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—2� 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.