Janet Messineo has written a uniquely excellent fishing book. Sure, it’s about fishing, but that’s just one element in a memoir about her life inside and outside fishing.
“Casting Into the Light: Tales of a Fishing Life,” is also about a woman who entered a men’s fraternal culture, not to make a feminist point but because she wanted to fish, had to fish, had a right to fish, and by God, was going to fish. And she kept at it. Since she first washed ashore on the Vineyard some 50 years ago as an 18-year-old from Lawrence, and discovered the joy of surfcasting, Messineo has transformed from a raw novice learning to tie knots that will hold into a nationally recognized fisherman, writer, mentor, and guide to the art of fishing from shore.
Messineo shows us she bought the whole fishing package, even becoming a taxidermist so she could keep alive the feeling we get when we land a keeper or a Derby-worthy fish. (The annual Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, now 75 years and running, is the Boston Marathon of saltwater fishing. It attracts more than 3,800 entrants from around the Island, the country, and the world. Messineo’s been part of the Derby for decades.)
She fishes day and night, though these days Messineo is more concerned about conservancy, and releases nearly all of the fish she catches. She worries about fish stocks in our waters and about fishing etiquette, which includes treatment of fish and fishermen, and about fishing safety.
Messineo offers lots of photos and how-tos as part of her story. But it’s really a book about what it’s like to fish. She describes the joy of fishing, separate from catching. That’s hard to do. We are a results-oriented society. We ask “Catch anything?” not “Did you enjoy fishing?” And that’s a big part of it. My pal Mike Cassidy and I have spent satisfying evenings at a south shore beach, looking at the firmament, naming stars and constellations in a surround-sound environment of wind and water, without a murmur of a fish.
“Casting Into the Light” is an honest book and a comfortable read. If you know Messineo, you can hear her voice on the pages. If you don’t know her, you’ll want to. She talks about her life, her work and relationships, overcoming substance abuse, and becoming a mom. It feels like a Linsey Lee oral history in her “Vineyard Voices” oral history collection.
Messineo gives free rein to her Derby fantasies, those we have but maybe don’t talk about. You know the one we all have: landing the Derby winner on the final night and weighing it in six minutes before the final bell rings.
It’s also a book about overcoming fear. In the early days, Messineo fished alone, often at night, standing in roiling surf in waterlogged, chintzy waders, all she could afford then. She was aware that she was a woman alone. She knew the dangers of the sea and the lives lost to wind and water on the Island.
She conveys that feeling of experiencing the power of nature that makes you know nature is powerful and that you are not powerful. One definition of courage is the willingness to take action despite the presence of fear.
Messineo has paid close attention to the fishing art and its practitioners. Perhaps that’s her nature. Certainly her goal was knowledge, how to get better.
The book teems with Derby leaderboard names. She is generous in her praise of her mentors, first Jackie Coutinho, then Charlie Cinto and a full squad of others, including Tim White, Steve Amaral, and the late Ed Jerome, and Bob “Hawkeye” Jacobs.
As a result, her book is full of fishing yarns, stories, quirks and superstitions, her own and others’. She studied the habits of other fishermen. Now, fishermen on the Island don’t give up secrets easily. They worked hard to learn them, and at Derby time, well, if they answer at all, just assume they’re lying about how and where they got that lunker bass, blue, bonito or albacore. It’s not a bad thing. Fishing is hard, night fishing is harder, and shortcuts aren’t part of the culture. You have to find out for yourself.
While fishermen don’t give up their favorite fishing holes, some of the fishing and cooking greats have given up their recipes, 28 pages in all, including Messineo’s own favorites.
This is a great read if you fish, and an equally important book if you don’t. Spoiler alert: Don’t ever, ever give up until the miracle happens.
“Casting Into the Light: Tales of a Fishing Life,” by Janet Messineo, from Pantheon Books, NYC, $26.95. Available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown Books in Edgartown, at Island libraries, and online.