She was an old woman who, while sitting on the river bank, had gone for two hours without taking a fish.

"Come on, fish," said 71-year-old Mary Ward as the water lapped noisily at her feet. Her gray-green eyes, cheerful and undefeated, looked skyward for help. Soon, a still line and a night's sleep lost in anticipation of this trip would gang up and force her eyes shut. But even as she dozed, Ward would cling to her fishing pole as its line dawdled in the frisky waters of the Potomac on a bright, sky-blue day.

"It is beautiful to look at the water," said Ward, after waking from her light nap. "I feel free."

Free from a fenced, gated, partitioned city, Ward and her group gathered around a flaming driftwood campfire down by the river's edge for a needed respite from traffic, purse-snatchers and the lonely confinement of the elderly in upstairs rooms and basement efficiencies.

Stretching their limbs, the seniors glowed with unstoppable laughter and hearty hail-fellow greetings. Their joy spun off into the open air across the river and into the trees.

Fresh, shivery air and a northeast wind swept over a private riverfront property in Bryans Road, Md., last weekend, keeping the blood up for 30 senior citizens, mostly from Southeast Washington. They roasted hotdogs and swapped tales on a fishing trip sponsored by a Southeast community agency.

Alice Wallace, a recent heart attack victim, said: "This is it. We're stimulating each other. I love it."

"The fish are irrelevent," added 71-year-old Viola Koontz, "a friendly crowd and open air -- that's the tonic."

Ranging in age from late 50s to late 70s, most members of the group had experienced heart attacks, strokes or high blood pressure; many had lost husbands, wives or children. They mostly were retired and lonely -- yet ready for the spark this trip would bring.

The trip was suggested by 75-year-old Joseph Stokes, a regular at the Greater Southeast Community Center for the Aging. Stokes' idea boomed through the place, waking memories, shaking torpor. The seniors, center officials and Everett Hackney, of the mayor's office of Commmunity Affairs, lined up everything within two weeks.

Last Friday morning, as the Department of Human Services bus pulled away from the center's grounds at 1350 Southern Ave. SE and slipped into the open country-side of Prince George's County, the passengers put aside talk of their maladies to watch mother nature strut her stuff.

Laura Glenn, 59, broke the hushed silence inside the bus, sighing, "Oh, lovely."

Hackney convinced his friend Dot Cambel to allow the seniors to use her summer home, Loafing Holt, in Charles County, Md. Fronting on the Potomac, with a sliver of sandy bank to fish comfortably, the home has a large yard with picnic tables and a barbecue pit.

When the bus arrived at Cambel's home and the seniors exited carrying their thermos bottles and shoulder bags filled with food, conversation came from all directions at once.

"It's cold!"

"Somebody start a fire."

"Show me how to bait a line."

"I hate fishin'."

"I'm hungry."

"Fishin' ain't my bag."

"Lawd, we're actin' like old people -- grumbling already."

Babette Davis, a geriatric counselor at St. Elizabeths Hospital, joined the group with a van filled with seven elderly patients and Agnes Boden, a stroke victim who can neither walk nor talk. Boden, who is in the center's day-care program because of her paralysis, nonetheless communicated with the group. Sitting in her wheelchair, her eyes sparkled when she spotted the fishing gear.

Hackney and his friend Matthew Thompson, a security officer for the District school system, baited the hooks and placed the rods on staked driftwood along the river. The group cheered them on from the yard.

When Livingston and Branch got the fire started, it popped and sizzled with cooking hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken donated by Giant and Safeway. Laura Glenn moved in with her spatula. "Let's get it, get it, get it," she shouted, as a line quickly formed for food.

Few of the seniors actually fished, however. Most kept moving or stood by a fire to ward off the chill. Sarah Queen and Ward were the first to take positions on the river's wind-swept edge. Ward picked up her pole, but Queen sat beside her, arms folded, fingers clasping a handbag positioned in her lap just so.

"After all, I am a queen," she said.

After four hours, the food was gone and so was much of the day. Perch and catfish, homing up river, ignored the seniors' dangling bits of squid.

But for Koontz and many others filing into the bus for the return trip home, catching fish was not as important as the outing itself.

"We'll be back in the spring, fish or no fish," Koontz yelled as she headed for her bus.