Minnesota's ruffed grouse season opens Saturday, a big deal, memory-wise, to a lot of people.

Historically the state's most pursued game bird, Ol' Ruff hangs out in places every Minnesotan should visit but few do. High lands. Low lands. Hay fields. Aspen stands. Gray dogwood thickets. These and many other out-of-the-way places are home to what many consider to be the King of Forest Birds.

Minnesotans like to think of themselves as the best, and maybe they are. But what's certain is that this state has the nation's best ruffed grouse hunting, measured by bird numbers and the availability of public lands on which to hunt.

As a kid I hunted grouse. But I didn't know grouse hunting until I started hanging out with Walt Bruning. A Californian now, for which he sends his apologies, Walt at the time was a vice president at the University of Minnesota and later at Control Data Corp.

More important, he was a big-striding owner of a fine English double gun and a faithful follower of his two Brittanies as they hoovered the forest ahead of him.

Handheld GPSes weren't popular then, and Walt wouldn't have abided one anyway. His deal was bushwhacking good habitat while waiting for his dogs to go on point. Continental breeds such as Brittanies prefer to scent the ground rather than the air and therefore are believed to be unpossessed of the full-choke noses common to English setters and pointers. But Walt's dogs could outfox grouse as well as woodcock, and backing them up, Walt was crackerjack with his double gun.

When I met Walt, I was toiling for the sheet across the river, and one day a lady called to say her husband, a faithful reader of my column, had died. Fortunately, she was not alleging one led to the other. Instead her husband had left me a Model 42 Winchester .410 still in its original box, a real bonanza, and she wanted to deliver the firearm to my office, along with what she called a "boatload" of shells. I arranged instead to meet her at her home, where, to keep things on the up and up, I traded her a barbecue grill for the firearm. Tearing up, she told me not to forget the ammo, and I didn't.

I had by then purchased an English setter puppy, and the dog, Risky, was coming into her own. To round out my grouse-hunting cred I traded the Model 42 straight up for a fire-breathing 20-gauge Browning BSS. At the time the woodcock limit was five, same as grouse, and bringing home a limit of each was possible every time we laced our boots. We couldn't have known it then. But those were the best grouse times. By far.

Mind you, those who go afield beginning Saturday will find ruffed grouse, and in some cases lots of them.

But whether the state's forests have changed, West Nile virus is afflicting grouse or perhaps ticks are taking a toll, fewer specimens of Ol' Ruff live in Minnesota now than in the past.

The explosive growth in the 1990s and since of ATVs hasn't helped. "Wheelers" bearing scabbarded guns patrol trails once used by hiking hunters who neither could, nor wanted to, compete with their mechanized counterparts.

The unwillingness of the Department of Natural Resources and the Legislature to seek accommodation with trappers over the timing and placement of body-grip traps also has rubbed many dog-owning grouse hunters wrong, some of whom have hung up their guns, while others prefer to hunt in Wisconsin.

Ted Dick, the DNR forest wildlife habitat consultant and a lifelong grouse hunter, believes increased timber cutting on state lands is a positive for ruffed grouse. Also, a renewed emphasis on forest walking trails holds promise not just for grouse hunters but for hikers and birders, he said.

"My division, Fish and Wildlife, works with the DNR divisions of Forestry and Ecological and Water Resources to coordinate what we want to see on the forest landscape," Dick said. "Our goal in Wildlife is to create more and better habitat, which, in the case of grouse, should allow them to withstand adversity, such as West Nile virus."

Noting ruffed grouse drumming counts this spring were similar to last year's, DNR research scientist Charlotte Roy believes hunters this fall will experience about the same success they did an autumn ago. Roy added that recent studies intended to gauge the prevalence of West Nile in grouse ultimately weren't determinative, because only birds killed by hunters were tested.

"Some grouse we tested were infected, but obviously they survived until hunting season," Roy said. "What we don't know is if the virus killed grouse over the summer."

Attempting to get a sense of brood survival in June, July and August, Roy for the second consecutive summer recruited timber workers and others who spend time in the woods to keep diaries of brood sightings.

"Our intent in coming years is to get a grouse brood-survival report out before the hunting season so hunters have more information about what is happening to grouse in the summer, whether they're surviving or something is killing them," Roy said.

Though still being tabulated, this summer's study suggests brood survival was favorable, at least in the northeast, Roy said.

"The good news is we know at least some of our birds with West Nile are surviving until fall, and that's what you need to have an overall population that can withstand disease," she said.