While the year 2001 hasn't provided the cataclysmic backdrop of "The Perfect Storm," the popular book and movie in which the fishing crew of the Andrea Gail is savaged by Mother Nature's worst, the stock market has delivered some terrifying moments for investors.

Most everyone's portfolio has been taking on water, and no one's quite sure when this turbulence will end.

The big question: Should we paddle back into the water and try to do some bottom-fishing in this highly unpredictable and ominous stock market?

It's true that prices are much lower, especially among some of the best-known names that had prospered in the bull market. Yet you should never buy a stock just because its price has fallen off the deep end of the pool. Sometimes the decline was perfectly justified and the stock had never merited its highest valuation anyway.

There's always the nagging question of whether you're buying much too soon. Yet in the eyes of some experts, the timing could be about right.

"Though I think there's still a ways to go before hitting bottom, I think it is time to go looking around in this fishing pond," believes John Rogers, founder and chief executive of Chicago-based Ariel Capital Management and portfolio manager of the Ariel Fund (ARGFX), up 56 percent in value in the past 12 months. "You can't just buy a stock because it has gone down so much, but instead must look at what the earnings and growth rate will be going forward."

The patient Rogers has lately been transformed from an "outright bear" to being "more sanguine about the future," especially in technology, where some stocks are down 90 percent.

Never big on tech in the past, he now likes the decimated stock of Ariba, a business-to-business electronic commerce software and network services platform provider that's down from $174 last September to around $10 now. He also recommends Littelfuse, a maker of high-quality fuses used in electronics and computers. He likes insurance firms Horace Mann Educators and HCC InsuranceHoldings, as well as consumer products companies American Greetings and Hasbro.

Patience is a virtue when trolling for values.

"When bottom fishing, be willing to suffer some downside loss for the short term, because it's almost impossible to call the exact bottom," counseled Jim Collins, editor and publisher of the OTC Insight newsletter www.otcinsight.com in Walnut Creek, Calif., whose aggressive growth portfolio has a three-year annualized return of 42 percent. "Focus on 2002 earnings because there's no point in trying to evaluate this year's earnings, which will be an anomaly, and stay with recognizable company names."

Among stocks meeting Collins' criteria for bottom fishing are Veritas Software in data storage and software; Calpine, developer of power generation facilities; Siebel Systems, which has a suite of e-business application software; drug distributor Cardinal Health; and Vitesse Semiconductor, which "should come back to life."

"Investors are going to look for companies that are liquid, that aren't the most speculative and that are going to have 13 to 15 percent earnings growth this year when the median S&P company will show flat earnings," predicted Stuart Freeman, chief equity strategist with St. Louis-based A.G. Edwards & Sons.

His focus after the recent market downturn is on electrical equipment companies such as General Electric; drug company Pfizer; multinational insurance firm AIG (American International Group); retailer Wal-Mart Stores; and health-care firms such as Johnson & Johnson.

If the economy revives more quickly than expected, bottom fishers will look like geniuses. But experts realize that the opposite could occur instead.

The economy could throw cold water on even the best-laid value strategies.

"Bottom fishers will buy up the best-valued stocks based on their belief that economic recovery will come through, commodity prices will be raised and real gross domestic product growth will come back," said James Paulsen, chief investment officer with Wells Capital Management in Minneapolis.

Avoid panic. It's a mistake to dump all tech stocks or run from stocks in general, because staying invested with a diversified long-term portfolio makes the most sense. Since buying opportunities are spawned by this type of market environment, your bottom fishing story could be a happy one.

Andrew Leckey answers questions only through the column. Address questions to Andrew Leckey, "Successful Investing," 98 Henry St., Dept. 183, Brooklyn, NY 11201, or by e-mail at successinv@aol.com.