There are very few events in life that leave a lasting impression: getting married, a child born, a miracle, a death. The event that I speak of left me wondering if it was a simple irony, coincidence, chance or if it was fate. After the initial shock, I was convinced that the event I am writing about was fate; something set in time, created by God, and something worth writing about. The event that I am writing about changed my life. Death can be horrid, depressing, morbid and sad but death can also be welcomed and beautiful. I am only 30 years old but I witnessed and experienced a death that changed my personal perspective of death and life’s meaning itself. This is the story of a good man, a fisherman and “a good death for a fisherman.”
I’m not sure how old I was when I caught my first fish. I’m not sure what kind of fish it was. I don’t know the place. I know that I was young, maybe 4 years old. I remember fishing with my grandfather and my father. Those memories are priceless and I had so many at such a young age. I was truly blessed. Those memories run together now. I guess that a clutter of memories is a good thing because I had so many. For me fishing is life and life is fishing; nothing will ever change. Everything is a result of my love for fishing and my true love (my wife Dawn) could be a result in some unexplained way.
My wife’s grandfather was someone who I respected, admired and got to know over a period of a few short years. The first time we spoke I immediately drew a connection with him. He reminded me of my grandfather. We spoke briefly of the war (WWII), fishing, and nothing. That was plenty of things to talk about but fishing took center stage in our conversations. He would ask me questions: “does this spot still exist,” “Do y’all still fish with that,” “have you ever used this lure,” “what do you think about this reel?” At the time he was not in good health, but he was alive in more ways than I will ever understand. He had numerous complications with his health. I felt my job was to enlighten him on what was occurring in the modern fishing world of the 21st century. I would reply: “Yes that spot exists,” “Yes we fish with that,” “No, I haven’t used that lure, but I’ve heard of it,” “No, I haven’t used that reel but I have my grandfather’s and he loved them.” Those conversations with one of the “greats” were priceless, but they led to much more.
I was busy finishing college, trying to impress my future wife, making a paycheck and living the life of a 25 year old. My future wife was living and going to school in Austin, working in San Antonio, and driving to Rockport to visit me; she was busy. Dawn was down to visit me on one of her road trips. It was about 9 p.m. when I received the first of several phone calls.
“Hey Johan, how’s the fishing?” “I would really like to get down there sometime.” “Maybe when I’m feeling better I can get down and we can fish.” Dawn’s grandfather was very sick, but I decided to go along with it. We talked about fishing for hours, what we would do when he got down here and most importantly, how the gafftop fishing was.”
Let me explain a little about gafftop and my life. When I was a child, my grandfather and I would go fishing for anything that was willing to bend our rod. We caught croaker (large ones, big enough to eat), sand trout, redfish, drum, whiting, and of course gafftop. We fished with dead shrimp on the bottom. Dead shrimp on the bottom is the “never fail” solution to a lack of action in Texas bays. The downside to fishing with dead shrimp is almost everything eats it. We would catch dozens of fish on our outings, but only a few would end up as keepers.
One of the fish that we caught with frequency was gafftop. Contrary to popular belief gafftop are actually good to eat, fun to catch and there are plenty of them. The “old timers” such as my grandfather and my wife’s grandfather loved gafftop. These days most avid fishermen avoid them, curse them, and even kill all they can. It is my firm belief that they are over populated, eat anything (including other juvenile gamefish), and could be detrimental to our ecosystems if left in overabundance. To this day I do not eat gafftop. Maybe it is a matter of pride in catching other gamefish that I have gained over the years.
Dawn asks, “Who are you talking to?” With a little hesitation, I said “Your grandfather.” A slight awkward silence prevailed before my second response, “He wanted to talk about fishing.”
Over the next few weeks I found myself captivated and mystified by the many wonderful conversations that we had. The conversations would always involve fishing, memories, and sometimes gafftop. Before our conversations were over they would always end in, “Boy, I sure wish I could get down there and fish.” I invited his enthusiasm and curiosity by responding, “You’re welcome to come down and fish, I’d be happy to take you.” I truly wished that he could make it down to Rockport to go fishing with me but I knew that the possibility of that happening in his current state was almost impossible. As a matter of fact I felt as though he would have to “live fishing” through our conversations; so our conversations continued and we both dreamed.
Several weeks passed and the frequency of phone calls slowed until I began to wonder if I should call him. I learned that his health was taking a dreadful turn for the worse. Our conversations and dreams seemed to be fading just as quickly as his health. It was a beautiful summer day, white puffy clouds, southeast wind at 10 to 15 mph and typical mid-summer temperatures in the 90s. It was the kind of day that anyone would love to be on the water fishing. I happened to be off that day and I was simply relaxing and enjoying the day. Dawn’s phone rang and after a few perplexing facial expressions and a brief conversation she looked at me and said, “Grandpa is on his way here and wants to go fishing.” As it turned out, our conversations and dreams had only taken a brief intermission before a grand finale.
I remember a ghostly figure hobbling toward me on a walker dragging an oxygen tank. I believe that the doctors released him to do as he pleased knowing that his time was short and important. To this day, I am humbled that a dying man’s last wish was to go fishing with me. In a Native American-like gesture Grandpa handed me an old rod-and-reel and a pocket knife. He said, “I want you to have these. This is my rod-and-reel and this is my pocket knife.” I was honored, astonished and grateful. I accepted his gifts and we picked up our conversations that had faded but were unexpectedly reincarnated. This time it was man to man. I looked into his eyes and he looked into mine. In his eyes I could see the flood of emotion and the reflection of a wonderful life.
It wasn’t long before we got to the point. Grandpa came to fish and that was exactly what we did. I had the perfect place to take him: the south shoreline of Copano Bay on Rattle Snake Point near Rockport. It was my current place of employment (Redfish Lodge), it was private, it was beautiful and he had the opportunity to fish from the shore with little effort. I thought of the many days that I had fished with my grandfather in this same area. The memories were a distant but pronounced reflection still glistening in the water; now reinvigorated by fishing with another grandfather.
Initially, my thoughts of fishing successfully from shore in the midday heat were distorting my own knowledge and confidence. I should have known better. God had his own plan for this special day. As mentioned earlier Grandpa loved gafftop. Gafftop are easy to catch from the boat in the middle of the bay but I can’t remember ever catching a gafftop from the shore at Redfish Lodge. Not only did he somehow catch a gafftop but he also caught a nice redfish. I remember how happy I was that he caught a redfish, but his excitement came from the gafftop. He sat in his chair with his oxygen tank turned all the way up, sun shining in his face, wind blowing through what little hair he had, and he lived his dream. I remember him telling me, “This is perfect. The only thing I’m missing is a coffee and a cigarette.” Had I known the end of this story at the time, I would have been happy to provide him those luxuries.
The sun was high, it was hot and I could tell that grandpa was suffering in the heat. He gritted his teeth and kept casting. If it wasn’t for our idea of lunch, he would have kept at it until the sun went down. He wanted to eat at The Big Fisherman, a place that the old timers, including my grandparents, thought highly of. We all agreed and enjoyed a nice lunch. Grandpa was really wound up at this time. He never stopped talking about memories and good times, sometimes pausing to chew. It seemed as though his life was replaying in his mind and fractions of it spurted from his mouth. Some of it made sense and some of it confused me. There was a lot going on in his head that day.
We finished lunch and headed back to my place. We all thought that it was in grandpa’s best interest to stay out of the heat, take it easy and probably head back to San Antonio. When we mentioned our plans to him, I could see his heart sink. He said, “Dammit, I came down here to fish so let’s go fish.” He absolutely refused to leave and insisted on going fishing again. Ignoring his request may have changed this story but the outcome would have most likely been the same and not so spectacular. We submitted to his assertive request and loaded up the fishing gear again.
The sun was past high and those feelings of a “day come and gone” were beginning to reflect up from the water and late afternoon sun. Grandpa sat in his chair, casting and casting like a machine. He would grit his teeth, cast and sit staring into the memories of life with beads of sweat pouring from his forehead. How could we end such a beautiful thing? We couldn’t, we just sat and watched in silence. The day had been a success; Grandpa got to go fishing, enjoyed a nice meal and caught a gafftop. What happened next was a traumatizing, surreal and sublime event that I would never forget. The event can best be described as a clutter of emotions, life and then death. None of it made sense at the time, but with time came clarity and with clarity came insight.
He wouldn’t give up. I now know that he wasn’t waiting for a fish to bite at all; he was waiting for something much larger than any fish, stronger than any fish, more important than any fish. He was waiting for “death to bite”. He was fishing for an end to life and I believe that on that beautiful day in that lovely place he caught it. It wasn’t a long fight because life didn’t fight hard. Grandpa came to terms that he could not win this battle; I believe he actually welcomed the loss. In Grandpa’s own words, “this is perfect.” With the sun setting, the wind blowing, the waves slapping against the bulkhead, and a blue heron standing in the distance to witness: Theodore Ludwig Geissler experienced a heart attack and passed away on the shoreline of Copano Bay.
I ask: “Are the events described above a matter of coincidence or fate?” I do not believe that such a strange and ironic combination of events can be the result of coincidence. I believe that fate, destiny, and God were the foundation of this amazing and beautiful death. Not only was I there to witness the event; my wife Dawn (granddaughter), Darcy (granddaughter), Bonnie (wife) and Martha (daughter) were also present. He had an audience made up of generations. He had a beautiful sunset on Copano bay. He ate his last meal and he caught his last gafftop. What more could a man ask for on his last day? It was perfect.
The death of Grandpa Theodore took us all by surprise. Ironically we should have seen it coming. I suppose that God keeps events such as this a surprise for a reason. If we had expected it, we would have been sad. That day was a happy day right up till the moment of death. Even then, something in the back of my mind seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. There would be no more suffering, no more agony, and no more pain. I performed CPR to the best of my ability until the ambulance arrived. What I remember most was the faint and distant breaths of life. These disappeared into the heat waves and then faded into the sunset. Suddenly, life was gone. Life was gone but the memories remained. To this day I continue to visit that particular stretch of shoreline and find myself generously rewarded with a beautiful fish from time to time. I think of the memories of my grandfather and my wife’s grandfather and how many things they had in common.
It wasn’t a matter of fate or coincidence that they had things in common; it was a sign of the times. The 1920s to the 1950s was their era. It reflected upon the individual just as the 1990s and 2000s reflect upon me. My relationship with Theodore was a product of my relationship with my grandfather and his time. I remember the stories my grandfather told, the events that changed his life and the time that he lived in. I was able to connect with Theodore by means of forgotten stories, distant memories and times long forgotten but still existing in my blood.
To this day when one of my clients catches a gafftop it meets an uncertain fate. I think of the health of the fishery and the detrimental effects of mismanaged resources. I also think about my grandfather’s and my wife’s grandfather’s enthusiasm to catch the fish. I sometimes look deep into the eyes of fish and see a reflection of the past. I am haunted by memories, water, and sometimes the eyes of a fish. I think about my past, the life of the grandfathers and the life of the fish. Despite my annoyance, I now find inspiration in gafftop when I look into their eyes. The long whiskers and slimy mucus were loved by some that I respect. I think about this as I watch them swim away.
Want to go fishing with Capt. Coombs? Give him a call now:
Johan's Fishing Guide Service