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.
Creating a skin mount, in which the whole skin of a fish is carefully scraped and de-greased before being sewn onto a custom mold for sculpting, laminating and painting, is grueling work. It can take eight to 10 hours just to clean the fish. “It’s said to be a taxidermist you have to have a weak nose and a strong stomach,” says Messineo. Taxidermists used to use arsenic and formaldehyde, although now Messineo tans the skin with safer zinc sulfate, kosher salt, brown Lysol concentrate, glycerin, and borax.
Her taxidermy client list includes such notable names as Jim Belushi and Spike Lee, President Bill Clinton, and former Governor William Weld among others. A few years ago, Messineo began offering her creations, which she terms “wildlife art,” through The Scrimshaw Gallery in Edgartown and Louisa Gould Gallery in Vineyard Haven. “She’s a fishing legend,” says gallery owner Louisa Gould. “People will come in to see her work, or come in and say, ‘Oh, that’s Janet!’” A bluefish mounted on a box in Gould’s gallery bears the label reading “This fish is not a reproduction.” Messineo’s pieces sell for a few hundred dollars for tailfins, to more than $2,000 for whole skin mounts. Her decorative pins, made of real, freeze-dried and shellacked minnows, are unique items popular with sportsmen and women alike. “You can buy beautiful jewelry everywhere, but where can you buy this?” Gould asks.