Joe Cannella is an avid deer hunter, but he has forsaken the regular firearms deer season in recent years.

Instead, armed with a replica of an 1840s Great Plains rifle, he now hunts the 16-day muzzleloader season, which opens Saturday in Minnesota.

"You pretty much have the woods to yourself," said Cannella, 43, of Grand Rapids. It's far different from the regular firearms season, when about 450,000 deer hunters flood the landscape.

"The woods go back to being very quiet; I just really enjoy it," he said.

But Cannella isn't alone out there. Ten years ago, Minnesota counted about 12,000 muzzleloader hunters. Two years ago, nearly 65,000 were out there. The number fell a tad last year, to 63,000.

The popularity grew after the Department of Natural Resources allowed hunters to be afield in the regular firearms and the muzzleloader (and archery) seasons. (They can kill only one buck per season, regardless of how many different ways they hunt.)

The growth in muzzleloader hunting -- just 1,000 hunted in 1977 during the first muzzleloader season -- appears to have tapered off.

"I think the last couple of years, we've flattened out,'' said Lou Cornicelli, DNR big game coordinator.

An intense moment

But the allure of muzzleloader hunting remains strong.

"It's a different type of hunting experience," said Cornicelli, who hunts with a muzzleloader. "It's usually frozen, so you can get into areas you normally couldn't get to. Deer pattern more around food, meaning they can be a little more predictable."

And for deer hunters who just can't get enough, it extends their season another 16 days.

There are drawbacks. It's generally colder.

"And without a doubt, the deer have been picked over,'' Cornicelli said. "There'll be almost 200,000 deer dead by the time the muzzleloader season opens.''

That doesn't deter muzzleloader hunters.

"I'm at a point where it's all about how I get a deer, rather than if I get a deer,'' Cannella said. "Everyone has a different reason why they deer hunt. I want to challenge myself.''

Cannella shoots a traditional .50 caliber Lyman Great Plains side-lock muzzleloader, putting black powder down the barrel, then using a ramrod to insert the round ball bullet. Though his target usually is less than 50 yards away, he has to cock the gun's hammer -- which creates an audible "click'' -- just before he pulls the trigger.

A disadvantage, but part of the thrill.

"When you hunt with something like that, it's like stepping back in time,'' he said. "It's one shot. It's an intense moment. That's the allure for me.''

Last year, his group of seven muzzleloader hunters shot five deer.

Meanwhile, Cannella doesn't sit home during the regular firearms season. He mentors his 10- and 14-year-old daughters, both of whom bagged deer this season.

Scopes an issue

Technology, of course, has changed muzzleloaders since the days of Davy Crockett.

Cannella's longest kill with a muzzleloader was at 70 yards, but more modern in-line muzzleloaders can be accurate beyond 100 yards. Some purists question whether they remain "primitive'' firearms. But as long as hunters have to use open sights, accuracy will remain limited.

One of the biggest issues is whether to allow scopes on muzzleloaders, which would improve their accuracy. For the first time, Wisconsin hunters this fall will be able to use scopes during the muzzleloader season Monday to Dec. 8. Minnesota legislators debated a bill last session that would have allowed scopes but didn't pass it.

"We don't have a position on it,'' Cornicelli said.

DNR officials have said that allowing scopes likely would increase the muzzleloader deer harvest, which would require adjustments to other deer hunting regulations.

The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association corporate board has supported allowing scopes on muzzleloaders, partly because it would help aging hunters see their target better, said Mark Johnson, executive director of the group. But opinion is divided even among members.

Cannella, development director for the MDHA, finds himself on the other side of the issue, concerned that technological advances could eventually make a special muzzleloader season moot.

But starting Saturday, he'll be out in the frozen woods with his black-powder rifle, stalking deer.

"It's a great sport, it really is,'' he said.

Doug Smith •