Hunting Pressured Whitetail…
To many bowhunters, including myself, visual signposts such as rubs, rublines, scrapes, multiple scrape areas, and a scrapes overhanging licking branches often dictate how, when, and where we hunt. They are made for several reasons including social interactions, territorial markers, dominance, breeding calling cards, and I assume out of breeding, or should I say lack of it, frustration.
All signposts are scent marked by one or a combination of forehead gland, nasal glands, preorbital glands, interdigital glands, saliva, urine, and urinating over tarsal glands. The trillion dollar (million and billion doesn’t mean much anymore) question is:
Is the signpost or posts you are looking at worthy of hunting?
Stating there is a one size fits all answer to any question regarding whitetail movements and social habits without first addressing hunting pressure is not only stupid, it would be a downright lie. Having bowhunted here in Michigan for over 45 years in heavily hunted areas where bowhunter densities often exceed 30 per square mile (640 acres) and also having bowhunted many times in lightly hunted areas within states like Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, and Missouri, I can attest that bowhunting methods should never be labeled a one method fits all.
It is obvious to any seasoned bowhunter that many methods that work in lightly hunted or managed areas may not work in heavily pressured areas, and yes, while few; there are some very lightly hunted and micro-managed areas within Michigan.
When bowhunting for whitetails, or any game animal for that matter, what makes one hunting area so different from another? There are a few answers to that question, but the answer that overwhelmingly trumps all others is consequential hunting pressure. In heavily hunted areas hunters influence deer behavior more than any other factor, PERIOD.
We bowhunters should always be cognizant of the amount and type of hunting pressure the property we are hunting on as well as the surrounding area receives before applying any instructional information given by anyone, including me. The majority of instructional information given on TV shows and in videos and in media is from bowhunters that hunt micro-managed or lightly hunted areas, and much of that instruction can actually be detrimental to success when practiced in heavily hunted areas.
The best way to put consequential hunting pressure into perspective is to relate it to you. More than likely most of the time you spend outside your home or workplace is during daylight hours whereas deer spend most of their time moving outside their bedding area, after dark. As an adult you feel comfortable moving after dark in areas that you know have a history of being safe. From a daily perspective deer are just the opposite; mature deer feel comfortable moving during daylight in areas where they have grown up feeling safe.
Now let’s put vulnerable movement habits into perspective, would you walk through a densely populated, crime-laden inner city neighborhood in the middle of the night knowing what the potential consequences might be? Likely not. You and mature adults that know better avoid places where the history of danger is high. Just as the feeling of vulnerability affects our security precautions and movement habits, so does heavy consequential hunting pressure affect the daytime movement habits of bucks that have survived at least one hunting season. Heavy consequential hunting pressure affects buck survival rates, how they react to hunter tactics, when and how they socially interact with other deer within their core area, and when and where they make or re-visit signposts.
On my one-week out-of-state hunts in low hunter density states I have found that most of the aggressive tactics and instructional methods used by hunters on TV and in videos work well because the deer they hunt and the deer I am hunting have not suffered consequences from previous hunter encounters.
However those hunting practices differ greatly from my overly cautious and subtle practices used at home in heavily hunted areas. I have also realized that methods that have consistently worked for me in heavily hunted areas will work anywhere, whereas whenever I tried the aggressive out-of-state methods back home in Michigan they were more often than not so detrimental to success that they were quickly abandoned.
Bowhunters that hunt small fragmented parcels or public lands in heavily populated areas have no option but to deal with heavy hunting competition and these questions should be answered before considering any signposting as potential hunting locations.
Does the signpost appear to be made by a shooter?
Despite the difficulty of determining exactly how big a buck is by his rubs there are clues that give an indication of his size and antler characteristics. Year-and-a-half bucks generally have narrow spreads, short tines and tend to pick on small (1 to 4 inch) diameter saplings and trees, while mature large racked bucks generally rub on larger diameter trees and occasionally shred bushes. A mature buck will rub on small trees also if that’s all that’s available in the immediate area, but there will also be larger trees rubbed within his core area.
As bucks age they grow taller, their antlers are usually higher off their head, and they generally have taller tines, all of which equate to their rubs being higher off the ground. Young bucks generally rub an area from 14 to 30 inches up the tree whereas I have seen rubs from older bucks that were 24 to 48 inches high or higher.
Puncture marks eight or more inches above the main rub area indicate a buck with tall tines. Snapped off saplings and broken branches are also indicators of a buck with tall tines. Saplings and small branches don’t have a chance when hung up between the thrashing G-2s and G-3s of a tall antlered buck.
On occasion you may find a rub on a cluster of trees or saplings with a common base and if the cluster has tine marks eight or more inches on either side of the main rub area the buck has a wide rack.
It is also common for rubs to be used by several bucks. I once witnessed 4 subordinate bucks use the same rub in one evening. Multiple bucks using the same rub is most common in small destination areas such as feeding locations and primary scrape areas.
While there are signs that aid in judging the size of buck antlers, there is no way of indicating antler characteristics by looking at a scrape. Large hoof prints in a scrape indicate a large buck used it. Scrapes found in late August through mid-September also indicate a buck with at least one year of breeding experience under his belt, created or re-opened it.
Is the signpost fresh?
Unless leaves are falling at a rapid rate a fresh scrape will be free of debris and the dirt in it will look as though you just took a stick and scraped it. A wet urine spot in the scrape is proof of a recent visit. Scrapes with leaves and twigs in it or scrapes that have been rained on and not re-opened within a few days are obviously not fresh.
Rubs can be identified as fresh by inspecting the rubbed area of the tree. A fresh rub will be very white and will appear moist from sap. If the rub is old it will have dried out and the rubbed area and the bark in any tine grooves will have turned a darker color. Rubs are scent marked by bucks with their forehead gland, and as a precaution, they should not be touched.
Does it appear as though the signposts are being revisited?
“Revisited” is without question the most important word in whitetail hunting. Every seasoned deer hunter is always looking for sign that is getting revisited, that is what ambush hunting is all about.
As scrapes get revisited they become larger in diameter and more dished out (deeper). Traditional scrapes that get used year after year due to their location can become as large as a truck hood.
The licking branch or branches over a scrape will often be a better indicator of re-use than the scrape itself. If there are multiple freshly nipped licking branches the scrape is definitely getting revisited. I have seen as many as 18 utilized licking branches over a single scrape. On occasion, there may be just one or two large branches hanging over a scrape and if the branches have been worked until their butt ends are ¾ of an inch or larger in diameter, they are getting revisited.
If some of the bare wood on a rub is dried out and there are also fresh rubbed areas, it is getting revisited. An interesting indicator that a buck is using a specific route in both directions is when a tree has rubs on both sides.
It is common in areas that receive concentrated doe traffic for bucks to revisit the area frequently and make multiple scrapes and rubs in the immediate area.
A key to success is to be able to identify if a signpost is being revisited without multiple intrusion visits, which brings us to motion cameras. Motion cameras are extremely popular, but they require set-up and visits to recover pictures and for hunters in lightly hunted areas where human intrusions have minimal impact on daytime movements and theft is not an issue, they may be wonderful.
For hunters in heavily hunted areas however, every non-hunting visit to a hunting location can be detrimental to those locations potential. If you want to use a motion camera at a hunting location, set it up during a hunt and only check it during a hunt, otherwise, leave the area alone. Motion cameras used in open areas where a big buck may feed after dark are fine if you just want to see what’s on the property. Usually these types of areas can be accessed without interfering with your hunting location.
Is there other pertinent sign in the immediate area?
Other fresh sign such as active runways and fresh droppings should always play a role in aiding in the final decision making process of whether to set-up a hunting location on any signpost whether it is fresh or not.
During the main rut when mature bucks are constantly looking for or are with estrus does, the amount of signposting they do is dramatically decreased. If multiple signposts are discovered in a small area during the main chase phase and they do not appear to be active or fresh, yet there is an abundance of other fresh sign that support the area as a possible hunting location, it should be considered.
What time of year or season is it when you discover signposts?
When post season scouting all signposts are old and only when there is an abundance of them in a small zone or along a specific route should that area be considered as a hunting location.
Signposts found during pre-season should be considered as hunting locations because bucks tend to be predictable and follow stringent routines during summer and early fall. If a pre-season location were set-up the most opportune time to hunt it would be the first couple days of season before hunting pressure alters or totally shuts down daytime movement habits.
Mature buck signposts found early in the season yet before the pre-rut phase were likely made during the security of darkness. If the signposts and other sign in the immediate area appear to be getting revisited the location should be considered for hunting during the pre-rut (October 28th through November 7th).
Does the signpost location offer adequate security cover for daytime activity?
So far I have yet to suggest setting up a hunting location at any signpost activity and there is a reason why. Unlike TV shows, videos, ranches, and managed properties where mature bucks move into short crop fields, food plots, and through open areas during daylight hours, in heavily hunted areas that luxury doesn’t exist and you just can’t successfully take mature bucks wherever their signposts happen to show up.
The locations of signpost activity are far and away more critical to their success rate than their usage factor. For signposts to get visited during daylight hours with any consistency, their location must offer transition and security cover.
The security cover requirement immediately eliminates the majority of mature buck signposts as hunting locations, because most of their signposting will be performed during the security of darkness. This fact takes the very common scrape and rubs activity in open areas and along perimeters of short crop fields out of the equation as daytime hunting locations. The only up side is it eliminates a lot of wasted hunting time at inferior locations.
Areas that generally offer some form of transition or security cover are; interiors of bedding areas, standing cornfields and tall weed fields that butt up to timber, creek or river bottoms, draws, weed lined ditches, saddles, and dry areas within cattail and tall grass marshes.
Other excellent areas of consideration would be mast or fruit trees that butt up to transition cover or are within a bedding area. Anytime there is a preferred food source falling from a tree there will likely be signposting near it because the food attracts does and all mature buck movements during the rut phases revolves around doe traffic.
In pressured areas and especially on public lands in areas with large surrounding populations, consider this. No matter how good a signposting area looks, if you can easily access it in an upright walking position, and there are other hunters hunting the same property, what would make you think you will not have company at that location?
When dealing with heavy competition, try scouting and setting-up on signpost locations with limited access where most other hunters are not willing to go, yet where mature deer feel secure being. Accessing these locations may require waders, hip boots, a canoe, boat, or crawling on your hands and knees through brush until you hit an opening. Aerial photos will aid dramatically in finding these locations, prior to scouting them.
Well over 50 percent of my bucks taken in Michigan were taken from small destination areas with multiple signposts located within some form of perimeter cover. Signposts are easy to find and if you hunt the right ones, in the right areas, during the right time of season, your success rate will climb.
To enrich your bowhunting skills John Eberhart produced a 3 volume instructional DVD series titled “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and an instructional archery DVD titled “Archery Mechanics” and co-authored with his son Chris the books “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and “Precision Bowhunting.” They are available at: www.deer-john.net or