In places like greater Rice County, an area mixed with farm fields and woods, the muzzleloader season for deer is more than an afterthought.
Gunsmith Bruce Velzke of Ahlman’s gun store 10 miles southwest of Faribault estimates that as many as 25 percent of those who gun hunt in the region own a muzzleloader. In years like this one, when the corn harvest is late and whitetails take refuge in the fields during the regular firearms season, muzzleloader season takes on added importance.
“It’s a significant crowd,” Velzke said. “They go out when they don’t get a deer in the regular season.”
Under a new law and much to the consternation of black-powder traditionalists, muzzleloader hunters this year will have an added reason to join the special hunt: Scopes are legal for everyone. The 16-day season opens next Saturday with improved accuracy.
“As a hunter, I think it’s going to be great,” said Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research manager for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and longtime muzzleloader hunter. “I’m a big advocate for the muzzleloader season, and this will keep people in the field.”
For years at the Legislature, purists blocked attempts to modernize muzzleloaders with magnified scopes. Putting a whitetail in the crosshairs was for mainstream hunters, traditionalists argued. They wanted to preserve the marksmanship challenge and exclusivity of shooting big game the old-fashioned way, with one shot from iron sights.
But Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said a more populist opinion finally won out.
“We were in favor of it,” Engwall said of the law change. “We advocated for scopes for practical reasons.”
For starters, vision impairment is a real detriment to participation in the muzzleloader season, especially if you consider the average age of Minnesota deer hunters is over 50. In addition, optics on muzzleloaders will assist in cleaner kills, Engwall said.
Cornicelli said the new law simplifies enforcement and relieves DNR staff of issuing special permits to vision-impaired hunters who absolutely needed a scope on their muzzleloader to be effective. Also, the DNR doesn’t expect the change to complicate deer management.
Even if the muzzleloader harvest doubled, the number of deer killed during the special season would still be less than half the harvest scored by archers in the state, Cornicelli said. In the past, yearly participation in the muzzleloader season has averaged about 50,000 hunters who take 5,000 to 8,000 deer per year.
“I don’t think it will double the success rate,” he said.
Rather, it will increase the number of “ethical, clean shots” and “simply help people see their targets better,” Cornicelli said.
Bruce Lee, who works in the gun department at Joe’s Sporting Goods store in St. Paul, said the new law led to a crush of new business this fall. But most of the orders are for scopes, not new muzzleloaders, he said.
“We’ve been seeing a lot more [muzzleloader] guys come in,” Lee said. “Mainly it’s mounting a scope for them.”
The activity has included optic upgrades for vision-impaired hunters who were limited in the past — under special permit — to accessorize their muzzleloaders with non-magnified scopes, Lee said.
Engwall, who lives near Grand Rapids, said retailers in that part of the state didn’t foresee the increased demand for muzzleloader scopes and mounting gear. The parts have been in short supply, he said.
At Ahlman’s gun store in Morristown, Velzke said he suspected a few weeks ago that many hunters weren’t aware of the law change. When he issued a reminder to customers on the store’s Facebook page, the light went on.
“People always wait until the very last second,” Velzke said. “We’re getting a lot of traffic now.”
He said a “decent” scope for a muzzleloader can be purchased for $125 to $300. A reliable muzzleloader itself can be purchased for $200 to $600, he said.