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Ruffed grouse hunters go strange when they talk about ruffed grouse. They get gooey, and words like "majestic" and "regal" pepper the conversation.

Grouse have a strange fascination. They're tough to hunt, hard to hit and superlative on the table. They're native to Missouri (at the southern edge of their range) but once almost were "extirpated," a euphemism for wiped out.

Now, all or part of 19 counties are open to hunting, with more in the offing -- not an extensive resource, but perhaps one day grouse will match the unexpected and dramatic comeback of the wild turkey.

Missouri grouse populations probably will never rival the Great Lake states and New England, the heart of King Ruff's realm.

Few Missourians hunt grouse. In fact, there's little doubt ruffed grouse are the state's most under-hunted game species. Old New England grouse hunters invariably call ruffed grouse "partridge." But grouse aren't partridges. The only true partridges in this country are introduced gray or Hungarian partridge, which exist in limited numbers in northeast Missouri, and the chukar partridge that shooting preserves often stock.

Ruffed grouse are close cousins to prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse and other grouses of the West.

Missouri opened modern grouse seasons in 1983. Hunters had to buy a special grouse permit (and still do), and the Conservation Department limited the number of permits to 3,000. Almost all were sold (2,917). Hunters took 151 grouse that first year.

The number of hunters has declined to a few over 400 now, and these take just about as many birds as the original 3,000 hunters did.

Why? Well, probably because grouse hunting is tough, frustrating and mostly nonproductive.

It happens in dense cover and, in Missouri, often involves travel up and down steep hills. The birds are spooky and don't hold well for bird dogs accustomed to more mannerly quail. Grouse are infamous for offering fleeting shots or no shot at all, just the diminishing drumroll of active wings.

It doesn't take much of that behavior to send frustrated hunters back to more open areas and quail, which come in bunches and behave the way Show-Me hunters think they should.

Still, Missouri continues a bumpy love affair with King Ruff. Missouri may be the only state that had active Ruffed Grouse Society chapters before there was a hunting season. And Missouri is the site of the most ambitious grouse project ever funded by the national Ruffed Grouse Society, a $300,000 timber management study that ran