubs

A white-tailed buck rubbed the bark off this white cedar at the edge of a central Wisconsin backyard. Photo Credit: Patrick Durkin

Elk and moose don’t always stop there. If their antlers catch a small tree just right, they’ll rip it from the ground, roots and all.

But however deeply big deer rub, and whatever motivates their efforts, these bucks and bulls leave forehead scents on the bark. In turn, that triggers other passing bucks and bulls to take their turn rubbing and enlarging the tree’s wound.

The thinking holds that the bigger the rubbed tree, and the higher the rub on the trunk, the bigger the buck or bull doing the damage. We assume they target trees according to body size. But as many folks with motion-activated trail-cameras can testify, sometimes little bucks rub big trees and sometimes big bucks thrash only willow whips and other wispy wood.

And, of course, that leads to even more theorizing among hunters. Some speculate that a trophy buck usually rubs the tree first, and then smaller bucks smell the brute’s scent and rub the spot just to prove they’re unintimidated – even though the big guy’s nowhere near.

buck rubs

Bucks spent many autumns rubbing this fencepost in northeastern South Dakota, where rubbing trees are scarce. Photo Credit: Patrick Durkin

Bucks, however, rub fenceposts if saplings are in short supply. That’s especially common in prairie habitats in places like Kansas, eastern Colorado and the Dakotas. Some fence posts get rubbed so often that they’re shaped like hourglasses, their middles worn to wasp-like waists from decades of rubbing. Some fencepost rubs even break off at the “waist” because, unlike trees, they can’t heal their wounds.

But most people don’t have to drive thousands of miles to find buck rubs. You don’t even have to be in a true deer woods. Sometimes they’re at the edge of town and residential areas with small woodlots.

For instance, a buck wandered through a central Wisconsin backyard last fall, and shredded the 4-inch-thick pruned trunk of a 25-year-old cedar. About a week later, it thrashed a bigger, faster-growing cedar 10 feet farther uphill.

At least we assume the same buck did the damage. Judging by the trees’ size, the rubs were made by an older buck with big antlers. But was it? Without validating the “vandal” with trail-cam photos, we’ll never know for sure.

Such mysteries are part of the allure and fascination of buck rubs.

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