Tax time again, and even though prime fishing days are fast arriving when someone says "bite" most people think of the government, not big bass.

It's a nice time to ponder the merits of tax-free benefits on the job. At The Sportsman in Bethesda they wrap these diverse thoughts into one happy package -- tax-free, a tax-time bass bonanza for employes.

Fred O'Rourke has owned the store since before half the people in the country were born, which isn't really all that long ago when you think about it.

Some years back he decided it would be nice if the folks who work for him maintained some knowledge of the stuff they sell.

He organized a spring trip for the guys in his fishing department. It was so successful it became an instant tradition, which is what happens when you take people fishing and they catch a lot of fish.

Today the walls of the Sportsman are decked with mounts and pictures of huge trophy bass, products of the annual spring breakout. It's good for business. Customers come in and say, "Hey, where'd you catch all those great fish?"

That's when the beneficiaries of O'Rourke's expertise in employe relations try out their imitations of Jimmy Hoffa in front of a Senate subcommittee.

I had heard bits and snippets about O'Rourke's spring fling but never enough to pin it down. Finally last month a salesman who supplies equipment to The Sportsman furtively dropped the ball.

"They go in March," he whispered. "It's wild."

O'Rourke was not amused. "Well, this is for the fellows that work here," he said. "It's not something we want to get around. It could ruin it. We've worked hard to keep this pond a secret."

Aha. A pond.

Well, I pleaded and wheedled and cajoled and entreatied and finally O'Rourke gave in. We would meet March 30, he said. In Virginia.

"And that's all I ever want you to say," he cautioned. "A pond in Virginia."

Square business.

We left Washington before dawn that cool, windy and overcast morning and met at 7:30, on schedule, at the banks of a 100-acre mill pond. The silver-haired O'Rourke called a brief meeting under a sycamore trees.

"The rules are simple," he said. "Any bass you catch you put back immediately unless it's a trophy, eight or nine pounds, in which case you can keep it. Any pickerel you catch you keep. They eat the baby bass. Bluegills and crappies you can keep or throw back."

The year before, in fact, O'Rourke's party of six had indeed averaged 50 bass per person. But this day the weather was less than superb. A cold east wind whipped the water and a mean, hard rain was due by afternoon.

I had a partner, Dr. Charles Ray, a Bethesda dentist and longtime fishing colleague of O'Rourke's, had made the drive with me and led me to the pond edge.

We flipped my little tin boat off the roof, hooked up the electric trolling motor and were off.

"Where to?" I asked.

"Anywhere," he said.

"What kind of lure?" I asked.

"Anything," he said.

While he was fumbling around in his tackle box I tied on a Mepps spinner and tossed it out. Second cast, a sudden lurch on the retrieve and in a few seconds a 1 1/2-pound largemouth was at the gunwale. I extracted the hook and set him back in the water.

Ray tied on a spinner, too, but on his first cast he tossed it out in the wasteland in the middle of the pond where a fish was unlikely to lurk.

"Bad luck to catch one on the first cast," he explained.

Even with the cold and the wind and the impending rain, which finally descended in sheets around 3 p.m., it was a lovely day. By my standards.

By O'Rourke's it was a complete and unmitigated disaster. Two of his salesmen went home at noon. It was just too depressing for them.

"Should've been here last year," they grumbled.

I spent the morning happily tossing every wacky lure in the tacklebox up against the tree-studded banks and occasionally jerking pale largemouths out and turning them loose again.

Ray spent the morning doing the same up in the bow, only while I was gee-whizzing and wowing he was muttering.

"Ought to have 50 bass in the boat by now," he'd say. "I've never seen it this bad. Never."

By noon we had 16 bass and we stopped for lunch. Munching a sandwich, I tossed a silver spoon off the bank and captured a 20-inch pickerel, which I got to keep.

Then we set out again and laid waste (my standards again) to more bass until the rains erupted. We'd kept count -- 30 bass and a pickerel, the biggest bass about 2 1/2 pounds. An absolutely smashing day.

"Sorry," was all O'Rourke could say.