The European wild boar was once the exclusive prey of princes and still is among the most delicious game animals in the world if you can find one, which hunters hardly ever do although the beast roots and ranges over much of the southern Appalachians.

Boar hunts have been an autumnal rite in East Tennessee and western North Carolina since several dozen of the mean and ugly Sus scrofa were imported 67 years ago by Yankee timber barons and promptly liberated themselves by plowing through the fences fatuously expected to contain them.

They still escape more or less regularly from the score of commercial hunting preserves in the region, and the forest populations are reinforced by runaway farm hogs, which breed readily with the razor-tusked wild strain despite thousands of years of selection for docility and hairless pink plumpness.

"Hawgs" are hunted with an enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism by individuals and clubs such as the Bald River Board & Bear Hunt, whose members make gilgrimages from all over the country for the privilege of wearing themselves out climbing the rugged ridges although they are virtually certain never to see, much less bag, a boar.

This dedication mystified a recent gust of the Bald River boys until the eye of this year's hunt, when barbecued boar was served at Spivey Cove campground in the Cherokee National Forest. The visitor, who has no great fondness for pork in any form, found himself going back for seconds, thirds, fourths of the meat, which was mild but rich-flavored and absolutely lean.

"And mind you, this boar was in the freezer for a year," said hunt organizer Bob Hines. "Can you imagine what a fresh one tastes like?"

The search for fresh ones began before dawn as 76 hunters fanned out over Chinquapin Ridge and Sugar Mountain Lead, just on the Tennessee side of the North Carolina border, to take stands on the saddles and slopes. Four thousand feet below, in the valley where Bald River rises, handlers set out with relays of dogs to try to track and drive the boars. It didn't seem quite fair, although a boar can run farther, faster and longer than any dog, and if he gets tired of running may turn and eviscerate his pursuers with one slash of his tusks. There is further mitigation in the fact that boars occasionally eat boar hunters, bones and buttons and all.

The visitor's assigned squad dallied on the ridge to take in the broad vista of the Great Smoky Mountains. "I've been coming here half my life and it's the first time I've seen the Smokies without haze or cloud cover," one said. "To hell with the hawgs. I got to look at this."

They had scouted Sugar Mountain Lead the day before and found several areas where the boars had recently rooted over acres of ground at a time, chomping roots and bugs and grubs along with acorns, hickory nuts and other mast.

No skill is involved in identifying boar sign. Nothing else tears up the forest floor like this formidable shout, powered along by great humped shoulders and backed by an incredible digestive system. Among the things it digests are the roots and bulbs of wildflowers, rare and common, endangered or otherwise, which has some conservationists up in arms and leads some forest rangers to shoot them on sight. Others trap and transplant them to establish new huntable populations. The principal thing one gets out of talking to experts about boars is confused; one calls them destroyers of native plant and animal habitat, while another is praising them for turning and enriching the forest soil.

"If you hear the dogs racing, move in toward the sound," team leader Warner Tweed said as he posted the visitor near the head of a likely draw. "But don't go into any laurel or rhododendron thickest. A hog could chew you off at the knees and you'd never see him."

Alone on the ridge, the novice listened for dogs, and when he heard bugling a mile below took off down a draw, following a spring branch that led to Bald River. The dogs - and presumably the hogs they tracked - turned at the river and he tried to parallel them. Accustomed to the gentler terrain of the Virginia Appalachians, he found himself exhausted and stumbling and lagged farther and farther behind. Later he learned that one of the dog handlers who ran away from him was 82 years old.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent in similar futile marches toward distant or imagined sounds, and by 3 p.m. he was more than ready to pack it in.

Other members of the party, loading their packs with hikers' litter as they headed back along the ridgetop trail, smiled when the stiff-kneed guest elected to take a shortcut straight downslope. The technique is known locally as "falling off the ridge," and that is what he did, foot by foot and slip by slide, for three hours, until well after dark.

After crawling across the final creek and limping down the road to camp, he asked one of the club members (who, like some 60 of the others hunter, is a doctor) how it was possible to comtemplate going out again next morning.

"Got to have redneck power," he said, spitting a glob of Red Man chewing tobacco into the fire. "Liberal has a hell of a time hunting hawgs. Liberal is always worryin' and thankin' when they should be hurryin' and drankin'.

He took a long pull at a paper cup of J.S. Dant and abandoned the cornpone tone. "You can't think of this as meat hunting, although in the old days before they started trapping these hogs out you might expect a 50 per cent success ratio in such an organized affair.

"This is just a chance to get away from telephones and polite society, see some old friends, do some serious drinking and go stomping the ridges. If you see a boar, that's a bonus. If you kill one, it's a miracle."

The only miracle worker in the group turned out to be the aptly named James R. Hunter, a 37-year-old insurance broker from Johnson City. He had just settled in at his stand on the first morning when a sow made her way through the woods toward him and miraculously sat down next to a tree only 30 feet in front of him.