Stilt Fishing in Sri Lanka: Appreciating the Challenging and Fascinating Timeless Tradition

Sri Lanka is commonly known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean. This pearl-shaped island is famous for its rich history, lush green nature, food, tea, and turquoise blue oceans. Speaking of oceans, one thing that attracts outdoorsmen and tourists alike is stilt fishing in Sri Lanka. However, this is not like your typical fishing trip.

Stilt fishing is a traditional method practiced in Sri Lanka, particularly along the southern coast. The fishermen who engage in this activity perch themselves on stilts that are fixed into the shallow waters of the sea, usually in groups of two or three, and use a long fishing rod to catch small fish.

What is Stilt Fishing?

Stilt Fishing in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka stilt fishing is the traditional method this tiny Island carries as a nation. Over the years, it has inspired many photographs and famous paintings. Today, it is a popular tourist attraction, with visitors worldwide coming to watch the fishermen at work, hoping to reel in their day’s catch of spotted herrings and small mackerels.

Known as Ritipanna in Sri Lanka’s national language Sinhala, this particular fishing method came into being when fishing spots were overcrowded, and food shortages were at their peak during World War II. This situation enhanced the creativity of local fishermen who were desperate to fish for survival. At that time, their income and meals depended on how much fish they could catch daily.

First, they started using the wreckages of capsized ships and downed aircraft, and eventually, they began erecting the stilts into coral reefs. As many locals know, this fishing method requires a lot of skill, and even though it looks like a simple task, it is quite difficult to do, especially if you have no previous experience.

Stilt fishing was quite famous and commonly done all over the South Coast of Sri Lanka. However, when the devastating tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004, the access to fish using this method was reduced as it forever altered the country’s shoreline.

However, some good news is that stilt fishing is not completely forgotten. Small town destinations such as Ahangama, Kaththaluwa, and Koggala still have fishermen using this method.

Sri Lankan Stilt Fishermen

Stilt Fisherman Swimming to Stilt Pole

To begin Stilt fishing, local fishermen first start off by embedding a vertical pole with a crossbar attached to it into the seafloor in the shallows. The crossbar helps fishermen to sit a few feet above the water without causing any disturbance to the sea life.

Thereafter, to bring in small mackerels and spotted herring (Herklotsichthys punctatus), the fishermen use a Kitul palm (Caryota urens) stick up to 2 m in length. And finally, the collected fish is kept away in a pouch tied around the pole or their waist.

To master stilt fishing it requires a lot of endurance and patience. Before you even begin to cast your bait, the challenge starts. You must strike perfect balance while sitting on a small wooden plank. The first step you must take to attempt this method of fishing is the most important. Or your fishing trip becomes an ocean splash!

The next step requires you to stay quiet and still; this process can take several minutes and sometimes even hours, so you must practice patience. This step can be quite difficult at times, as the long hours of waiting make your feet numb. Even though many people find this step difficult to do, this is something that Sri Lankan fishermen have expertise in.

Sri Lanka Monsoon Season

Stilt Fishing in Koggala, Sri Lanka

During the southwest monsoon, the sea is quite rough. Hence, going out on boats for fishing is not for the faint of heart. However, during this time, stilt fishing is at its peak. Fishermen who use boats transfer to their stilt fishing perch as well. The southwest monsoon season is a great time to visit the south coast.

During this period, it’s quite easy to spot stilt fishermen. Sunrise and sunset offer the best time of the day to visit the southern coastal belt to witness the multi-tasking skill. Both these times present a spectacular view as the orange sun rays hit the ocean and sky, leaving a silhouette of the fishermen. It’s definitely a picture-worthy sight.

Stilt Fishing Day Trip Experience

European Tourist Stilt Fishing

Today, stilt fishing has become a cultural icon in Sri Lanka and attracts tourists worldwide. Tourists and locals are left awed at this difficult yet impressive method of traditional stilt fishing in Sri Lanka. Many tour operators offer stilt fishing experiences, which allow visitors to witness the technique first-hand.

Some tourists even decide to give it a try with the help of some experienced stilt fishermen. But most of them claim that it is definitely a difficult task. The stunning ocean views and the chance to interact with local fishermen make stilt fishing a must-do activity for any traveler visiting Sri Lanka.

Stilt Fishing Catch of the Day

Stilt Fisherman with Catch of the Day

If you want to witness this impressive method of fishing, visiting the southern coastal belt of Sri Lanka must be on your bucket list. Even though it’s not as common as it used to be, it won’t be a difficult task if you ask around a few villagers in the area. Stilt fishing in Sri Lanka will be a lifelong memory and a stunning social media update.

Stilt Fishing in Sri Lanka Conclusion

As you have read, the practice of stilt fishing is not without its challenges. The stilts can be unstable, and the fishermen must balance themselves carefully to avoid falling into the water. Additionally, the number of fish caught using this method is often small, making it difficult to make a living.

Despite their dwindling numbers and aforementioned challenges, stilt fishing in Sri Lanka remains an important part of the nation’s cultural heritage and is a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the country’s fishermen.