Deer make scrapes as a means of communication, and hunters can learn to read scrapes to locate trophy bucks. The biggest bucks often create shredded rubs near a scrape. Funnel scrapes close to thick cover also mark good hunting locations.
A freshly excavated scrape with a snapped branch dangling above it is the scouting equivalent of pay dirt. But even though such sign confirms there’s a buck actively working your area, hanging a tree stand overhead is usually a dead end. How many times have you heard the lament: “That scrape looked so hot I had to hunt it. But I never saw a buck.”
Research isn’t clearing up any of the confusion, either. Some studies suggest that bucks can create 100 or more scrapes during the pre-rut only to totally abandon half of them once breeding begins. Moreover, other studies conclude that dominant whitetails paw sporadically, if at all, in the fall, but will work lick-limbs year-round. And get this: I read the other day that even some does occasionally scrape!
The scientific community is equally split on the reasons why deer scentmark. The conventional thinking is that bucks paw ovals, urinate over their hocks into the bare soil and finally lick and rub their foreheads on overhanging branches to attract does. But other biologists speculate that mating has little to do with the ritual, that bucks with overlapping core areas simply make scrapes to keep tabs on one another.
My advice is to leave the speculation to the doctoral candidates. All you really need to keep in mind is that white-tails use scrape-making as a means of visual and olfactory communication, and that you can use these signs to your huge advantage if you know over which scrapes to concentrate your efforts.
Big Buck or Small?
Begin your search by hiking past any scrapes you find on the edges of open fields, clear-cuts or the like. And don’t get sucked into hunting over pawings m mature woodlands with little or no understory–an immature buck, naive in the art of signposting, is likely et work here. Even if an older deer did build such scrapes, you can bet he did it under the cover of darkness. In addition to being highly nocturnal, dominant whitetails are cover-hugging creatures that scrape in brushy creek bottoms, grassy drainages, overgrown logging roads and similar thick cover. The more secluded these “cover scrapes” are, the better the odds of catching a trophy buck on the hoof during shooting light.
A big, testosterone-addled deer begins cruising around to check on the estrus state of does in late October or early November (a month or more later in a few southern states). But rather than parading down primary doe trails with his nostrils flared, he’ll typically skirt the trails and cut through thickets. Occasionally, though, he’ll mosey up to sniff the trail proper, and that’s where you’ll find scrapes and rubs. Here, it’s the rubs that are a better indication of deer size than the scrapes. A yearling six-pointer might paw like crazy on a doe run, but he can only rub a sapling so big, and only so hard. On the other hand, a dominant 10-pointer might paw a so-so scrape but thrash a tree as thick as your forearm. Big, shredded rubs near hot scrapes–that’s what you’re looking for.
On evening hunts, set up in thickets downwind of scraped-and-rubbed doe trails that wind toward flats and bottoms you know to be thick with acorns or soft mast. At dawn, play the breeze and watch sign-blazed junctions near doe heading thickets farther up the trails.
In the broken farmlands and woodlots that many of us hunt, whitetail patterns have changed, adding yet another puzzlement to the scrape dilemma. Deer densities are usually high in these small, diverse habitats. Here, bucks might have to travel only two miles or less to both feed and contact does, so they don’t lay down the long, meandering scrape lines that were so enticing–and frustrating–in more expansive habitat.
But bucks are bucks, and many of them scrape as they set out from their bedding areas. Check for “mini” scrape lines in narrow strips of woods, along brushy fencerows, briery ditches and similar funnels where big deer travel.
Funnel scrapes are often freshly tended because bucks walk past them so frequently. Trouble is, mature deer with tight territorial patterns move mostly at night, even in the excitement of the pre-rut. Which means that most of the time they’ll be curled in their beds as you hunt their red-hot sign.
One solution is to scout for scrapes and big rubs that wend toward a swamp, overgrown field or similar thick cover where mature deer feel comfortable laying up. But be aware that hunting this way is risky business. If a buck busts you sneaking down the hallway to his bedroom, he’ll leave for another safe haven, or at the very least alter his travel pattern. Play the wind and use terrain wrinkles and foliage for cover. Try to set up where funnel scrapes peter out just before the buck’s bedding site. You might get a glimpse of the big guy, because those last scrapes are the first ones he sniffs as he prowls forth at dusk, and the final ones he checks as he sneaks back to cover at dawn.
On a turkey scout one March, I ran across a big scrape two miles deep in a woodlot. It was old and dry, but showed a couple of new hoof marks. Most intriguing was the freshly snapped lick-branch dangling above the scrape. I checked the same spot the following November–it was the size of a truck hood, black as lava sand and reeking of tarsal scent. Twenty whitetails commingled there over the two days I hunted. A heavy nine-pointer was the best of the seven bucks, and I nailed him with my muzzleloader.
To my mind, the closest thing to money in the bank is finding a community scrape in a remote thicket. Whitetails check them out year-round. And best of all, a wide variety of bucks and does come to sniff each other during the breeding season.
Bowhunters might have to set up tight to a community scrape, but hang back 100 yards or so in a thicket if at all possible. Bucks cruise into scrapes from all directions, and will frequently angle in from the downwind side. Hunting well off a big scrape minimizes the chances of deer smelling you, and greatly enhances your view of the breeding commune.
Besides, the goal is not to shoot a buck with his nose glued to a scrape. That happens, but it’s rarer than you think. Simply set up in the vicinity of a scrape in thick cover and hope a big deer comes cruising mysteriously by.
Roll Your Own
The hottest scrape in the woods can be yours…literally. To build a mock scentpost in hopes of attracting a buck:
1. Attach felt pads to rubber boots, saturate them with doe-in-heat urine and lay a steaming scent trail from your stand to the edge of a thicket.
2. With the heels and soles of your boots, dig a scrape two to three feet in diameter. Rake leaves in one direction and down to bare ground like a buck would.
3. Snap the tip of a branch above the scrape; smear it with preorbital (forehead) scent.
4. Douse the scrape with tarsal scent; dribble in doe urine for good measure.
5. With a saw blade or rattling antler, blaze a big rub nearby and lather it with forehead scent. If a buck spies your signpost, he might cruise in for a smell.