"He watched the flying fish burst out again and again . . . That school has gotten away from me, he thought. They are moving out too fast and too far. But perhaps I will pick up a stray and perhaps my big fish around them. My big fish must be somewhere."

For years, the American fisherman has been like Hemingway's Old Man. Somebody else has gotten the big fish, the glory - if there was any - and most of the money. But times have changed. Where the old man could rely only on himself, the American fisherman had the U.S. Congress. And last year, the Congress delivered, proclaiming a 200-mile U.S. fishing zone.

That was one of the great resource grabs of modern history. With U.S. waters containing an estimated one-fifth of the world's fish, it has thrown the international fishing industry into a period of tumultuous, sometimes violent adjustment.

To most Americans, these fish wars offer little more than modern pirate stories: an occasional Soviet trawler being hauled into port for overstepping its rights in U.S. waters. But the drama goes deeper. At the heart, it demonstrates the hostility and conflict always present in man's incessant search for food.

For the 200-mile limit - now adopted by most nations - threatens the easy accessibility of many states to a key source of protein. If meat-loving Americans don't eat much fish, almost everyone else does. Per capital fish consumption in Japan is about six times as high as in the United States (80 pounds a year against 13 pounds). In the Soviet Union, it's about twice as high (23 pounds), and in the United Kingsdom about 40 per cent higher (18 pounds).

Not surprisingly, Japan and the Soviet Union, which caught nearly 30 per cent of the 1975 world catch of 70 million metric tons, stand to lose the most from the 200-mile zone. Within the American zone, they can fish only by permit, and their allowable catches may decline sharply in the future. The Soviets already have been evicted entirely (though perhaps only temporarily) from the waters of the European Community. And, off Argentina, government gunboats fired upon and captured Soviet trawlers.

How much U.S. fisherman can profit from this situation is unclear. On paper, it seems a bonanza. Under the Fishery Management and Conservation Act of 1976, the law which set the 200-mile zone, foreigners can fish only to the extent that American fisherman cannot handle the allowable catch. Basically, that is the limit deemed necessary to prevent overfishing. Already, in 1977, the foreign quota has been set at 2.1 million metric tons against actual foreign fishing of 2.8 million tons in 1974. In that year, American fisherman caught 2.7 million metric tons.

But economic logic and commerical success do not always march in lockstep. The American fishing industry is small, fragmented, conservative and financially weak. According to Joseph W. Slavin, director of fisheries development for the National Marine Fisheries Service, a typical fishing vessel employs a crew of three and averages a gross income for less than $100,000 annually. Many of them employ processing plants are similarly tiny. Half of them employ fewer than 20 people and have a gross income of less than $350,000.

The trade statistics reflect this weakness. The United States has long been a heavy net importer of fish. Last year, imports totaled $2.3 billion against exports of only $382 million. The high imports include not only a large demand for shellfish (shrimp, crab, and lobster) that cannot be satisfied from U.S. waters but also significant volumes of ground fish polack, haddock) used in fish sticks and other prepared fish foods. Some of these fish are available off the United States, but U.S. fisherman have concentrated on higher value fish such as tuna, salmon, crab, shrimp and lobster.

Turning U.S. fisherman into substantial exporters is a lot more difficult than evicting the foreigners. In the Pacific, for example, foreign fleets have fished heavily for hake and pollack, two species long ignored by Americans. To exploit these species, American fishermen need to build new boats, and, before doing that, they will likely want assurance of a market for their pollack and hake.

One possible approach is to accept joint venture proposals being offered to U.S. fisherman by some foreigners who are increasingly worried about future fish supplies. Under these proposals, Americans would catch the fish, then sell the catch at sea to foreign processing ships.

If this seems sensible, it has aroused howls of protest from the U.S. processing industry, which says it cannot possibly compete with foreign offshore operators who do not have to abide by U.S. minimum wage and environmental restrictions. Consequently, the Marine Fisheries Service is now considering limiting or banning such joint ventures.

Fishermen are themselves divided over the issue. Some want to sell to anybody. Others want the benefits of America's protected fishing sea to flow ashore in expanded processing facilities. Processing already accounts for about 40 per cent of all fishing industry employment (94,000 jobs out of 248,000 in 1973), and new processing facilities would strengthen fishing communities. But if processors don't make the new investments - and on species such as hake and pollack, there's substantial doubt that they will - then American fisherman may be unable to displace foreigners.

In the end, success depends very much on a question to which no one has the answer: how many fish can the world catch every year? Until recently, no one worried much about that. Large new trawlers, equipped with sonar to locate fish schools, simply took as much as they could get. The subsequent overfishing finally prompted Congress to impose the 200-mile limit. Abroad, the Common Market has virtually prohibited fishing for some depleted species, such as herring in the North Sea.

Major fishing nations are now scrambling madly for fishing rights off countries, such as Argentina and Mauritania, where fish resources are thought under-exploited. If they find large volumes of fish, American fishermen may find large volumes of fish, American fishermen may find themselves underpriced on the world market. If not, the U.S. fisherman may finally have landed his Big Fish.