Janet Messineo knew from the get-go that she wanted to become a great fisherman. She knew she was as capable as any man of catching and landing a huge fish. It took years—and many terrifying nights alone on the beach in complete darkness, in search of a huge creature to pull out of the sea—for her to prove to herself and to the male-dominated fishing community that she could make her dream real.
Messineo writes of the object of her obsession: striped bass and how it can take a lifetime to become a proficient striped bass fisherman; of stripers as nocturnal feeders, hard-fighting, clever fish that under the cover of darkness trap bait against jetties or between fields of large boulders near shorelines, or, once hooked, rub their mouths against the rocks to cut the line.
She writes of growing up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Salem, New Hampshire, the granddaughter of textile mill workers, tagging along with her father and brother as they cast off of jetties; of going to art school, feeling from a young age the need to escape, and finding herself, one summer, on the Vineyard.
She describes the series of jobs that supported her fishing—waitressing at the Black Dog, Helios, and the Home Port, among other restaurants. She writes of her education in patience and the technique to land a fish; learning the equipment—hooks, sinkers, her first squid jig; buying her first one-ounce Rebel lure.
She re-creates the thrill of fishing at night, of being buffeted by the island’s harsh winds and torrential rains; the terror of hooking something mysterious in the darkness that might pull her into water over her head.
She gives us a rich portrait of island life and writes of its history and of Chappaquiddick’s (it belonged to the Wampanoags, who originally called it Cheppiaquidne—“separate island”); of the Martha’s Vineyard Derby: its beginning in 1946 as a way to bring tourism to the island during the offseason, and the Derby’s growing into one of the largest tournaments in the world.
Messineo describes her dream of becoming a marine taxidermist, of learning the craft and perfecting the art of it. She writes of the men she’s fished with and the women who forged the path for others (among them, Lorraine “Tootie” Johnson, who fished Vineyard waters for more than sixty years, and Lori VanDerlaske, who won the Derby shore division in 1995). And she writes of her life commingled with fishing—her marriage to a singer, poet, activist; their adopting a son with Asperger’s; and her teaching him to fish. She writes of the transformative power of fishing that helped her to shake off drugs and alcohol, and of her profound respect for fish as a magnificent animal.
With eighteen of the author’s favorite fish recipes, Casting into the Light is a book about following one’s dreams and about the quiet reckoning with self in the long hours of darkness at the water’s edge, with the sounds of the ocean, the night air, and the jet-black sky.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||63 MB|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
1. The Hook
Striped bass, Morone saxatilis, are the most prized migratory game fish in the Northeast. They have earned respect from anglers because of their powerful fighting strength, beauty, and deliciousness as table fare. They can live for at least forty years and have been known to weigh up to one hundred pounds, although fish more than fifty pounds are scarce. They can grow to more than fifty inches in length. They have a massive strong head and their sides are silver with seven dark longitudinal lines including the lateral line. The striped bass spends most of its adult life in the ocean, migrating north and south seasonally. It ascends to freshwater in the estuaries to spawn in the spring. The juveniles remain in freshwater for a few years before entering the ocean to begin their lifelong annual migration.
In New England, the striped bass has been a valued resource since the region was first settled in the 1600s. The early settlers described the bass as being in immense abundance. One of the first public schools in America was established in Plymouth Colony in 1670 with income from the striped bass fisheries. Today in New England this species is still a highly valued resource.
On Martha’s Vineyard, the saltwater fishing season starts in April and runs through November. When the water temperature drops to below forty-five degrees, the striped bass migrate south, following their forage to warmer waters. When the spring water temperatures rise above fifty-five degrees, they return to Vineyard waters.
I enjoy fishing for many species, but striped bass are the fish that first captivated my interest, especially because they are so difficult to find since they are primarily nocturnal feeders. They have a reputation of being finicky and clever fighters. Under the cover of darkness, they will trap bait up against jetties or in between fields of large boulders near the shoreline. Once hooked, they have been known to rub their mouths against the rocks to cut your line. A bluefish is more likely to feed during the daylight hours and in open waters. Bluefish ferociously shake their heads and jump into the air trying to free themselves from a hook. They give the fisherman a hearty tussle; they feel more like fighting a fish of muscle, but not much brain.
A fifty-pound striped bass from the surf has been the dream of many obsessed surf anglers for generations.
I was packing up my gear after a day of fishing for bluefish. Early that morning I had driven my 1979 International Scout from Katama Beach on Martha’s Vineyard to Wasque Point on Chappaquiddick Island, over a three-mile barrier beach that connects the two islands.
A woman who looked to be about fifty years old, alone in her four-wheel-drive vehicle, stopped for a chat with one of the fishermen I was standing with at the Wasque Rip. To me, she was elderly. She told us she was heading out to Cape Poge for the night to fish for striped bass. From where we stood, Cape Poge is another seven miles of desolate beach driving on rough-cut roads through the dunes, and before the 1980s there was no beach management at night. It’s a barrier beach, Cape Poge bay on one side, Nantucket Sound on the other. I stood wide-eyed.
I was impressed that all she had with her was her fishing gear, a thermos of coffee, and a sandwich. It was unusual to see any woman fishing on the beach. The idea of spending the night alone on a desolate beach in search of striped bass filled me with anxiety. A shiver of fear ran down my spine, but at the same time I felt excitement and got an adrenaline surge. At that moment, I wanted to be her.
Becoming a respected surf fisherman has been a challenge. My first memories are vague, but I remember wanting to become a great fisherman—not a woman fisherman, separated by gender, but just a respected fisherman. I knew that I was as capable as any man of catching and landing a large fish. It took many years to prove to myself and to the male-dominated fishing community that I could make this come true. I’ve had many scary nights alone on the beach in search of a huge creature that I longed to know. As I think back over four decades, I’m not sure why I didn’t give up after being frightened half out of my wits. I’ve learned that giving up is not something I do.
During the off-season, from December until mid-April, I live a normal life. I work, clean the house and cook dinners, walk the dog, pay my bills, and take care of everyday business. Come April, the first time I get my fishing rod out of its winter storage and stand in the surf up to my thighs to cast, I exhale. It feels as though I have been holding my breath for the last five months. My posture changes, my face relaxes, most of the aches and pains in my body melt away. I feel serene, focused, and safe. I’m home.
It’s the meditative place similar to where gardeners go when they kneel in the dirt and dig their fingers in the soil. People who crochet or make quilts go to that place as they sit for hours and sew thousands of tiny stitches. Musicians get lost in the chords and notes, golfers know that place of peace when they chase a little white ball around the greens. My doctor told me that when he skis he no longer thinks of all his responsibilities and his mind becomes calm and quiet.
For me, it’s fishing. Standing in the surf, casting my lure toward the horizon, I feel like I am the woman I’m meant to be. As I watch the sun rise or set, rain or shine, all those important thoughts that have been occupying my mind become trivial. I feel small under the light of the moon and a ceiling of bright stars. When I’m fishing, I feel alive and right-size. After four decades, fishing is not something I do, it is part of my being. It’s who I am. My life becomes meaningful and I feel part of my surroundings.
I never thought about fishing from a boat. I worked as a waitress for twenty years and then as a fish taxidermist for the next thirty, and on my wages, purchasing a boat was out of the question. When I first got interested in surf fishing, buying a rod and a few lures was challenging enough.
In 1912, Charles Church caught an International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world-record striped bass weighing seventy-three pounds on Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts. In 1967, Charlie Cinto, from Plymouth, Massachusetts, tied that record. Both fish were taken from a boat in the waters around Cuttyhunk. In 1981, fourteen years later, another seventy-three-pound striped bass caught from a beach on Cape Cod by Tony Stetzko Jr. tied that record.
Al McReynolds from New Jersey broke all those records in 1982 with a seventy-eight-pound, eight-ounce striped bass caught from a jetty in Atlantic City, New Jersey. That fish held until Greg Myerson caught an eighty-one-pound, fourteen-ounce striped bass in 2011 from his boat in Westbrook, Connecticut. Greg’s fish is the current world-record striped bass.
I know that as a surfcaster my odds of ever seeing a fish close to sixty or seventy pounds are slim, but stories like these keep me hoping because you never know when the fish of a lifetime might come to you.
Table of ContentsA Note from the Author ix
1. The Hook 3
2. My Beginning 9
3. The Journey Begins 25
4. Not a Clue and a Conger 32
5. Learning to Fish the North Shore 38
6. Solitude and Darkness 45
7. My Mentor 48
8. History and Controversy 67
9. Fishing Logs 79
10. So Many Changes 91
11. Fishing for Keeps 105
12. Derby Dames 115
13. Respect, Secrecy, and Fishing Ethics 127
14. Superstitions, Quirks, and Omens 140
15. Tangling with the Fly Rod 149
16. Delusions of Grandeur 156
17. PTFD (Post-Traumatic Fishing Disorder) 163
18. Bad Luck, Good Luck 174
19. The Grand Slam 179
20. The Dory Man: In Pursuit of Skilligalle 190
21. The Art of Taxidermy 208
22. The Squeaky Reel 220
23. Trash Fish to Gourmet Cuisine 223
24. Pass It On 230
25. Losing Another Fishing Buddy 236
26. How to Catch a Fish: Rules and Exceptions 243
27. A Glimpse of My Maker 251
Favorite Fish Recipes 259