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Dream Caster

Martha’s Vineyard’s Janet Messineo wins fishing derby trophies—and devoted fans—for her superlative surfcasting skills.

Martha’s Vineyard’s Janet Messineo

The Cape Cod sun sets over Janet Messineo as she casts her reel out into the ocean, hoping to catch a beautiful fish that will soon hang in her workshop. Photo by Lynn Christoffers

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 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.”

Martha’s Vineyard’s Janet Messineo

Messineo hauls her catch of the day back to her cottage. Photo by Lynn Christoffers

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.

Martha’s Vineyard’s Janet Messineo

Experienced fisher and taxidermist, Janet Messieno stands amongst her collection of fish mounts. Photo by Lynn Christoffers

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.

Martha’s Vineyard’s Janet Messineo

Not all of Messineo’s fish are larger than life, and it is sometimes the smaller ones like these that make for a more challeging project. Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Gould says Messineo’s art draws a wider audience than typical gallery goers: “It’s such a treat when you have a little boy bring his dad into the gallery. They’re looking at the fish.” Gould adds, “She’s quintessentially authentic. The art is reflective of the person, and you can’t get any more authentic than Janet.”

Three years ago, Messineo augmented her fishing career by starting Vineyard Surf Caster (www.vineyardsurfcaster.com), a personalized, step-by-step guide to shore surfcasting. Most of her clients are novices, but they always catch fish, which Messineo offers to filet. Being on the beach at night, when the stripers are feeding, is a memorable adventure for her clients, Messineo says. “They’ll say, ‘I haven’t seen a sky like this since I was a kid.’ For them to be out in nature—I think that’s what they really love.”

Sandwich couple Paul Koulouris and Susan Huettner went fishing with Messineo on their honeymoon two years ago. “She puts you on fish. She knows where they are,” Koulouris says. In addition to bluefish and stripers, Koulouris reeled in, after significant struggle, the severed head of a false albacore, complete with shark teeth marks. “It’s about hope: You never know what the next cast will be,” says Huettner, who appreciates the instruction Messineo provided to tune up her surfcasting skills.

Messineo’s passion for fishing has yielded rewards she never predicted. She says, “Just because I fish, I’ve gotten so many gifts in my life: the people I meet, I’ve got writing, I’m in the art galleries, I’m speaking at club meetings. Who would’ve ever thought?”

Susan Spencer is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Brewster and Whitinsville. She contributes frequently to Cape Cod Life Publications.



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