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Big Rubs and Big Bucks in the Big Woods

Few things get me more excited than finding huge buck rubs. The rub at the top of this post is a prime example. Not only is the main tree shredded, but whatever buck did this also decided to shred the trees next to it. And if you look at the ground around the rub, you'll see trees that were snapped off during the rubbing process.

I have a feeling I know which buck made this rub. I've been after him all season, and he was a semi-regular on the trail cameras until the last week of October, and he's been AWOL ever since. Last week, just on a hunch, I walked an old logging road through this 12-year-old cut and found a series of very fresh scrapes. And this rub which still smelled like the buck that had made it. Yes, this rub was that fresh!

I set up a stand along this road in about the only tree I could find that was large enough to climb while offering a decent shot. And by decent, I mean 20 yards. There were too many saplings to get a clear shot beyond that.

Mountain hunting being what it is, I sat in this stand or in the vicinity six times and never saw a deer. However, I returned to my stand one morning following an evening hunt and found a fresh rub less than 50 yards from my perch. This one was on a tree almost 8 inches in diameter.

Unfortunately, my archery season has come to a slightly early end due to a few pressing article deadlines, but before I left camp I hung four trail cameras along the old logging road through the cut hoping to get a photo of the buck. Time will tell if it's the same 12-point I had on camera about two miles away that seemed to vanish right before Halloween.

Bucks will often relocate during the rut. Research shows that some bucks have established rutting areas that can be a long way from their normal range.

Every mature buck is an individual and they don’t always rut in the same areas where they spend the rest of the year. In the March 2018 issue of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine, researcher Dr. Steve Ditchkoff of Auburn University writes about the habits of Deer 41 during breeding season in one of their studies. Specifically, he discovered that the buck’s breeding range changed each year for the three years they tracked it. Dr. Ditchkoff writes: “In 1995, he primarily utilized the western section of his home range, in 1996 he spent most of his time ½ to ¾ of a mile south of that area, and in 1997, he rutted primarily at the northern edge of his home range, which was 1 ½ miles north of where he spent 1996.”

Dr. Ditchkoff makes an interesting observation based on these findings when he suggests that you might get trail camera pictures of this buck all year long on your property, but never actually have an opportunity at this buck during hunting season. In fact, almost all of the deer in the study moved or shifted their patterns in some way once the rut arrived, and for those who don’t own or hunt on large tracts of land, a shift of half a mile or more may as well be ten miles. Once a deer is off of their property, it pretty much drops off of their radar.

That's where we Big Woods, public land hunters have an advantage. We often have thousands of contiguous acres to explore, so if a buck goes missing, we have plenty of places to look for him.

There are many X-factors when hunting public land, though, because you don't always know exactly why a deer relocates. It could be because of changing food sources. It could also be because of hunting pressure -- this year, I've learned of at least two other groups of hunters from two large camps, as well as a handful of locals, who are after the 12-point, too. There are trail cameras seemingly everywhere, and no matter what day of the week or time of day, when you drive by the access area to this location, there's almost always one or two vehicles parked there, and sometimes more.

By contrast, last year, only a couple other hunters besides myself knew of this deer. Rumors of a giant buck were circulating, though, and I met a number of people who had heard of a big one living on this ridge.

Oddly enough, although few people other than myself knew the exact bedding location of this buck last year, he followed the same pattern. He was a constant on the cameras until right before Halloween. And then nothing. Not one snap of him until July of this year.

Have I found the area where this buck has chosen to spend the rut, and possibly the winter months? Time will tell, I guess, but my hunch is yes, and here's why.

This new area is the most rugged, out of the way, secluded section in the whole area. It's in the middle of a huge cut that's thick with saplings. It's loaded with food, not only browse but a few scattered oaks throughout the cut. Once the deer is in there, he has almost no reason to leave, and it's just open enough that it's virtually impossible for anyone or anything to sneak up on him without the buck hearing or seeing any hunter or predator long before it even gets close.

I think hunting guide Steve Sherk said it best in the interview I posted to this blog last week: The biggest bucks get the best hiding spots. And this one is definitely the best hiding spot around.

There's a reason this buck has survived as long as he has on public land. In my experience, old Big Woods bucks elude hunters in two ways -- they're either so unpredictable with their movements that they're virtually impossible to pattern, or they know where to go once hunting pressure increases. And I also wonder if this buck is just a creature of habit, and much like the deer in the Auburn University study, prefers to rut in an area outside his normal home range, which also just happens to be one heck of a hiding spot.

These are just a few reasons why old, Big Woods bucks are so fascinating. No matter how much you think you know about them, there's always more to learn. In the end, all you're doing is making an educated guess.

But I do know one thing for certain. Even if it's not the 12-point making these giant rubs, I've at least located the hiding spot for another big buck to pursue, and I find that thought pretty darn exciting.

-- By Ralph Scherder


Ralph Scherder is an award-winning writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Bowhunter,, Fur-Fish-Game, Sports Afield, PA Game News, PA Outdoor News, and many others.

His new book Hunting Mountain Whitetails is available from the First Fork Bookstore. To read a detailed description of the book, click here.

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