When the colonists arrived in America way back when, they found waiting for them at the edge of forest clearings, a russet-hued, bantam-hen-size bird that was both curious and naive.

And Tasty.

The settlers walked up to the birds with sticks and clubbed them on the heads, stocking their larders with the moist white flesh of the plump ruffed grouse to tide them over lean winter months. So Obliging were the grouse in satisfying the keen appetites of the colonists that they became known as "fool hens." Any lad who couldn't walk up and slip a noose around the craning neck of one of these dumb but delectable birds wasn't worth his keep.

Soon market hunting of grouse developed, as a shoestring operation at first.

By the late 19th century, the demand in plush big-city restaurants for the delicate flesh of the forest birds had snowballed. Records show grouse occasionally selling for as much as $5 apiece, though 25 cents to $1 was more typical. Expert shooters bagged anywhere from half a dozen to 20 or 25 birds a day for sale.

With this kind of pressure, it didn't take long for grouse members to plummet and for the surviving birds to wise up considerably. Market hunting was outlawed in Massachusetts, none too soon, in 1900.

In spite of continuous nibbling away at the birds' habit by an even more insidious enemy -- man's lust to pave the forests -- the grouse hunt on. With modern game management and strict bag limit and seasons the big brown birds are thriving today in many areas not far from Washington. Chief among them is West Virginia, with its glorius topography of wall-to-wall mountains.

And surprising though it may sound to some who think it's time to stash away the guns and break out the fishing rods, the season is still on for grouse and runs right through the end of February. Be prepared, however, if you decide to plunge into the sport: It would be difficult to imagine a more radical transformation in character than that from the grouse of colonial times to today's wide-eyed recluse. Once virtually tame, the grouse of modern times is the paradigm of wildness -- sly in the thickets, agile on the wing, and exasperating to hunt even with modern shotguns.

West Virginia sets the wildly optimistic limit of four grouse per day, which is about like saying this year there will be a ceiling on freelance writers' income of $80,000. Not many writers are going to have to worry about it, nor are many hunters going to have to be concerned about over-shooting their four-bird limit. There has even been some discussion among wildlife managers about the psychological damage such bag limits night inflict on the hunter of average skills who never fills his quota.

Four grouse per year is a more realistic figure for all but the most fanatical of grouse hungers.

The problem lies not in a paucity of grouse. The birds are plentiful in the Mountain State, thriving in selected pockets from the foothills to the ridgetops wherever there is an abundance of cover, a good diversity of plant types, and a fairly young stage of forest growth. Over a six-year study period, grouse hunters in West Virginia reported moving 1.65 birds per hour.

But a flushed grouse is not a grouse in the pot.

Studies in Virginia have shown that if you even get a shot at every other bird you flush, you're doing well. Many grouse take off in such thick cover that it's impossible to even see them, let alone take a shot at them with any hope of connecting.

And when you are granted a shot, chances are you'll miss -- even the best grouse shots miss more birds than they hit.

Boil down these statistics and you have a portrait of the average grouse hunter putting in four or five hard hours scrambling up and down mountainsides, flushing half a dozen birds, shooting at maybe two or three of them, and -- if he's lucky -- bagging one beautiful grouse to take home for dinner.

With such slim returns of meat in the pot, one might wonder just what it is that attracts grouse hunters back to the moutain hollows, the brush-clogged foothills and wind-swept ridges again and again.

Funny, but when hunters of the ruffed bird meet in the woods, talk of grouse bagged doesn't dominate the conversation. "How many flushes?" is the question that tumbles from wind-chapped lips.

This is one hunting sport where contact is the crucial ingredient for a winning hunt. By pitting his all-too-feeble instincts and stamina against the steep mountains that the grouse calls home, the hunter taps some smidgen of this bird's wildness, comes to know his harsh but free life.

Wrists are dappled with blood from busting through brier thickets. Lungs sting with the icy mountain air. Legs, aching and noodle-like, struggle to maintain balance over knife-sharp terrain.

Often the gun will be caught in a grapevine tangle when a grouse erupts beneath the hunter's feet. Other times, the skittish birds will flush in thickets so dense that only the sound of rumbling wings is heard. But the contact will have been made. There will be pleasure from that.

And on those rare occasions when the hunter is lucky and the grouse makes some careless move that exposes him to the tiny lead pellets, he will tumble with a thud to the forest floor. Gathering the bird, the hunter sits on a neaby log and caresses its soft plumage.

Pocketing the grouse, he gazes at the winter woods around him, trudges onward. TIPS FOR GETTING GROUSE

Grouse are tight sitters. They would much rather skulk quitely in the brush and let you walk past them than flush. Hence the best strategy is to walk haltingly through areas with blowdowns, grapevine thickets, young tree growth and scattered pines or firs for roosts. Pause for 30 seconds or more every 50 to 100 feet and you'll fly plenty of grouse who think they've been detected in the brush and must flush to escape.

If you have a slow-working, careful bird dog, he may be helpful, but a wide-ranging, rambunctions dog will spook more birds than he points for you to shoot at.

Due to the thick cover they frequent, grouse are shot either close (less than 35 yards) or not at all. Hence the best guns are fast-handling, light-barreled models with either no choke or improved cylinder. f

In spite of their size (1 1/4 to two pounds) grouse are fragile birds. No. 7 1/2 or 8 shot throws a dense pattern, and this size pellet is plenty big enough to down a grouse.

Wear tough brush pants, comfortable hiking boots, two pairs of socks (one cotton, one wool), a wool or cotton flannel shirt, and hunting vest. Coats are too bulky and detract from your freedom to swing cleanly. They also trap too much body heat, causing excessive sweating with the strenuous activity grouse hunting involves.

George Washington National Forest in Pendelton and Hardy counties has good numbers of grouse in certain areas where clear-cutting has taken place and there is dense, young tree growth and heavy cover. Hampshire County is also good for grouse. The Edwards Run Public Hunting Area holds some birds, and private tracts of recently timbered forest can be exceptional. Permission to hunt grouse usually isn't difficult to obtain, if you can locate the owners.

Season non-resident hunting licenses sell for $40; Six-day small-game permits cost $8. Both are available at sporting goods and country stores.