Forget everything you thought you knew about scrapes.
The bare spot on the old logging road wasn’t there yesterday. A closer look revealed a healthy track in the fresh dirt and a few shiny, dull-green pellets. The low-hanging branches above the clearing had been stripped bare, and the tips of the limbs had been whittled down to frayed nubs. It was a big scrape, and I couldn’t help thinking, There’s a buck in the neighborhood and he’s on the prowl.
But was that the case?
Much of what we believe about scrapes is based on little more than innuendo. Science, however, has a way of dashing some of our most popular beliefs, including what we thought we knew about whitetail scrapes and scrape activity.
We know scrapes are made by bucks as a way to communicate with other whitetails. A scrape is a calling card, of sorts. But exactly what deer are trying to tell each other is still a mystery
“We certainly can’t read a deer’s mind,” said David Moreland, who served as the deer program manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries until he retired in 2007. “We can make some assumptions based on what we know, however.
Biologists and hunters know that most of what goes on at a scrape involves scent. Bucks not only urinate in the bare ground, they sometimes defecate in it, too. The glands between their toes also leave scent as they work the ground, which might be one reason new deer visiting a scrape paw the dirt. Does urinate and defecate in scrapes, but what that means is also a mystery
“Some research indicates that buck urine can trigger estrus in a doe, but a doe urinating in a scrape does not mean she is receptive,” Moreland said
Bucks and does also rub scent from glands on their forehead, around their eyes and from saliva on limbs above the scrape. Known as a licking branch, it also serves as a communication method through scent.
“I’ve seen deer licking branches in the summer, so this isn’t just a breeding-related communication method,” Moreland added.
Should You Hunt It?
There’s no question scrape and licking activity peaks in the fall. For years, deer hunters believed all scrapes were made by a dominant buck and that does would urinate in the scrape to signal their receptiveness. That’s why hunters often climb the nearest tree to wait for a buck to return. Sometimes they do, but we now know that’s mostly a matter of chance. Sitting over a fresh scrape is anything but a slam dunk.
As a graduate student at the University of Georgia, Dr. Karen Waldrop led a 2-year study that used remote motion-sensor video cameras placed over active scrapes and known scrape sites that had not yet been refreshed. Her research took place on a 3,460-acre private property in Georgia under intense quality deer management practices. It had a high buck-to-doe ratio, as well as a good age ratio among the property’s bucks.
Who Visits Scrapes?
Waldrops’s results might be disappointing to hunters who put stock in scrapes. Eighty-five percent of all scrape activity occurred at night. Other research shows even less frequent visits during legal shooting hours. What’s more, overall visits were somewhat rare, and nearly twice as many does visited the scrapes as bucks. In all, Waldrop recorded 562 visits, which worked out to 31 visits per scrape per season, or just five visits during daytime hours per scrape per season.
“Some scrapes had almost no visits,” she said. “We recorded a total of 74 visits by yearlings and 61 by bucks 2½ years old or older.”
Data indicated location did not play a role in scrape activity, either. Waldrop, who now serves as the deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, monitored scrapes on field edges and in mature woods.
Moreland also conducted camera surveys on scrapes and found similar activity, although he did see somewhat more daytime activity on his Louisiana study sites. He placed cameras on inactive scrapes well before the breeding season to find out when bucks freshened the previous year’s scrapes. He and Waldrop agree some scrapes are like rubs: bucks use them year after year. She found 80 percent of the scrapes from the previous year were used again.
There was no correlation to the size of a scrape and the size of the bucks using it. Nor was there anything to indicate the amount of use based on a scrape’s size. However, Waldrop determined that older bucks were more likely than younger bucks to mark the scrape site, either by licking the overhanging branches or by pawing the ground. Don’t put too much stock into that, though, because mature bucks rarely visited a scrape site, and many never marked the site at all.
What’s more, there was no evidence in Waldrop’s study that bucks ran a scrape line, a term hunters have used for years that assumes a buck checks several scrapes in an area within a single short time period. On the contrary, there seemed to be no distinguishable pattern to any of the scrape activity.
“We also had cameras on three scrapes that were fairly close together along a field edge,” Waldrop said. “I perceived it to be a scrape line, and I expected to see the same bucks visit all three as if they were running a scrape line. That wasn’t the case. There was no pattern to which deer visited scrapes.”
What’s more, no distinct age class of buck visited scrapes more than others, but it seems clear mature bucks have no particular propensity to use them. In fact, yearling bucks and 2½-year-olds were more likely to visit scrapes than mature bucks. Waldrop captured only a few bucks estimated to be 3½ years old or older on a camera over a scrape, despite a high proportion of mature bucks on the property.
“They were either avoiding them because of the equipment, or they were simply checking them from downwind without actually visiting them,” Waldrop said. “Human activity around the monitored scrapes occurred only every one to two weeks, so I don’t think that was it.”
More likely, older bucks were simply wind-checking the scrapes to see who visited them since the last time they passed by. Waldrop noted plenty of mature bucks were killed on the research site, and several were killed within close proximity of the scrape. That could mean your best chance of tagging a mature buck isn’t directly over a scrape, but some distance downwind.
Hunting pressure might have something to do with that caution, too, but it likely wasn’t a factor in Waldrop’s study.
“Hunting pressure was very light on our study site,” she said.
That’s not to say you can’t shoot a big buck by sitting over a scrape. Moreland did see mature bucks visiting scrapes often enough to justify spending time in a tree overlooking one, but older bucks weren’t the only ones visiting individual scrapes, no matter which deer made the initial scrape. As many as 13 bucks visited individual scrapes in Waldrop’s study, although there seemed to be no discernible factors that made one more attractive to deer.
“There’s no doubt bucks keyed in on certain scrapes. I thought location might have something to do with the amount of activity at a scrape, but that did not seem to be the case,” she said. “I can’t say why one was more active than another. It could have to do with food sources or the location of does, which are normally around food sources.”
Timing, however, is everything. Moreland found that bucks started scraping activity well before the rut. Those early scrapes we often see during the October bow season appear to be random and have no known purpose other than to serve as a one-time communication.
“Bucks would open an older scrape or make a new one a month or more before breeding and then never revisit it,” Moreland said. “I’m sure there’s a reason bucks make them well in advance of the rut, but I’m not sure why they do. Based on my observations, I tell hunters they shouldn’t put much effort into pre-rut scrapes because there is little chance a buck will come back to them.”
Activity was highest in his camera surveys a week before the peak breeding season. Waldrop also found a peak activity period, but there was not a statistically significant difference throughout October or November. About 70 percent of the activity was during a month-long period prior to the rut, with a slightly higher amount of activity the third week in October. The differences could have been influenced by their locations — Moreland is in Louisiana, while Waldrop did her study in Georgia — or by weather or some unknown factor.
Both found that once the actual breeding season began — that period when we see bucks actively pursuing does — scrape visits by both bucks and does dropped to nearly nothing. Moreland said there’s really no point in watching a scrape during the chase phase, other than you’ll be in the woods at one of the best times.
Waldrop agrees and says hunters shouldn’t put too much stock in the presence of scrapes, no matter how large or how fresh. All ages of bucks will use them, but the odds of a mature buck using a scrape when you are watching are is pretty low.
“I would concentrate on travel corridors between feeding and bedding areas instead of directly over scrapes,” she said. “There is too much uncertainty related to scrapes to say a particular one is a good place to see a buck.”
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