During the days when I felt the itching of the first bite from the travel bug, I would spend hours on the internet searching for every place that I could explore. There was a photograph about Sri Lanka that fascinated me a lot. A row of men perched up on tall poles dug into the ocean water! At first it seemed like some kind of circus in water. But research told me that they were stilt fishermen, and that stilt fishing in Sri Lanka was a dying yet fascinating fishing technique. So when I planned a tour to Sri Lanka for my vlog, stilt fishing had to be a part of my tour.
What is stilt fishing?
Stilt fishing is a traditional fishing technique practised by the fishermen living in the coastal areas of Sri Lanka. In the local language of Sri Lanka, stilt fishing goes by the name ‘Ritipanna.’ This technique uses long vertical poles with horizontal cross bars attached to them for fishing. The fishermen implant these poles in the shallow areas of ocean water, a little away from the coast. The horizontal cross bars serve as the seat from where they can catch fish.
Every morning, these fishermen walk, or rather, wade through the waters, and climb up the poles. The cross bars are erected at a height, and this gives them a comfortable space from the water level. They will have two to three fishing rods and several fishing hooks with them. Perched up on top of the stilt, they lay their rods into the water. They carry a basket or bag as well, for collecting their catch. They work with the finesse of machines; catch a fish, put it in the basket, and again drop the rod into the water. This process goes on for hours.
Origin of Stilt Fishing
According to the evidence available, this unique fishing practice came into existence after World War II when severe famine hit most countries in the world. A few fishermen in Sri Lanka invented this fishing technique as the conventional fishing spots were too crowded. First they used remains of capsized ships as the stilts, and later invented this unique system of balancing on a handmade pole. This practice caught up, and became the livelihood of several fishermen in Sri Lanka for generations. However, stilt fishing gives them only small fish varieties, and they can catch only one at a time. So this is not always an economically viable option. Today, there are only a few families who carry on with this technique, and they earn more from tourists than from fishing.
How To Watch Stilt Fishing In Sri Lanka
The answer to this question is simple. Go straight to the beaches along the south coast of Sri Lanka. Koggala, Galle, Weligama, and Dikwella are some of them. You can see the stilts dug in the shallow ocean waters. Early mornings and evenings are the best times to watch the beautiful sight of fishermen on poles. They start their work at around 6 AM, and it goes on till 10 AM. In the evenings, you will get the sight of fishing from 3 PM to 6 or 7 PM. These fishermen engage in stilt fishing all around the year, except during heavy monsoons. If your intention is to capture a few breath-taking snaps, it is best to go in the evenings. Snapshots of silhouetted fishermen sitting over the long poles in the backdrop of dying Sun will be precious additions to your collection.
I chose Koggala beach to watch stilt fishing. Koggala is at a distance of 16 kilometers from Galle. We reached there early in the morning. We had arranged with a local tour guide, who is also a member of the stilt fishing community. If you simply wish to watch stilt fishing, there is no need to make any prior arrangements. As I wished to have some local food experience as well, I needed some assistance. In Koggala, we saw several fishermen perched up over the stilts, and also bought fish from them. So believe me, this technique actually works! Of course, the fishermen do earn money by posing for photographs for tourists. But they are fishermen, and fishing is their occupation.
Mahesh- The New Generation Stilt Fisherman
As I mentioned earlier, we had arranged for a tour guide to help us watch stilt fishing in Sri Lanka. His name is Mahesh. He is a member of the stilt fishing community. According to Mahesh, only a handful of families carry on this practice even today. Mahesh’s father and his uncles are stilt fishermen. According to what I gathered from Mahesh, the young generation is not very keen on following their traditional occupation. Mahesh works as a tour guide, while his father is still into stilt fishing.
I reached Koggala quite early in the morning. I didn’t want to miss the sight of stilt fishing in Sri Lanka. Koggala is a long and tranquil beach. It looked very clean as well. Most beaches in Sri Lanka are clean, and they deserve a hats-off for this. Mahesh explained to us how the place got the name Koggala. There are a few huge rocks off the coast in Koggala. Cranes use these rocks as their resting place. In Sinhala language, Kokku means crane, and Gala means rock. This is how the place got the name Kokku Galla or ‘Koggala.’
Mahesh took us to the place where the fishermen were gathered. Though we could see poles from one end of the beach to the other, all fishermen were concentrated at a particular spot. I asked Mahesh why it was so. He explained to me that due to years of experience, these fishermen can assess the areas where they will get fish, depending on weather and oceanic conditions. Mahesh’s father was also among the crowd. He emptied his basket before us to watch. He had quite a heavy catch for the small basket! All of them were sardines. Mahesh told us that the fishermen are able to catch only the small fish varieties such as sardines using stilt fishing technique.
Fishing Without a Bait!
One thing that surprised me about stilt fishing was the absence of traditional baits such as worms or small fishes. In stilt fishing in Sri Lanka, they do not use any live baits on their rods. They use a plain hook instead! Traditionally, they used the bones of cuttlefish to make the hooks. Currently, the hooks are made from iron, and have a lead coating. The shiny lead attracts fishes, and they bite the hook. Fishermen instantly lift up the rod, and there goes the fish in their basket! It is an amazing technique indeed. The fishermen carry many rods, and a number of hooks with them. As there is no need to fix baits to the rod, they can act swiftly after every catch. This was new information to me, and probably to you also, am I right?
Sri Lankan Village Food Experience
Along with the sights of stilt fishing in Sri Lanka, I wished to experience traditional Sri Lankan cooking. When I expressed the desire to buy some fish and cook it in the traditional Sri Lankan style, Mahesh was happy to oblige. We bought fish from Mahesh’s father. He took us to his cousin’s home. Mahesh’s cousin and her mother cooked the fish in the traditional Sri Lankan village cooking style. They were also happy to offer us their homemade Idiyappams (string hoppers) along with Sambal (a kind of coconut chutney) for breakfast. Idiyappam is one of the popular Sri Lankan breakfast items. My friends and I relished the soft Idiyappams.
Lunch was an elaborate affair with sardine curry, pumpkin curry, boiled cassava and a leafy vegetable dish that resembled the Cheera (spinach) that we get back home in Kerala. Pumpkin curry was cooked with coconut milk, and tasted good. We saw the cooking of sardine curry. In Sri Lankan village cooking style, they boil fish along with tomatoes, green chilies, curry leaves, ramba leaves, and tamarind. It tasted delicious and unique. Boiled and mashed cassava was as tasty as always. This Sri Lankan village home and surroundings had a rustic charm. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of tasting common man’s food from a Sri Lankan fishing village.
Can I Try Stilt Fishing?
You may get this doubt in your mind after reading this. Are tourists allowed to try a hand at stilt fishing? Well, you can get on the pole and take photographs under normal conditions. Photos of tourists posing over stilt fishing poles are all over the internet. When I visited the beach, it was not safe due to high tide. Also, Covid restrictions did not permit tourists to get over the poles. Mahesh told me that I would need special permission from the local authorities to climb over the pole. Of course, posing for photographs is a major source of income for these simple folks. So it won’t harm us to reward them appropriately.
But I won’t advise you to try fishing from atop the pole. This is an activity that requires skill and experience. These fishermen balance themselves over the cross bars, lay the rods in water, lift fish as and when they bite, and collect them in a bag. It is not something that you can learn in a day. If you are game for some adventure, go for it and try your luck. As for me, I didn’t feel very confident about wading through chest-deep water to get over the pole. I was happy watching them from afar!
Travel to Sri Lanka During Pandemic
The current world scenario created by the pandemic is not very conducive to travel and tourism. Everywhere, there is a lurking fear of the virus and an approaching wave of the disease. Nevertheless, things are slowly crawling back to normal. Tourism is picking up in all countries including Sri Lanka. You can apply for an e-visa for travelling to Sri Lanka from this website. My trip to Sri Lanka was during the ebb of one of the waves of Covid. I underwent a Covid test and got a negative certificate before travel. There was no quarantine requirement for international travellers to Sri Lanka, at the time that I travelled. Covid-related requirements keep changing periodically. So it is best to gather the latest information before the actual date of travel.
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About the author: Ebbin Jose is a food vlogger from Kerala, India. He is passionate about travel and food, and shares his unique experiences with his viewers in a simple and compelling manner.