As a businessman, Fritz Boyden likes to look on the bright side. But even he was fresh out of cheer.

"A woman called me and asked if I could give her a fish report for the radio," he said. "I told her sure, but if she repeated it on the air I'd come over and hang her by the thumbs.

"I'll tell you what. All the fish they caught on the pier yesterday I could have eaten by myself in one sitting. Now don't you print that."

It's hard times on the Outer Banks.

Bad enough that twice in the last few weeks offshore oil spills have sent globs of black pitch up on the crystal white shores. That mess is finally cleaned up.

It was worse that it blew cold and hard from the northeast for 60 days this spring and summer and chased all the people home from the beach.

Worse, still, that while gasoline stations hereabouts stay open until midnight wallowing in excess fuel, people in the Mid-Atlantic states are so gas conscious they won't risk the voyage down.

Then came the Norfolk Virginian Pilot with banner headlines saying that Skylab could come tumbling down in Tidewater.

And to top it off, nobody's catching any fish.

Well, nobody's catching much from the beach or in the bay, which is what most folks like to do in these parts.

They have been bringing in some big tuna, dolphin and a few marlin on the offshore boats.

Now the weatherman says the wind will switch hard south. He's calling for 10-to 20-knot winds.

Local theory says you take the forecaster's predictions and add the minimum (10) to the maximum (20) and then add another five knots for good measure and that's what the winds really will be. Thirty-five knots, in other words.

"Boys," said Capt. Ivey Batten, with whom we were slated to sail in the morning, "I don't like our chances one bit."

What it all adds up to is the empty Outer Banks, nicer than which few things are, even in a chilly July rain.

Nature walks through the back country are solitary and silent. Flounder fishermen can pick a spot in the surf and have it to themselves all day.

But it doesn't pay the bills.

The National Park Service runs three campgrounds on the lower end of the 60-mile Hatteras National Seashore. There are 460 campsites. On Wednesday, 244 lay empty, victims of the great stay-away of 1979.

"This is supposed to be our peak season," said John berry, manager of the half-empty private KAO campgrounds in Rodanthe. "We expect to be full - turning people away - from July 4 through the third week of August.

"We have 25 people on the payroll here. We're trying to keep them working, but we've had to lay off five and cut some of the others to half-time."

His wife, Joan, a cheerful sort, added, "You hate to talk gloom and doom because it's bad business. But doggone it, the people just aren't here."

"I'll say one thing. It sure does make it nice for the ones who do come down."

Tucked away behind the dune at the NPS Frisco campgrounds was just such a pair - Colin and Allison Greenop from Ottawa. They arrived last week in their single-engine plane, from which they extracted two bicycles and pedaled to the campground with their backpacker's tent.

"We were shocked. The beach was empty all the way from Ocean City, where we stopped first. We just kept flying until we found a place that looked right.Then we found all these empty campgrounds. We couldn't make any sense of it. We guessed they were expecting a tourist explosion."

The Greenops were ensconced in a campground I stayed at about the same season five years ago. Only, when I tried to check in then I was told to come back the next day at 8 a.m., get in line and wait to see if someone checked out so I could get a site.

There's no waiting around this year.

A few lonely souls still pass the day on the fishing piers. Dallas Hollifield was out on Tuesday.

"I didn't get a bite all morning," he reported, "I had two rods. I propped one up and went to put a new bait on the other. While I was baiting up, I heard a racket. I had a bite on the first rod. I looked up just in time to see it hit the water - rod, reel, line, everything. I lost it all.

"That's the only bite I had all week."

Melinda Jones, a lifeguard, says she can't even get a tan.

Peggy Clemons, a summer Park Service ranger from Chattanooga, said her bosses "keep telling us when July and August arrive, you fry. I keep waiting and every night I sleep in sweat pants."

"All we need now," said her colleague, Marcia Lannon, "is a good hurricane."