Stilt Fishing, traditional fishermen Silhouettes art in Sri Lanka

Stilt Fishing - a tradition unique to Sri Lanka

February 16, 2015

As you lay on the sandy shores of the beaches of Sri Lanka, you may see wooden poles standing above the waves a few metres into the sea. Men are seated atop these stilts with fish hooks and fishing rods. It may look odd, but these men are actually fishing. Stilt fishing is a traditional fishing technique Sri Lanka is famous for. Wooden poles are erected generally 2 metres above the sea bed and the fishermen sit or stand on a wooden crossbar. The fishermen don't use nets as it scares the fish, so instead, good old fashioned rods with bait do the trick. It's tedious and time-consuming work, but it is something that never fails to draw the wonder and amazement from tourists and passerby who love to watch these fishermen go about their work.

Fishermen Stilt fishing
Stilt fishing is a practice struggling to survive in an era when large scale fishing and trawlers have drastically impacted the old ways of the job.

No one really knows how old stilt fishing is, but the earliest records of the practice date back to the 1940s. Decades since, stilt fishing is a practice struggling to survive in an era when large scale fishing and trawlers have drastically impacted the old ways of the job. Stilt fishing was badly affected by the 2004 tsunami that crushed much of coastal Sri Lanka. But opportunity arose years since, after tourists began to show interest and travel media (National Geographic included) showcased the act of fishermen on stilts to the world. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see some fishermen take up stilt fishing as a tourism draw. If you are a tourist who happens to a take a photo of these stilt fishermen, someone from the group may later approach you and ask for a tip. Don't be alarmed. They aren't forceful, and will accept any donation. The sad truth is, these fishermen make more money from tourist donations in a day than they would from selling the fish they catch sitting on these stilts.

Fisherman Stilt fishing
Only a handful of families still continue to practice stilt fishing.

Only a handful of families still continue to practice stilt fishing, and many of them take up other work during low season and the monsoons, when going far out into the sea by boat is dangerous. Visitors craving to witness the act of stilt fishing should head to the beach towns of Unawatuna and Weligama in the south west coastal belt of Sri Lanka. Due to the popularity of stilt fishing as a tourism and photography subject, the beaches in Koggala, Kathaluwa, and Kalpitiya (in the north west) has also seen a few people resume this practice — even if they aren’t real stilt fishermen with years of practice under their belt. It may not be as authentic an experience as you hoped for, but stilt fishing wouldn't have survived if not for tourism. So next time you find yourself in southern & western beaches of Sri Lanka, do not miss the opportunity to witness stilt fishing. You may not realize it, but you are helping keep this old tradition alive.

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