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Of the many signs that male sambar leave in the bush, a rubbed tree is probably the most visual, and easily recognizable. Whether you are driving tracks, stalking up spurs or walking a river flat, there is every chance you will encounter multiple rubs of varying age. A fresh rub is something to start with, perhaps plan a hunt around and it will give you confidence that come the end of the day you just might have a heavy pack loaded with meat and a set of antlers to carry out. Finding rubs isn’t an assurance you will soon shoot a stag, more so it’s important information added to the memory bank and will be another small piece of the jigsaw puzzle the sambar hunter attempts to put together.
There is a lot of variation to the different trees and shrubs that sambar stags will rub and also a range of behavioral traits that will involve rubbing their antlers on trees. Hopefully this article will peel back a few more layers of detail in regards to rub trees and get sambar hunters thinking a bit more about how they can be used to their advantage when trying to locate deer.
What is a rub tree?
When sambar rub trees they run their antlers and course coronets up and down the outside of a tree, normally keeping their head at a level around chest height to the stag. Bark is shaved off the tree, falls to the ground at the base and the fresh layers of soft timber underneath are exposed. Often a stag will dig into the tree and prod it with his antlers and tines and there will be deep gauges and gash marks into the tree trunk above and below the main area of rubbing. If there are over hanging branches at a convenient height these will often be rubbed and sometimes broken off by the stags antlers, so the trunk isn’t the only area that can be targeted by a stag. When freshly scarred these trees are often easy to spot for the hunter who has a trained eye and it doesn’t take too much experience to work out the super fresh rubs from those that are days and weeks old.
What trees do stags rub?
Stag will target a very large range of trees and shrubs to rub or thrash. Sometimes it is the location of the tree that generates interest from stags and other times it is an isolated tree of a certain species that will draw stags passing by to rub their antlers.
Probably the most recognizable and easily noticed rub tree is the wild cherry. They just love visiting them. From bedding up under the canopy in heavy rain to browsing on new shoots to rubbing their antlers all over the trunk and overhanging branches, cherry trees are just a sambar magnet. The course bark from a cherry tree gives sambar antlers a splendid dark stain that will remain on the antlers for a long period of time. The same can be said for other species of pine and cypress found in the bush. One of the reasons why cherry and pine trees are so visual when you are in the bush is that they hold their rub marks for a long period of time. The fresh timber underneath is normally bright orange and shows up very well against the dark brown bark. Even rubs on cherry trees that are months old still have visual appeal and attraction to the hunter. They are relatively slow growing and the rate of growth from damaged bark reflects this. Sometimes cast antlers are found underneath cherry trees and they are a good location to put trail cameras on and probably even more so if they are isolated cherry trees in an area where there isn’t many others growing.
Other types of rub trees that sambar will work over are Snow Gums, Eucalypts, Wattles, Dogwood, Tea Tree, Stringybark and even Prickly Coprosma will get a working over. In fact most trees in sambar habitat are potential targets for their antlers, there isn’t that many they wont consider rubbing, but it has to be alive and generally not too large in diameter.
Why do stags rub trees?
There are a few reasons as to why a sambar stag will rub a living tree, it’s all cyclic, and will follow a similar pattern each year throughout his life.
After a stag cast his antlers, he will spend the next 4.5 months consumed with maximizing diet intake, living as stress free as possible, conserving body reserves at every opportunity, and growing the largest set of antlers he is capable of under the conditions he is living. Once the antler growth is finished, blood vessels dry up, antlers harden, tips start to poke through and the stag simply wants to get rid of the velvet as quickly and efficiently as he can. The best way for him is to find saplings and light shrubs to assist with this. The smaller flexible saplings are ideal as a stag can manipulate the thin branches into his antlers and work all the areas. Leaves, twigs, and bark will all help him remove velvet and often the stag will bend over the sapling and work it up and down.
When a sambar stag strips his velvet he wants to stain and color up his antlers as soon as possible. Obviously darker antlers look more imposing and impressive to other stags and females, and stags will want to rub trees that achieve this task. Wattles, pines and cherry trees certainly color up the antlers and they are but a few of the trees that are targeted for this purpose.
Thrashing bushes to impress a cycling hind is another reason stags will attack trees. Often when a hind is cycling or about to, a stag who is courting her will do all he can to impress the female. He will get quite vigorous with his tree rubbing, twirling, breaking of branches and sometimes even have grass or limbs stuck in his antlers for a short period of time. He is obviously letting the hind know that in his eyes he is the king of the valley and that she should be receptive towards any advances he makes. These types of rubs will be random in nature and location.
Often an older mature stag mating with a hind will have a younger 3-5 year old stag nearby and the aggressive display towards shrubs and trees will help make the potential challenge have second thoughts about any sneaky ideas. Its great to observe stags behavior when in this frame of mind and you can learn a lot from staying off the trigger and watching undisturbed sambar interacting when they are mating. The body posturing and visual signs that both the male and the female give off are experiences that can’t be compared to.
Often when you find stag beds up high, there will be a couple of trees nearby or right next to the bed that show signs of repeated attention from stags antlers. Sometimes a stag will just feel like rubbing a tree and other times he might do it because a hind is bedded with him and he has to impress. Rubs next to beds will give you confirmation the bedding area is being visited by male sambar and it should be noted for future hunts in the area.
When stags rub trees they leave scent on the bark and twigs and this is another form of sign posting to let other stags and hinds know they are in the area. This sign posting can be found in many areas across a wide range of sambar country, pretty much anywhere sambar will live really. It might be a single tree in a paddock just out from the bush edge, a row of saplings along a river flat or it could be a tree strategically located on a low saddle dividing a couple of systems. All these types of locations and many others are chosen because the stags want to let other deer know of their presence. Often these trees are used repeatedly over the years by many different stags of all age classes.
Evaluating rub trees
Some older experienced hunters have prided themselves on being able to judge approximate antler lengths by evaluating the rubs marks left behind on a tree. It is possible that well rubbed trees can give you an indication of the length of antler, but I am not sure it is a very reliable method to use. If the tree trunk has soft bark you can look at the marks left behind by the coronet and then assess the top marks of the rub and get an idea of approximate length. Another reason is that it’s very hard to know which stag has rubbed what trees if you happen to shoot a stag in a system. The exception will be if you can track him from the tree or if hounds can be started on the mark. There will normally be multiple stags across a wide range of ages in any given valley and it is impossible to correlate stags to certain rub trees. The only way you can accurately guestimate the length of a stags antler from its rub is to have trail cameras set up on rub trees and monitor the different stags coming and going and the marks they are leaving behind.
Stags will vary their rubbing intensity and method depending on many factors. A stag might walk past a tree and lightly run his antlers up it a few times then keep travelling leaving a few shallow marks across the trunk. Other times that same stag might really attack the tree with big sweeping strikes and spend a lot more time and energy on it so the same stags rubbing can look entirely different and vary greatly.
Something a few hunters often say about rub trees is that young stags generally won’t leave big massive rubs on trees of any description, but big old mature stags can and do leave smaller rubs that many hunters might dismiss as being a younger animal. Just because the rub is small, or short in length doesn’t mean the animal that made it was a young stag.
How old is that rub tree?
Sometimes it is hard to judge the age of a rub. All trees vary with how quick they grow and how fast their bark will cover back up any antler marks. Look for any bark shavings on the ground at the base of the tree. Pick them up and smell them, can you smell a stag, are they dry and brittle or are they still soft and hold the scent of the tree. Sunlight, wind and temperatures can all have an effect on the shavings and antler marks left by a stag on the tree. It can be hard to separate hours from days with a rub, but most hunters should be able to figure out days from weeks in regards to timeframes. And after a while the red hot fresh rubs made within 24 hours become recognizable and these are probably the rubs that are best to find in regards to the likelihood of a stag being nearby.
Maybe there are droppings to check out or a preach tree around the hill to look at the marks and pretty soon you should be able to figure out how recent that stag was in the area. One way of checking antler marks in a tree is to grab a strong sharp stick, or your hunting knife and rake the tree with a couple of strikes. You can compare this to the recent rub and see how closely it matches up in terms of appearance and freshness.
If there are broken branches on the ground from where a stag has thrashed a tree then looking at how fresh these branches are will soon tell you how long ago the stag was in the area.
Pretty much any rub that isn’t within a few days old is nothing more then a notable sign that a stag is in hard antler and has previously been in the area. The stag very well might remain close, but as he will be in hard antler, he could also be a few gullies away with hinds firmly on his mind.
If you are new to deer hunting, a way you can learn about the effects of climate on rubs is to take pictures of rubs in the areas you are hunting. Then when you are back take pictures again of the same rub and store them away on a file. Even the following year take pictures, this will be a good exercise and so long as stags haven’t rubbed the tree in the meantime you should be able to get an idea of how the different types of trees recover after being rubbed.
After a while most hunters will probably end up classifying rubs into three categories, red hot, fresh and old. This keeps it simple and easy to understand.
Hunt tactics and rub trees
A good tactic the hunter can keep in the back of his mind when glassing or bush stalking is to listen for trees being rubbed or watching for swaying saplings and smaller shrubs. There is a very good chance if you are hunting and there is no wind and see a tree shaking erratically that a sambar stag is at the base of it working his antlers. Depending on the terrain and what he is likely to be doing you can either wait for an opportunity to get a look at him or head on in and check him out whilst he is preoccupied. Always be on the look out for other deer nearby when getting in close to a stag that is thrashing bushes and if the bush is thick, cover ground fast while he is rubbing and slow down when he has paused.
If I am hunting farm fringe and in an area I know deer are frequenting paddock edges and I see a row of fresh rubs on the bush edge there is a good chance that a stag is coming out onto the paddocks. And it is quite possible he will be close by any females that step out so be patient if you waiting of an evening and see hinds and calves feeding out. Wait until very last light before moving off and if he hasn’t stepped out in daylight, get back in there again as soon as possible as it will only be a matter of time before he walks out if the hinds are feeding during daylight hours.
If you see a series of fresh rubs on a river flat with a game trail leading up the hill you can assume a stag is somewhere above the flat and it would be worth planning a hunt to see if you can get eyes on him. Maybe you can get a look at one of his prints to gauge body weight and get a rough idea of his age and also the freshness of his print and rob. Following marks will also let you see if other deer are with him. These factors will all add up to help you decide whether you sit back and wait on the clearing, climb the opposite ridge and glass across or head on up when the wind is favourable and try to bush stalk him at the right time of the day.
There is nothing better then finding a few fresh rubs in the bush, so keep an open mind when you come across them, give them a bit more thought then a passing glance and maybe you can work them into your hunt plan. Always remember to be safe in the bush, identify your target and most importantly just enjoy each day hunting those magnificent sambar deer.