TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma - Thieves have targeted a Tahlequah man living with Alzheimer's disease. They stole almost all his fishing gear last week, including a few things in his tackle box that can't be replaced.

“I usually keep this in here when fishing season's here,” Johnny Deaton said pointing to his yellow kayak loaded in the back of his pickup.

Deaton is always ready for day out on the lake. The snapshots from the water show the serenity.

“I love it. If I have any bad thoughts or I'm not having a good day or whatever, that fixes it,” Deaton said.

Fishing and hunting have been part of his life for as long as he can remember.

His dad introduced him to the outdoors before he could walk.

“His family tells me his dad took him everywhere with him,” Deaton’s wife Jana said. “He packed him in a backpack to fish when he was a baby.”

Fishing has now taken on a new meaning for Deaton. It’s his therapy.

“It’s all he does,” Jana said. “He used to run, work out, AAU wrestling, all of our sons played competitive baseball he coached 200-300 games a summer.”

Many folks know him as Coach Deaton. He spent 25 years as a wrestling coach and teacher in Tahlequah and Sand Springs before early onset Alzheimer's forced him to retire early. He knew he had to leave the classroom when he couldn’t remember his students’ names.

“It's like everything goes blank up here. It's the weirdest feeling,” he said. “Unless you have it, you can’t explain it.”

Deaton was just 49 when he was diagnosed 6 years ago. He's already outlived doctors predictions, but he knows what's ahead.

“That's the part that scares me,” Deaton said. “I can't imagine waking up and looking at my wife and not knowing who she is or my kids. I'm not looking forward to that.”

Being out on the water takes his mind of the disease. His Facebook page is full of crappie, sand bass and catfish pictures.

His personal best is a nearly 50 pound blue catfish that he caught on a jugline last summer. He says a collegiate fishing tournament was going on that same day. By chance his favorite team, Alabama, was on the water nearby and the Roll Tide anglers snapped a picture of him posing with the fish.

“I held it up and I got a great picture of it,” Deaton said laughing. 

Last Friday, on his 55th birthday, he hoped to make his next big catch.

“He was so excited to go, so he put all his stuff in his truck Thursday night,” Jana said.

But instead his wife says someone broke into Johnny's truck and got away with about a $1,000 worth of fishing gear. His jigs, hooks, monoculars, sunglasses and a knife were all stolen. The thieves also took all the lures and an Old Zebco 33 fishing pole that his dad had left him.

“That just crushed me; like wow,” Deaton said. “That's all I had left of him.”

His wife says Deaton initially thought he’d misplaced the gear or left it at one of his fishing holes.

“All morning he retraced his steps, in and out of the house, in and out of the garage, in and out of his truck -- he couldn't remember what he'd done.”

“I bet I opened that garage seven times looking,” Deaton said. “Then I came in [the house], went outside and went to each little park I'd went fishing in the past three or four days to see if I'd left it.”

When he noticed someone had rummaged through his truck’s console and took all his change, he knew they’d also taken his fishing gear.

“Who steals [tackle]? Because you're not gonna be able to pawn that stuff for nothing,” he said. “I honestly feel like if you're out stealing stuff like that anyway, you're not a fisherman anyway.” 

 But Johnny didn't let it ruin his birthday.

“Went to Horseshoe Bend and I kayaked most of the day. Had a ball,” he said.

And with a wife of 30 years, four children, eight grand-babies and one on the way, Deaton says he isn’t going to let the disease ruin his life.

“I got way, way too much to live for,” he said.

Deaton says he didn’t share his story for sympathy, but to remind folks that Alzheimer's also affects a younger generation.

He hopes his story will inspire others to join the fight to find a cure for the disease.

One of his former student's set up an online fundraiser to help Deaton replace his stole gear.