BUILDING A FISHING LIFE THE HARD WAY
There aren’t a lot of people who can claim to have changed the face of their sport- Janet Messineo is one of those. Most of us walk up and down the beach and don’t see many women throwing plugs over the breakers. Janet’s experience as a beginning surf angler was about as unwelcoming as it gets. Most of the men she encountered did not exactly welcome her to the beach let alone offer constructive advice. She had to work very hard to get any of their respect. But Janet’s story is not about butting heads with the traditional bastion of male surfcasters. Her story is about a life full of passion, grit, and resilience on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
Janet first came to the Vineyard in 1966. She found her early years there to be humbling in terms of her fishing. She basically had to learn the sport on her own while at the same time trying to prove herself, and earn some respect. That meant many long dark nights of casting into the surf, and a lot of time spent exploring the island. She never wavered, being fueled by a burning passion for fishing, and a stubborn determination to follow her dream of learning and mastering the art of surf fishing on Martha’s Vineyard.
From her arrival on the island, Janet knew she wanted to become a great fisherman. She had a deep belief that she possessed the ability to match any man in catching and landing big fish. What she may not have fully comprehended was that there would be some terrifying nights alone on the beach, and there would be times of deep loneliness in pursuit of her dream of being respected in the male-dominated fishing community. When she set out on her quest, Janet also may not have realized that becoming expert as a striped bass fisherman would not only become an obsession, it would require a lifetime to achieve the perfection she sought. She made sure she left no boulder unturned in understanding these nocturnal feeding, hard-fighting, clever fish that trapped bait against jetties near shorelines, and had a multitude of methods to cut you off or throw your hook.
Janet grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Salem, New Hampshire. Her grandparents were part of the last generation of mill workers before the demise of the New England textile industry. Some of her fondest childhood memories are of tagging along with her father and brother as they fished the jetties along the striper coast. She attended art school, but also had a certain wanderlust- an itch that always needed to be scratched. That feeling landed her, at the age of 18, on the Vineyard. It was there that she first became exposed to the surfcasting culture through such jobs as waitressing at places like Black Dog, Helios and Home Port. It was there on the Vineyard that she started learning the tools of the striper fishing trade- how to land a fish, what hooks and sinkers worked best, tying her first squid jig and casting her first one-ounce Rebel lure. During that time, she also had an experience that could have ended her, when, on a night fishing in harsh winds and torrential rains, she hooked something in the darkness that clearly had the power to pull her in over her head.
She survived, coming away from the experience even more convinced she was where she belonged. It was also on the island where some of her adjunct passions were born. First was her dedication to the Martha’s Vineyard Derby- a striper tournament that began in 1946 as a way to bring tourism to the island, and has since grown to become one of the largest tournaments in the world. Janet has been involved in the planning, and on the board for decades. This is also when she drew on her love of art and developed the skills to become a marine taxidermist. She has mounted bass for Jim Belushi, Spike Lee, producer Michael Mann, and Boston Bruin hockey player Chris Nilan. She also did a blue claw crab that was presented to the Clintons in the White House. Her greatest joy in taxidermy came from mounting many a youngster’s first fish, and donating her personal collection to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Fishing has been a constant thread throughout her life, and it has helped her break free from drugs and alcohol. The fishing life also includes her marriage to a singer, poet and activist, becoming an accomplished cook who loves to share her recipes, and adopting a son with Asperger’s, which has allowed her to experience the joys and challenges of teaching him to fish.
The offseason gives her a chance to pursue one other passion- sharing her story and her experiences whether it be through writing, her talks at winter fishing shows and club events, through interviews or interaction with people just dropping off or picking up their taxidermy projects. Given the reception she had at the beginning of her journey, she never ceases to be amazed by how many folks are interested in listening to her stories- those of a true pioneer and Martha’s Vineyard icon. Many folks are interested in hearing about her biggest fish- that would be a 50 and a couple 45- pounders. Although many of her tales begin and end on the Vineyard, she and her husband have traveled beyond those shores with rods in hand, and most trips yield interesting stories of one kind or another, such as a trip to Cabo when she set out to catch a Rooster Fish only to find them out of season. Even though there were no Roosters, she did manage a 36-inch cero mackerel from the beach which the locals found perfect to crow about. For more, read Janet’s autobiography Casting into the Light: Tales of a Fishing Life