Martha’s Vineyard’s Janet Messineo wins fishing derby trophies—and devoted fans—for her superlative surfcasting skills.
Every year, when the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby consumes the island in a frenzy of fishing, Janet Messineo turns into an insomniac. At night, she casts a line to catch stripers during their prime feeding hours. In the daylight, she angles for bluefish, bonito, and false albacore. “Since I fish [for] all four species, I never can sleep,” the 63-year-old says. Part of Messineo’s motivation comes from her fiercely competitive spirit, but even as she considers slowing down, more than 35 years spent as a fisherman has turned her passion into a compulsion. “I have to fish,” she says. “It’s not even about the prizes for me.”
Whether it’s competing in the derby, which runs September 12 to October 16 this year, or working as a surfcasting guide, writing fishing articles, serving as past president of Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters, or creating taxidermy skin mounts and fish jewelry, fishing is Messineo’s lifestyle. The girl from the housing projects of Lawrence, Massachusetts, first fell in love with the sport during a trip to Chappaquiddick in 1970. “It seemed like a miracle,” Messineo describes her first encounter with fishing. “Here was all this sand and this ocean. My friend threw this little thing out in the ocean and came back with a beautiful fish.”
Messineo’s devotion to fishing inspired her to break through gender barriers in the masculine sports world, start a business and become an artist at middle age, and pass on the wonders of the sport—and the beauty of the beach at night—to others. At five-feet, two inches, Messineo couldn’t even find a pair of waders that fit until 1992. “Size 6 men’s was the smallest you could get,” Messineo says. “I looked like the Michelin tire guy.” But she persisted even in ill-fitting waders, in part as a way to combat the alcoholism with which she struggled. “I thought I needed my bottle of courage to roam the beaches in the dark but realized how much I was missing when I fished under the influence,” she says, recalling her path to sobriety in the mid-1980s. “If I did not have fishing to focus on, I am not sure giving up my life of drinking would have worked.”
The derby— five crazy weeks in the fall when competitors fish day and night, trying to reel in the most poundage in striped bass, false albacore, bluefish, and bonito—is where Messineo made her name as a sportswoman. She’s won countless prizes in the women’s division, but she’s most proud of her awards for overall rank in the tournament (men and women) for fishing from shore, including second place for striped bass in 1984, first place for false albacore in 1985, first place for bonito in 1985, and second place grand slam—all four species—in 1998. “Jeez, I am one lucky gal!” she marvels.
It was her 45-pound, second-place striper in 1984, which she had mounted by Cape Cod taxidermist Wally Brown, that inspired Messineo to pack up for the Pennsylvania Institute of Taxidermy to learn the art of skin mounts. Skin mounts are personal trophies for fishing enthusiasts, commemorating catches from a child’s first sea robin to a sportsperson’s prizewinning bluefish. They’re also prized as carefully sculpted works of art, capturing the fish’s elegant form and shimmering colors in three dimensions. She graduated in 1987 and the basement of her Vineyard Haven home became the Island Taxidermy and Wildlife Art studio, filled with sinks, vats of solution, and walls full of exquisitely mounted and painted fish, including large-mouth bass, brook trout, scup, and, of course, bluefish and stripers.