On Florida’s Waters – Fishing From Stilts

For some time I’ve been interested in how fishermen in different times and places fish. I’d like to think I can become a better angler by looking at different cultures and time periods, maybe learning from successful practices around the world and avoiding those that don’t work. Some time ago in this column, I wrote about the fish wheels that natives in Alaska use and suggested other fishermen could employ such wheels in rivers all over the country. This time I’d like to discuss a really unusual type of fishing: from stilts.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) tells us that the world has around 38 million fishermen, including commercial fishermen. I also learned that fisheries and aquaculture operations provide employment to over 500 million people in developing countries. That figure does not include recreational fishermen.

The attached photo of stilt fishermen in Sri Lanka by Bernard Gagnon depicts a scene that a lot of us have never seen in person. The fishermen patiently sit on their stilts waiting for the fish that they expect will pass by them in the shallow waters below or over the coral reef. The practice goes back about seven or eight decades and doesn’t seem to have evolved too much.

It seems to have begun during World War II, when overcrowded conditions and food shortages forced enterprising fishermen to try different methods of catching fish. After using the wrecks of downed airplanes and capsized ships from which to cast their lines, the men actually built their first stilts over the coral reefs, which provided a sturdy base on which to build their flimsy-looking wooden mini-towers. Or they thrust their poles deep into the sand beneath the water and tied a cross bar to the vertical pole. They would then carefully climb up poles and perch in what seems like a precarious position.

The fishermen go out at dawn and dusk, cast their lines into the water, and wait for the passing schools of fish. Lucky anglers can catch herring or mackerel passing by, but the occasional monsoons and tsunamis have altered the coastline too much to make stilt fishing very viable today.

It’s true that some of the local fishermen pose on the stilts for camera-toting tourists, especially when the fish are not running or when the threat of monsoons might drive away the fish and the anglers. The practice will probably die out because it is so hard and has diminishing results as the ocean there changes and as villagers move inland to get away from tsunamis. I doubt if the practice of stilt fishing will catch on in Florida, but I still find it useful and informative to see how anglers throughout the world fish.

Kevin McCarthy, the award-winning author of “South Florida Waterways” (2013 – available at amazon.com for $7), can be reached at [email protected].