Whitetail Secrets: Licking Branches
It’s no secret that whitetail deer use licking branches to communicate. However, it’s a little known fact that whitetail hunters can use licking branches to their own advantage. I have been using licking branches for years to attract and pattern big bucks. Read on to find out a little of what I’ve learned over the years.
It started in my own backyard more than 20 years ago as I watched BOTH bucks and does use the same licking branch all year long ....year after year. Over time the branch tip would break off and the deer would eventually have to stand on their hind legs to reach it. When I saw how strong the attraction was and their determination to continue using the branch, I began cutting licking branches in early summer and wiring them to low hanging branches in my hunting areas. To draw greater attention to the new licking branch sites, I would rake out the dirt from under the overhanging "licking" limb and scrape the bark off a few nearby saplings as if a buck was rubbing them. It's funny how the bucks would just accept that another buck was actively making the sign in the middle of summer!!!!
Not all of my sites were accepted, only about half, but that was several more known and active licking branches than I had before! With periodic maintenance, like lowering more branches or adding a new licking branch collected from outside the area to re-trigger the excitement, many of these sites have remained active for well over 10 years.
In the early days I'd hunted these sites by backing away from them at least 100 yards on an exit or entrance access trail and set up a stand. Hunting right on top of your licking branch site will kill them EVERY TIME, especially for big bucks! These early stand selections were made by the "best guess" method. Picking the spot based on rub lines, tracks, food sources and trails leading to and from the licking branch site. Sometimes I'd set up an observation stand first and watch the site and try to figure out what deer where using what trails and then move in on them. Trouble was that many times I wouldn't figure out that the best time to hunt a site was not in the morning, but instead the afternoon. This method could quickly stink up an area and sometimes bust a buck before I had him patterned. Remember, the odds are best at killing an experienced older buck the first time you hunt him.
Later, as good trail cameras became available, I found I could take an inventory of the bucks using these licking branch sites with much less disturbance. Since they use the licking branch to communicate with other deer in the area year round, I could scout all summer and develop a better plan for hunting them. Not only the stand sites themselves, but when to be in that particular stand for the greatest success on a certain buck.
I also learned to pay attention to details like not stinking up the licking branch site during summer camera scouting. Deer feel most comfortable if they feel that they are undetected in their living area. So, in order to keep my scent impact to a minimum when retrieving my SD Cards I now wait for a good summer rain storm to help wash down my scent. Trail cameras have also given me better information about when to retrieve those SD cards by knowing when deer are likely to be using the sites or not.
One of the most startling revelations I learned with cameras was of how many Big Bucks came by very early in the afternoons, or, late in the mid-mornings...even in 90 degree heat! Also, I discovered all too often that the entrance and exit trails I had been hunting using my old "best guess" methods where NOT the trails being used by some of the largest bucks. Big bucks, I have now learned, like to come in to these sites from a position that allows them to study the area from a distance before walking in. That natural observation spot is A GREAT spot for a bow hunting tree stand needless to say!
Last year I added a time-lapse video camera on these sites and learned even more about how bucks approach these sites. The body language by age class and status is remarkable! Big bucks swagger directly in with their head held somewhat high. They begin trashing and eye rubbing immediately without ground checking for scent until later in the process. They often attacked several different overhanging limbs, spending 5 or 10 minutes at the site. I also noticed that large bucks often defecated at the site throughout the year, but only seem to urinate (over their tarsal glands) in the rut while making scrapes. I also only witnessed this behavior during the pre-rut and seeking phases.
Between limb thrashings sessions, older bucks would often stop and listen carefully. I think that experience has taught them that the sounds of limb thrashing often attracts other bucks in the area. I have witnessed several sparring matches take place at these licking branch sites shortly after a buck had vigorously thrashed the over hung limbs. As a result, I often antler spar lightly and shake tree limbs in the early bow season with great success near licking branch sites. Soft contact calling (Ma-Mahs) and light single grunts are great producing calls at that time as well.
Young 1 1/2 year old bucks approach the licking branches with the least confidence. They stop and look and listen carefully before approaching the limb site. Body posture is often head low, almost slinking in. Once there, they first sniff the ground under the limb(s) and then the limb itself to see who has been there. Only then will they carefully eye rub the overhanging limb. The youngest bucks seem to also be careful not to rustle the limb leaves. I suspect they don't want to attract sparring attention from those bigger bucks that they have detected from the scent limb. The more confident 2 1/2 year old bucks show greater scenting aggression than 1 1/2 year olds, but some high ranking and more confident yearly bucks seem to get with the program the longer they are at the site. I can't say that I have ever witnessed a button head buck use the licking branch, though I suspect some do.
These licking branch sites of course become a prime scrape making sites as the rut approaches. During the seeking phase and especially on calm cool days in the pre-rut these licking branch sites can be an all day parade of buck and doe activity. However, as the seeking phase heats up, I've noticed that the does give the sites a wide birth and are extremely edgy when near them. Especially the older bucks seem to bed down within site of the licking branches during the late seeking and early chasing phases and will ambush any deer (buck or doe) that approaches the site. Young less experienced bucks seem to charge and chase every doe that comes by...which likely explains why does give these sites such a wide pass. A series of Doe Contact (Ma-Mah) calls can bring a buck out of the brush running straight at you with his head lowered in a tending posture and often grunting loudly at this time!
I had that exact experience in early November of 2009 here in Tennessee. I was playing with a young button buck in a food plot clearing, calling to him with soft grunts and "Ma-Mah" contact calls. He'd stop feeding and look up in my direction, wag his tail and go back to munching clover. I "Ma-Mah" called a couple of more times, when suddenly the little guy snapped to attention and looked hard to my left. I heard pounding hoofs and looked left to see a giant 12 point buck come charging past me grunting every step of the way. I swung my muzzle loader with him and at the "click" of the safety he paused at 25 yards providing a perfect broadside shot. At 162 7/8 inches he is the largest buck I had ever taken in Tennessee. Equally satisfying, was the fact that I had taken some fuzzy trail camera pictures of him at the licking branch site that summer. The branch was no more than 125 yards up the trail from where he appeared!
Last year, in 2010, I had eight different bucks working the same licking branch site the entire summer. The pictures revealed bucks ranged from several fork horns and basket racks, two nice 2 1/2 year old 7 and 8 point bucks, two good looking 120 class 3 1/2 year old bucks and one old sway belly stud with a 22 inch plus wide spread and ten long points. Camera recon on this buck showed that he never showed up in the mornings at all, but like clockwork he'd stroll through one hour before dark every afternoon.
I knew I had to make my move on him before the rut changed his patterns. So the afternoon of opening day of the Tennessee muzzle loader season I in climbed into my stand set back from the licking branch tree about 90 yards. I was testing out a new video camera man who had told me he had tons of experience. Beware of boastful camera men!!
At 4:15 sharp I caught movement in the brush behind the licking branch tree. The buck walked straight in to the limb, trashed and eye rubbed it, then turned and walked broadside down a trail less than 60 yards away. The whole time the hot shot cameraman hissed..." Where is he? Don't shoot until I can film him!! No..I don't see him! WHERE!!!!" ...until he vanished into the brush.
Several of the smaller bucks walked by that afternoon, but I never saw him again...ever. I heard later that a neighbor shot a high scoring 150 class ten point...the largest of his life. I can only hope that it was a different buck. Either way, the trail cameras hit the licking branch sites in June of 2011 and my buck inventory has begun for the coming season.
If you’re looking for a new trick this season, give licking branches a try. Good Hunting!!