Amidst the rolling waves of the ocean, a group of people appear to be gambling their fate, with their hopes hinging on a fishing hook. This activity demands not only patience but also skill and balance from those who partake in it. This is Stilt Fishing, a unique way of fishing in Sri Lanka that has been inherited from the World War II era. Stilt Fishing is a traditional fishing style practiced by local fishermen in Sri Lanka, particularly along the southern coast. Local residents often refer to Stilt Fishing as “Ritipanna.” With perfect balance and extraordinary patience, fishermen perch on cross-shaped wooden poles and await their catch. Stilt Fishing is one of the most captivating traditional fishing methods that you may not find anywhere else. The fishermen lined up on the crest of the waves present an extraordinary sight that delights the eyes.
Stilt Fishing is a traditional fishing technique that continues to exist to this day. Passed down from generation to generation, this fishing method is estimated to be over 80 years old. This practice began during World War II due to food shortages. The high demand for food and overfishing forced many Sri Lankan fishermen to abandon their traditional fishing methods and rethink their strategies. This situation prompted some clever and creative individuals to try fishing in the water. Initially, they utilized the wreckage of overturned ships and crashed planes, and later began constructing platforms on the coral reefs.
After decades of practice, fishing activities using the Stilt Fishing technique can still be found today. The fishing season using this method reaches its peak during the southwest monsoon, as the rough sea conditions make it impossible to sail using boats to catch fish. The unique sight of fishermen perched on branching poles while fishing for fish can be witnessed in the morning, afternoon, and evening. At sunrise and sunset, the pole fishermen line up along the southern coast. The morning session lasts until around 9:00 in the morning or until they have sold their catch to the nearest village buyers who come to the Stilt Fishing location. The evening fishing session is usually for entertaining tourists and ends at sunset. This sight can now be commonly found along the southern coast in cities like Koggala, Kaththaluwa, and Ahangama. Stilt fishermen can also occasionally be seen in the waters of the Madu River. Although it may appear easy and enjoyable, Stilt Fishing actually requires a lot of skill and balance. Fishermen can spend hours perched on wooden poles, which is undoubtedly a very exhausting experience when the body cannot move freely and is focused on one spot.
A vertical pole with a crossbar is driven into the shallow seabed. This crossbar allows fishermen to sit several meters above the water. Stilt fishermen then use fishing lines from this precarious position to secure their catch. Their catches are collected in bags attached to the pole or around their waist. The most common catches are spotted herring and mackerel. However, as time has passed, Stilt Fishing has started to become endangered and abandoned by fishermen. Since the 2004 tsunami disaster, the Sri Lankan coast has experienced irreversible changes, and the fishing industry has also been affected. Consequently, this traditional fishing method has suffered, leading many fishermen to seek employment elsewhere, either in agriculture or in towns.
Today, Stilt Fishing is more focused on tourism activities. Most of the fishermen involved are not traditional fishermen. These individuals use Stilt Fishing as a way to attract tourists and make money, especially photographers from around the world who are fascinated by what they showcase. Additionally, tourists can also try climbing the poles and experience the unique fishing sensation that was previously not practiced. In short, Stilt Fishing is one of the most unique fishing methods in the world. However, its existence is threatened by the passage of time and natural disasters. Tourism comes to its rescue, ensuring that Stilt Fishing remains an attraction that can still be enjoyed to this day.