Even though a buck may spend most of the year in a square mile area, he can fail to leave traditional sign for any number of reasons. Farms grazed by cattle tend to show less deer sign than unpastured woods. Just the existence of the cattle seems to deter bucks from scraping and rubbing. Rarely do I find as much buck sign in pastured woods as in unpastured woods, even if they are adjoining and the same bucks routinely travel through both.
Secondly, cattle obliterate deer trails and even scrapes, and unless there are a high number of deer on the property, or the cattle have been removed, chances are you'll have a hard time even finding tracks.
Sometimes bucks leave little sign for other reasons. I remember one farm in particular that I knew harbored good deer numbers but never showed much buck sign. My scouting turned up nothing obvious. Out of curiosity, I put up a stand overlooking a big CRP field that was located right in the middle of this area, a half-mile from the nearest road. I was shocked to see three giant bucks come out on the field that afternoon, any one of which had the maturity and antler size to shred big trees. Why they didn't rub or scrape is still something of a mystery, but I've also seen it other times since.
Deer biologists offer several theories when trying to explain this odd behavior. Dr. Grant Woods, for example, suggests that the presence of fully mature bucks that hold tight reign over the dominance hierarchy will suppress rutting activity in younger bucks. He concludes by saying this is very good for the overall health of the younger bucks because they don't participate as actively in the rut and therefore don't get as run down heading into winter.
Another theory suggests that some bucks are genetically disinclined to rub and scrape. In isolated pockets, this trait may prevail for several generations until this "sign-less" behavior becomes standard operating procedure for all the bucks.
Buck-to-doe ratios also affect the amount of buck sign present in a specific area. The intensity of the rut diminishes (as does rut-related behavior such as rubbing and scraping) when does greatly outnumber bucks.
Without competition, bucks can simply go from doe to doe without engaging in traditional marking and sign posting behavior.
I noticed this tendency while hunting in north-central Michigan several years back. Though there were many deer, the buck-to-doe ratio was eight or ten does for each buck. It was rare that I saw even a small rub, let alone rub lines and scrape lines. In this heavily hunted population, most the bucks were only 1 1/2 years old, which also may have contributed to the lack of buck sign.
Finally, sign may not be present in the area you plan to hunt simply because there aren't very many bucks. Given the abundance of deer in most traditional deer states, this is usually not the case. However, if the property is heavily hunted, or if outside disturbances such as deer-chasing dogs or timber cutting operations have moved the deer out, you may notice a definite lack of sign. This is a totally different situation, however. I don't have any strategies that will help you shoot a buck where they don't exist.
"NO SIGN" STRATEGIES FOR BUCKS
Rather than worry about why the bucks in your hunting area may not leave as much rut sign as they do in other areas, you first need to make sure you don't fall into the final category of hunting areas with few bucks. Even if they don't scrape or rub, they can't avoid being seen in their feeding areas. Spend a couple of evenings watching good feeding areas and you will know quickly enough if your hunting area has bucks. As long as you know you have bucks to hunt, you really don't need sign. I hardly even look at it anymore.
Now, I'll assume the area you hunt has enough bucks to make it worth your time, but for some reason they aren't leaving enough sign to help you pinpoint the best stand locations. Here is a list of all the resources at your disposal and how to use them.
Talk to the landowner: There is no better form of information than actually seeing bucks moving naturally. You don't need sign to turn sightings into venison. I've since learned that when the farmer says, "I always see them crossing over by that old combine," I get my backside over there immediately and put up a stand. I don't pretend to know more than the farmer who is there every single day. Part of successful buck hunting is knowing when to trust your own woodsmanship and when to swallow your pride and accept the help of others.
Some serious deer hunters feel that if they didn't actually unravel the buck's patterns themselves, they didn't deserve the trophy. Believe me, mature bucks are so hard to kill legally that I'll never let my pride get in the way again. I'll take any help I can get.
Go one-step farther and ask the farmer or local landowner to tell you about every buck sighting — especially if the buck has a decent rack. Where do they see them? When? Ask them to call you at home if they see a big buck. Check with them often because they may forget to call or simply not want to take the time. The information they have to offer is invaluable.
Study the cover: Even during the rut, when bucks are really on the move, they don't like to cross open ground. Simply by knowing where they don't like to go makes it a lot easier to figure out where they will go. Any piece of cover — no matter how thin - that connects two larger blocks of timber is a sure-fire hotspot - sign or no sign. I hunted a spot like this, it was just a brushy fence line crossing an open bottom between two wooded hillsides, a few years back. There was only one scrape along the entire 300-yard length of the fence line cover. The first evening I sat in the stand I saw four nice bucks and shot the biggest of the four. Fence lines are awesome stand locations during the rut — cover or no cover.
Since the bucks that use these corridors generally have a destination in mind, they are moving quickly and aren't likely to take extra time to leave sign. So, even in areas where the local bucks are prone to scrape and rub, these corridors may not jump right out and grab your attention unless you know what you are looking for.
One of my favorite stands is another good example. It is located in narrow section of a half-mile finger of trees and underbrush. Even though there are always good numbers of bucks in the area, there is never much sign in this finger. But when the rut starts, bucks travel this narrow corridor continuously. I've seen as many as 11 different bucks walk along that brush line in one morning and nary a scrape or rub.
Terrain features: When hunting areas with limited sign, you have to take full advantage of what you know about how terrain influences buck movement.
You will have to play some hunches and prove or disprove them as you go. Bucks like to keep a low profile while traveling and they will use any dip or wrinkle in the topography that will hide them.
Knowing that bucks generally avoid skylining themselves on ridge tops is the simple clue that helped me place the stand my friend used to arrow the big ten pointer discussed earlier. The stand was about 50 yards from the top of the broad ridge. I reasoned that any bucks traveling along the ridge would prefer the relative security of the side hill to the ridge top itself.
This pattern has proved itself many times since, as bucks most often travel about 1/4 of the way down a slop rather than right on top. Sometimes you'll find a rub or two to help you find this subtle travel route, but don't pin your hopes on it. Sign or no sign, this side hill pattern is a proven winner.
TAKING ADVANTAGE OF YOUR RESOURCES
Visual scouting: Several seasons back I tagged a big eight pointer after watching several does and a slightly smaller buck cross an open field on two straight days. I knew there were some nice bucks in the area, but there wasn't enough sign present to figure out any kind of pattern. Instead, I set up my stand in a location where I could watch plenty of ground. With the rut in full swing, it was just a matter of pinning down doe movement patterns, setting my stand closer and waiting for a buck to follow them.
Two days after I moved the stand into position, I had the big boy in my sights at 25 yards. Actual observation is the very best way to determine stand sites when bucks aren't leaving any sign.
It is tempting to focus only on bucks when looking for deer patterns, but the does are just as valuable during the rut. Obviously, the bucks are looking for does. Prior to the rut, it is a different story. Bucks are somewhat patternable early in the season, so at that time it pays to focus exclusively on buck sightings. If a buck travels a certain way don't wait around, move your stand into position to cover the travel route he was using.
There is probably a reason why he used it in the first place, and that means he (or another like him) is likely to do it again.
Post-season scouting: After the season, but before spring green-up, you can gain a big picture view of the terrain and cover in your hunting area. With no distractions, you can spend as much time as needed to determine the subtle elements of terrain and cover that influence buck movement.
Post-season is also a great time to study road crossings and deer trails on neighboring farms (with permission, of course). Determine whether or not the lack of sign encountered during the season was due to low deer densities or other factors. Tracks are very important sign, and though less visible than rubs and scrapes, they actually contain more information. While bucks may not scrape or rub in your hunting area, they can't walk without leaving tracks. The existence of even a few sets of magnum tracks is enough to let you know the area is worth hunting.
Maps and photos: Topographical maps show variations in terrain while aerial photos reveal the amount and location of cover. Both of these resources offer a very worthwhile short cut to your scouting efforts and will reveal terrain and cover related travel routes that you might have walked right past when scouting. All of the bucks I've shot in recent seasons have come as a direct result of time spent studying maps and photos.
In the majority of cases, I picked out the stand site before I even scouted the area, with absolutely no thought given to deer sign.
When it comes to picking the best trees for your stands, buck sign may actually be one of the least important factors. If you don't find it, don't worry. When the terrain and cover suggest that your stand should be in a certain place, have faith and go with it. Some of the best stands I've ever hunted don't overlook buck sign.