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Beaten by the big drums


Robert Baldwin Preston, 66, knelt on the beach at North Carolina's Hatteras Island one night last week, squinting at the ocean. "Put your bait there," he said, pointing to an area of relative calm inshore from where the breakers boomed in the dark. "Right there, where the current sweeps around the sandbar into the slough. That's where he'll be, a big channel bass." He said it with such conviction that when the bass did not immediately devour his bait the fisherman cursed the fish's picky nature, not Preston. It was out there, all right. He knew that. Hadn't Bob Preston told him so?

There was more than one way to not catch a channel bass, also known as red drum or redfish, in the surf on the Outer Banks. You could trudge along the beach, stopping now and then to cast a piece of mullet. The fisherman had done that many times. One spot was as unproductive as another. Or you could invest $100 a day to hire Bob Preston and his beach car, or someone like him, men who call themselves surf-fishing guides.

The surf fisherman has no boat to go where the fish are. He has no captive audience, like the trout fisherman. He has only his patience, his faith in the habits of fish, fickle though they are, and his knowledge, and the latter is often only theoretical. Surf-fishing guide? To what? Futility?

A case in point: at the annual Hatteras surf-fishing tournament, held two weeks ago at the height of the channel bass season, 400 of the East Coast's best surf fishermen fished 25 miles of beach, which is roughly one angler every 100 yards. They fished six hours a day for two days. They caught a lot of very small fish, mostly one-or two-pound bluefish and a few puppy drum, the term for channel bass under 10 pounds. But they did not catch even one big bass.

Bob Preston was among the unimpressed. He claims to have caught 3,000 channel bass in his lifetime, roughly 55 per year since he beached his first at the age of 11. There are those on the Outer Banks who attribute the figure 3,000—and a lot of other things Preston says—to the occasional drink he takes. But they do acknowledge his expertise; he knows what lies beneath the waves, he knows the hidden currents and where the sandbars rise and fall away. No one knows where the channel bass should be better than Bob Preston. And everyone who knows him acknowledges that he has a powerful imagination. All dedicated surf fishermen do. It is an occupational disease.

One day at 7 a.m. early this month Preston left his Outer Banks town of Nags Head (year-round pop. 400) and drove his Toyota Land Cruiser 20 miles south on Route 12, Pamlico Sound to his right, the Atlantic to his left. He crossed the bridge at Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Island, where he jounced through the dunes and sea oats to the beach. Away from civilization he removed his false teeth, which, he said, have bothered him for 15 years, or since a rare form of bone cancer necessitated the implanting of an artificial jaw. "My doctors tell me I've lived longer with this ailment than anyone else," he seemed pleased to say. "I'm too tough to die, and too ugly."

His client searched for a trace of the ugliness, or the operation, and finding neither asked about the channel bass caught the previous night from the end of Avon pier. Preston took it as a hint, screwed up his face, and said, "I wouldn't be caught dead fishing from a pier." The fisherman understood. He had fought an occasional big fish in the surf—striped bass and blues, if not channel bass, and for him, too, there was no other way. He dreamed of surf fishing, of how the waves crashed down around his hips, of the long rod, bowed and pounding, and the pull of a strong fish in turbulent water. He said, "I'd rather catch one good fish in the surf than a dozen from a boat." He did not add that l-to-12 was about the ratio of his catches to those of his boating friends. Driving down the beach, Preston grinned toothlessly. They were soul mates. Or were they?

Preston stopped, gestured seaward and said, "Now that, my friend, is a lovely slough, really pretty, just gorgeous." Fifty yards out, waves were breaking on a submerged sandbar. Up and down the beach, and sandwiched between the bar and the shore was quiet, deeper water—the slough. Baitfish could be trapped there, Preston said, and big fish would follow. But 20 minutes of fishing cut mullet produced no strikes, which did not seem to bother Preston, who said, "I think finding the slough's as big a thrill as catching the fish." Preston's client, much less a connoisseur of sloughs than of their supposed inhabitants, gestured impatiently to drive on.

While Preston cooed over another slough just above the town of Rodanthe, his client shot his bait to the inside edge of the bar, and waited, but not for long. A sharp, hard rap yanked his rod tip down. "Bluefish," Preston said. The fisherman had thought so—a channel bass would be more subtle—but he was the one who had felt the strike. Could Preston be that good? The fish dashed seaward, surging for the bar and the deep water beyond, but the heavy tackle snubbed it short, and 10 minutes later, as Preston had predicted, a 15-pound bluefish lay on the sand. Preston seemed less than thrilled, and he said, "I wouldn't care if the damned blues disappeared and never came back."

It was Dec. 6, 1965, he recalled, when the giant blues had hit the Outer Banks for the first time in 30 years, returning each year since to slash at anything that moves, as bluefish do, and to decimate the stocks of Preston's favorite fish, the speckled trout or weakfish. On Dec. 7. 1965, he said, on seven miles of beach he had counted more than 1.200 trout that had either been mutilated by blues or had rushed ashore in terror to escape them. But he also recalled a good day a year earlier. It was so foggy that morning on the beach at Hatteras that he could see neither the surf nor the dunes. Every 100 yards or so he jumped from the car and lay on his belly, his cheek on the sand, listening, until he heard the far-off roar of waves on a sandbar, the sound of a good slough. He did not stop casting for 6½ hours that morning, and he caught 87 speckled trout from 2½ to six pounds on light tackle. Unlike those barbarians, the bluefish, they were fish that required technique, a light touch at the strike—a gentleman's fish, Bob Preston's kind of fish.

Only a man of refined tastes would love speckled trout and hate bluefish, and as the days passed on the beach Bob Preston's client learned how he got that way. His "daddy," dead now 32 years, was the scion of an old Virginia family, who taught his son to be a man—never to cuss in front of a bird dog and always to laugh when he lost a big fish. There was real money there, huge landholdings granted by King Charles II, a summer home in Nags Head before World War I, fishing and hunting guides held on retainer the year round, and a 47-foot boat. When they wanted to fish off Cabo Blanco, Peru, they put the boat on a freighter and shipped it down.

In 1927 young Robert got his degree in civil engineering from VPI; he spent the next 20 years with the Corps of Engineers. In the Battle of the Bulge he won a Purple Heart, and in 1947 he retired with a disability pension. He became a consulting engineer and drove himself hard, and a year later he had a heart attack. He had never stopped fishing at Nags Head, and hunting ducks, and that was therapeutic. Then he acquired a steel-fabricating business, and, he intimates, became a millionaire. There were labor problems, though, and fights with the board of directors, and Preston has the soul of a man who loves speckled trout and hates bluefish.

In 1956 he lost his fortune overnight, he says, and had another heart attack. So he took his wife Elnora and their three young children and moved back 35 years, to Nags Head, scene of his happiest days.

They knew him in Nags Head. He was magic on the beach. In 1957, at the urging of local hotelkeepers, he became the first full-time surf-fishing guide on the Outer Banks. But a lot of damage has been done to him. In 1958 and 1966 he had two more heart attacks, and in 1972 a fifth one left him clinically dead. Now he carries nitroglycerin tablets in the Toyota, perhaps to compensate for chain smoking. There is no day that he is not in pain from his war wounds. But he seldom mentions it, though an occasional beer or three relaxes the tightness around his eyes. He spends 20% of his time on crutches, but none of his clients has ever seen them. He says, without further comment, "You never know how much effort a man puts out to make a good appearance."

Now Bob Preston stood by his Toyota on the beach, gazing at "the prettiest little slough I've seen in weeks," as he put it, "a puppy drum slough." And as if that were not enough bliss for one man, it had what he called an outsuck, an opening in the bar where a current swept from the beach out to sea. He said. "A puppy drum slough with an outsuck! Oh, man!" He tied on shrimp-tail lures, for himself and his client, and said, "Let it swing around with the current. There should be puppies all through here." He began to bounce his lure along the bottom. When he felt a tug, he lifted his rod tip and yelled, "Puppy drum!" That is what it was—2½ pounds. But other fish were striking short, nudging the lures and turning away. "Trout," Preston said. "Can't you feel them?" He walked up and down the shore—casting, striking and coming up with nothing, grinning and chuckling all the while. "I get paid for this?" he asked.

"You also get paid for finding channel bass," he was kidded.

The search began anew. At Cape Hatteras Point there were 50 casters in one 100-yard stretch. Mullet baits shot out like golf balls at a driving range. There was so much bait in the water that there had to be fish there. There was one, a channel bass that weighed 47 pounds (the all-tackle world record is 90 pounds, and was caught off Rodanthe in November of 1973 by Elvin Hooper). Preston acted calm, as if he had seen a few—or 3,000—before. "We'll try for yours tonight," he said, as the crowd at the point doubled in size.

It was 9 p.m. and very dark at the northeast corner of Oregon Inlet, a classic spot for channel bass. "The tide is sweeping out of the inlet," Preston said, "and as long as it does he'll be moving down with it, feeding as he goes. Just wade to your waist and cast as far as you can."

Two hours passed with no action and finally the tide turned and Preston's client came ashore. It was his last night of fishing. "Fussy fish, those channel bass," he said.

"Isn't this a hell of a way for a man to make a living?" Preston said.