He was in the departure lounge of Philadelphia International Airport, five minutes from boarding a jet for a 3,000-mile jaunt, when his stomach did a nose dive.

He looked feverishly for his wife.

"The rod ," he said.

"Omigosh," he said.

The rod had cost about five times what he'd spent for any other fishing outfit in his life. It was to catch him a salmon in Ireland -- a nine-foot graphite with a fancy fly fishing reel.

They were still together, brand new and tucked carefully in the trunk of the car 20 miles away in a downtown lot. Irretrievable.

The man -- me -- was (and still is) a fisherman. One of the simple pleasures he pursued was casting new waters after fish. Just a sport -- a little pastime.

Yet at that moment he felt as bereft and naked as an Indian scout in the badlands who looks around and sees his horse scampering away.

Sixteen hours later the man stood forlorn and emptyhanded on a European beach, watching rollers pound rocks. To his left the sun was descending over the Green Island, a sea fishing spot. Behind his stretched cow-studded fields.

From the fields a figure emerged, then another. The two picked their way over the black boulders to a spot 50 yards away.

One set to work assembling a fishing rod. Shortly he was arcing long casts into the sinking sun. His woman sat on the rocks, watching.

The American slinked over for a chat. "Ah yiss," said she, "that's my boy friend Jerry. He's a great sea-angler."

Jerry soon made his way back, emptyhanded. "Tide's already rising," he said. "It'll be better tomorrow."

The American related his sad tale.

"Well," said Jerry (which is how most Irish sentences begin), "I don't know what we've got, but I'm sure we can fix up something."

Jerry was Jerry Shine, son of Jack Shine, the latter a legendary sea angler around County Clare before illness forced him from the shore.

At the Shines' house, the two men rattled through the remains of Jack Shine's tackle and unearthed opposite ends of two broken rods, an old spinning reel and some "feathers," which are mackerel lures. A little tape and everything was like new.

The next evening the Irishman and the American shared a rock by the sea when the tide was slack low. They cast far into a bitter west wind and a cold slashing rain. Before night fell they had mackerel dinners for two families.

The American forgot about his fancy fly rod. He'd found, in the words of Izaak Walton, a "brother of the angle."

In Walton's great book, "The Compleat Angler," the British ironmonger describes fishing as "the contemplative man's recreation."

"The Compleat Angler" was written 330 years ago. The abiding observation after even a quick reading today is that it's as true now as it was then.

Walton could not have predicted the invention of the 175-horsepower outboard motor or the evolution of the fishing tournament into a high-speed free-for-all for megabucks, but he did know what it is that leads anglers to the water in pursuit of fish.

"Twas an employment for his idle time, which was then not idly spent," wrote Walton. "For angling was . . . a rest to his mind, a cheerer of his spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedess . . ."

And still is.

There are two summer societies on Block Island, which lies in the ocean halfway between Montauk Point, on Long Island, and Newport, R.I.

You'll find the great masses on Block Island at The Three Kittens, a noisy bar, or at the elegant 1661 House, or idling the day away at Crescent Beach.

There's an unseen minority that emerges generally at dawn and dusk, when the bluefish and stripers are likely to be crashing forgotten beaches.

They bob along in Jeeps or on foot, down the sand roads and across the dunes to places where the fish come to feed.

Few have telephones, yet the word seems to spread electrically when the fish are in. "North Point -- they're hitting at dusk."

There was a newcomer on the island a few years ago who had never tossed a Hopkins spoon deep into a crashing surf and wound it furiously back, waiting for the startling smash that signified big fish.

He made a friend and one day the friend said, "Come with me tonight. There's blues at the point."

They walked a mile over the sand, balancing long rods on their shoulders. There was a crowd already settled in, firing lures out to sea.

"Take a spot," said Wendell Corey to the new fellow.

He did. He unraveled the unfamiliar rig and watched the man next to him, 20 yards away, casting far out to sea.

Then he tried to do the same. He heaved the rod back over his shoulder, lined up his sights on a distant breaker, poured his back muscles into it and let the lure fly.

Straight out to sea?

No. Straight down the beach, in the process crossing the lines of at least four other fishermen. When he wound the Hopkins back in it had four others with it.

Gulp.

The nearest man strode over.

"New heeyah?" he asked in a New England twang.

"Yup," said the angler.

"Lemme show you."

Which he did.

Two hours later Wendell and the newcomer marched back over the sparkling night sand with two fish, a 15-pound striper (Wendell's) and a 12-pound blue.

They were brothers of the angle.

It is folly to suggest that anyone take up fishing as a way of making friends. It would be as silly as buying and operating a wheat farm in order to get fresh bread. Making friends is a tiny side benefit, though a real one. t

The burden of fishing is the learning, which takes a lonely forever and is never complete. The art is only learned, as Walton noted, by practice. In the process the angler learns more about himself than he ever will ever know about fish.

It's during that learning process that the angler discovers himself one day a member of the brotherhood, and can find himself happily discussing with any other angler anywhere the likely merits of certain lures, the likely whereabouts of certain fish and the likelihood of success either might enjoy in any given conditions.

So now spring fishing season is upon us again. Bass are moving into the shallows, where they will consume topwater lures with such abandon it looks, in the words of one angler, "like someone flushed the toilet."

Crappies flutter around fallen trees like blackbirds in a pine roost; stripers are thundering up the Chesapeake with bluefish close behind.

Flounders are returning inshore to lurk in the salt bays and gobble up minnows; mackerel are swarming north off the Atlantic coast.

It's time to stop contemplating and start doing.

But first, contemplate one last line from brother Walton.

"I shall stay you no longer than to wish you a rainy evening to read this discourse; and that (if you be an honest angler) the east wind may never blow when you go a-fishing."