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Sticky Business

Stilt fishing is grueling, monotonous work. Worse still, it’s highly photogenic

Author Cain Nunns Illustration Peter Oumanski

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SRI LANKA – As the sun dips into the Indian Ocean, Vidu De Silva straightens up and exhales, wincing at the pain in his back, neck, wrists, knees and elbows. A member of Sri Lanka’s dwindling tribe of stilt fishermen, he has been at it for hours, teetering on a narrow crossbar tied to a 10-foot pole driven into the reef below. He carries a whip-thin rod in one hand and a plastic grocery bag in the other, which bulges with tiny squirming fish.

“Because they sell for only a few cents apiece,” De Silva says through a translator, “I need to catch a thousand a day to put food on the table.” Decked out in a Manchester United cap and a burnt-orange sarong, De Silva is in his early 20s, but he looks older, with long lines in his face and a thin, almost emaciated frame that seems permanently bent. Still, despite his obvious discomfort, he manages a weary smile before turning his attention back to the water.

Perching on a wobbly pole is a punishing way to catch fish, but the method has endured for generations, due to the fact that it’s relatively unobtrusive. The small mackerel—a mainstay for the stilt fishermen of Kathaluwa, on Sri Lanka’s southwest coast—are easily spooked and will turn tail at the mere suggestion of a net or a boat. “You have to be completely still,” De Silva says. “The fish are skittish.”

Unfortunately, stilt fishing also happens to be an extremely photogenic pursuit, dripping with the kind of indigenous authenticity beloved of tourists and travel writers alike. It’s a rare day indeed that the shoreline along which De Silva and his fellow fishermen work doesn’t hum with a crowd of camera-toting, snap-happy gawkers.

“Impossible!” De Silva barks as an auto-shutter clicks and another tiny fish flits away from his line. “Perhaps we should charge tourists for pictures,” he adds, his face taking on a few more creases. “There are almost as many of them as the fish anyway.”

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