Ray Ewing


Reeling in the Years

Janet Messineo’s new book is about much more than catching fish.

Janet Messineo has journeyed to the Gut by way of North Neck thousands of times, but never like this. In the past, she made the journey to the legendary Chappaquiddick fishing spot in her “fishmobile,” a canary-yellow International Scout outfitted with homemade reel racks, buckets of bait, pliers, lucky fishing caps, belts for her waders, lures, rods, thermoses of coffee, sandwiches. And live eels.

But today the fishmobile has been replaced by a basic black SUV, and instead of a fishing buddy by her side, she’s picked up a reporter at the Edgartown Park and Ride. There is no bait, only a few borrowed lures.

“With everything going on, I haven’t had any time to fish. We’re going today, though, and I’m so glad.” She pauses for a moment as the Chappy Ferry begins to depart. “I don’t even get it. You know, it’s just my life. I spent thirty years up to my elbows in fish guts and going fishing at six o’clock at night. So I’m sneaking around in the dark, and now. Now I have this book.”

The book is her memoir, Casting into the Light: Tales of a Fishing Life, which has just been published by Pantheon. On the surface it’s the story of one woman’s quest to catch nocternal striped bass, a subject she has explored since the 1990s, when On the Water magazine signed her up to write a fishing and taxidermy column.

“One of my first columns was about fishing in the dark – the heebie-jeebies, the quiet that comes with it. When I wrote that, these guys would come up to me at the fishing show saying, ‘Janet, I like your writing. I felt the same way, but I never wanted to talk about it.’ I realized being a woman, when a lot of guys write about fishing, they write about how to. But when I write about fishing, I write about how it makes me feel. So I thought, ‘Wow, this is really interesting. These heavy-duty fisher guys, they like my writing!’”

Casting into the Light is not just a book for heavy-duty fishermen, however. “I’ve seen so many changes in fish species and weather. I tried to write about some of the changes. And I’m reading this to my writing group....And they’re like, ‘What’re you talking about?’ They said, ‘You know, you can’t just talk about all these statistics. You gotta put you in to it.’ And I said, ‘I don’t wanna write about me!’”

But she did. The memoir delves into personal history, chronicling her recovery from substance abuse, coming of age in the ’60s and ’70s, three husbands, stints in San Francisco, and the eventual adoption of her son, Chris. Somehow, even with all the fishing, so much life was lived.

It’s a moving tale that she tells well, but the passages detailing a fisherman’s inner life, moments of solitude, and hilarity on the shore are where Messineo’s indomitable personality shines most clearly. Thinking back on the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby, the monthlong competition that she has fished for more than forty years, she offered an example.

“After the first week of the Derby I start talking to myself. After the second week I start answering myself. And the third week I feel like I’m in group therapy. I’m just chattering away, thinking, ‘This is fun, you’re having a ball. Wait a minute, no, this fuckin’ sucks! It’s pouring rain! Wait, no it’s great again!’”

As the sun sank lower in the sky she let out a sigh of relief, followed by several moments of silence. The rhythm of her casts kept the beat. “Would you look at this!” she shouted at last, lifting up a tiny heart shaped rock. “You know, fish or not, I never leave empty handed.”