Deer Hunting: The Real Dirt on Scrapes

Let’s say I was visiting my hometown and wanted to find a certain guy, my unrequited crush from high school. I wondered what he’d look like now, where he spent most of his time, and more importantly, was he with someone?

I grabbed a slice at a pizza place, where I didn’t see anyone I knew, and had the same result the next evening at a Chinese restaurant. But the next morning, I took a counter seat at the neighborhood coffee shop, where I learned everything about everybody.

In fact, I figured if I frequented that coffee shop, odds were that I’d soon see my crush. In fact, sooner or later I’d see everybody in town and I might even see a new guy, even better than the guy I sought.

I hope you know where I’m going with this. The pizza place and the Chinese restaurant are akin to secondary scrapes. The local coffee shop, well, that’s the primary scrape, where everybody learns everybody else’s business.

As you plan your strategy for hunting season, here’s a key thing to remember: the coffee shop is routinely visited year-round. The pizza place and Chinese restaurant aren’t visited as often; in fact, a visit to those places may be a one-time deal.

“A mature buck can make in excess of 200 scrapes a year, and several studies have shown that we’re lucky if the buck consistently reworks a dozen of them — the remaining 188 scrapes fall into the ‘random’ category,” said Steve Bartylla in his book “Advanced Stand-hunting Strategies.” “In short, random scrapes make up the vast majority of scrapes found in the woods, but are all but worthless to hunt. Once made, they’re rarely looked at again.”

How Deer Use Scrapes
The old belief that a primary scrape is “controlled” by the area’s dominant buck has been thrown out the window by lots of research. In fact, to sum up the research, scrapes are visited by all ages of deer and serve as a communal property for a number of reasons.

Every scrape should have a licking branch, which is a key part of deer communication.

Another common belief was that deer always scraped at the scrape, which is not true, according to research.

“Half the bucks that come to scrapes don’t do a thing,” wrote Dr. Dave Samuel and Robert Zaiglin in “Whitetail Advantage.” “Two common behaviors are marking the overhanging limb and rub-urination.”

Both bucks and does perform rub-urination — bringing the knee joints of the back legs together and urinating over the tarsal gland. This behavior is done throughout the year, but most often the week prior to the rut.

“The key is that rub-urination in bucks is tied to his testosterone levels and the doe’s estrogen levels,” Dr. Samuel and Zaiglin continue in “Whitetail Advantage.” “It is most prominently done by bucks just prior to the peak of the rut.”

In all of the research, game cameras are positioned at scrapes and deer identified. Their visits are noted and counted. At first glance, it would seem disheartening to those of us who are tempted to hunt scrapes — the majority of the older bucks never visited the scrape more than once or twice.

There’s a reason for that. The scenting ability of the whitetail is so amazingly good that those older bucks have learned they don’t need to bother with all that scraping and urination in the scrapes. In fact, they ARE “visiting” the scrape, by making a scent check at a distance.

Go back to the coffee shop analogy. You know how it is when you hit your local spot. You know who’s there from the vehicles in the parking lot. If you’re looking for a certain person, you don’t need to go inside.

While taking extreme care with scent control, hunters can successfully move a licking branch.

 

“When selecting a tree, I look for the one best suited to hide me, that just happens to sit about 20 yards on the prevailing downwind side of the scrape,” Bartylla advised in “Advanced Stand-Hunting Strategies.” “This placement allows me to shoot to the scrape, as well as catch bucks that are scent-checking it from as far as 50 yards downwind of the scrape.”

Of Supreme Importance: The Overhanging Branch

Bucks rub their pre-orbital (eye)/forehead gland on the overhanging branch. Does smell and/or lick the overhanging branch, but do not rub the branch with their pre-orbital gland. The new thinking is that the does, by licking the branch, may be depositing or detecting pheromones on the overhanging limb.

What’s the bottom line? There will be no scrape without an overhanging branch.

And more — if the branch is removed or just wears out to the point it is unusable, the scrape activity will be abandoned.

Make a Mock Scrape
“You’re not a real hunter until you’ve started your own scrape,” I joked to my neighbor, Sheila, who I’d gotten into archery hunting. I had just met her at the bottom of her tree stand ladder, so that we’d walk out of the woods together — she was still a little nervous about moving around in the dark forest.

I’d had a nature call, and stepped behind some cover. With my rubber boots, I cleared a spot on the forest floor and “answered” the nature call. On our next hunting trip, I walked Sheila to the same stand in the morning darkness, and returned late morning to meet her and end the hunt.

Sheila couldn’t wait to show me what had happened. Deer had found my “scrape” and had torn up the spot with fresh activity.

Deer visit the licking branches throughout the year, but only open and use scrapes as the breeding season approaches and arrives.

Huh? I couldn’t believe it, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. In 1998, researchers Dr. James Kroll and Ben Koerth made four mock scrapes and set up game cameras on each of them. One scrape had no scent, one had rutting buck urine, one had doe-in-heat urine, and the fourth had human urine. The scrapes with buck urine and human urine were visited the most frequently, but the scrapes with doe urine and no scent weren’t far behind. Bucks and does of all ages visited all the scrapes.

There are lots of things to learn from this study. Deer are visually attracted to scrapes by the sight of a bare spot on the forest floor. Deer aren’t spooked by human urine. Deer are curious about changes — the same researches did the study again, putting “new car scent” in one of the scrapes and deer visited that scrape just as often.

It is a good strategy to make a mock scrape every time we hunt a tree stand. In fact, you can really jazz up the game by making a mock scrape near the primary scrape you’re hunting.

“About five days before you intend on hunting a primary scrape, introduce a mock scrape juiced with dominant buck urine,” Bartylla wrote. “Doing so sends the message that a heavy hitter has entered the area and is intent on stealing the big guy’s does.

“Spraying some estrous scent in the mock scrape gives him another nudge towards the edge — now he not only has to contend with a new buck, but there’s a hot doe in the stranger’s scrape! This can’t be tolerated.”

Thinking ‘Outside The Scrape’
There were two huge things I didn’t know about scrapes.

1) The licking branch is used year-round.

2) You can move the licking branch. OMG! You can move the licking branch!

Being able to move the licking branch really opens up opportunities for hunting scrapes. Existing primary scrapes are often located in an “unhuntable” spot, selected by deer for its safety factor and proximity to travel corridors. But when we scout, we find that there aren’t any decent trees, or that the prevailing wind will be wrong for hunting it.

A trapper from the mountains of West Virginia, Dave “Smokey” McNichols, has long known the value of gland lures, the mainstay of trappers. Since the 1970s, he’s been making his own gland lure for trapping coyotes, fox and raccoon.

Also back in the 1970s, he found a way to extract lure from a deer’s pre-orbital gland. He began to experiment with application to the existing licking branch, and then expanded his experiment to moving the existing licking branch, or making a new licking branch.

Deer have a number of glands; the inter-digital, tarsal and pre-orbital. Of these, McNichols believes the pre-orbital is the most important.

“I found that the best licking branches are maple, apple, young oak — depending on where you live in the country and what’s available, something about as big around as your pinky with leaves,” McNichols said. “It’s got to have a sturdy base, but supple and leafy, brushy on the end, and set it up so that it’s about shoulder high, where a deer can work it with its head up.

“Deer use the licking branches year-round, but don’t open up the scrape until the bucks’ testosterone level comes up,” he added. “When you find a scrape early, that’s a good sign that there’s a mature buck in the area.”

Moving a Licking Branch May Work
McNichols has moved an existing licking branch as far as 100 yards, to make a new scrape in a hunting area. The deer miss their “message board” and it doesn’t take them long to find the licking branch in the new location.

“Since the branch is used all year, deer know each other,” he said. “Then, you introduce a new guy and it’s like a dog on a fire hydrant, with each deer wanting to replace the scent with its own.

Scrapes are sometimes located in “unhuntable” areas, but hunters may move the licking branch and establish a new scrape.

 

“A male deer and a male coyote have a lot of similarities that way,” McNichols added. “They are well aware of just about every animal of their species in their range, and on alert to detect newcomers.”

Each bottle of the lure is a different buck. It’s applied with a dropper, just a small amount at a time, each time you visit the scrape or hunt the scrape.

“After about a week to 10 days, just what I’ve seen, you have much more daytime activity at the scrape,” he said. “I’m a scrape hunter, because number one, I’m hunting a buck, and I feel that every time I hunt it, I have a better chance of connecting.”

Hunters who target scrapes have to accept that it’s going to be a waiting game. Be super vigilant about scent control, especially when applying gland lure on the licking branch. On a well-used licking branch, which has become “rough” on the end (leaves knocked away), McNichols has hung felt wicks and even a short length of soft cotton rope, and applied the gland lure to the wicks or rope.

“I like to start using the lure before the season, even August and September, but a buck’s antlers may be tender then,” McNichols explained. “But I want to increase activity at the scrape so I make the licking branch more attractive.”

McNichols said that starting the scent attraction process in late summer and/or early fall will give hunters a jump on the season. If the licking branch has been stripped bare, he uses a hand tool to crush an inch or two of the end of a branch, and applies just a couple drops to get the game started.

“I have a passion for the outdoors, I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors — this is what I do,” he said. “Deer hunting is a mix of using sound, smell and sight, and using a gland lure and experimenting with the licking branches is just another tool for hunters.”

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