A Fish Story

A Fish Surfboard Guide

Why surf if not your not having fun? You might think that the idea of a more user friendly board would be widely accepted and that most surfers would opt for them, right? Naa. For the last few decades the craze has been all about high performance shortboards. We’re talking thin, narrow, and chippy boards that paddle like you’ve got an anchor attached to your leash and need a wave around chest high + to link together a turn. Maybe it's been the increasing popularity of the pro surfing tour (the World Surf League), or maybe folks were afraid to step away from the norm. But either way, the typical performance shortboard does not do the average surfer or weekend warrior any favors. But what are you supposed to ride if you didn’t want to hop on a longboard or midlength?

As of the last few years we've seen more and more surfboard shapers gravitate back to the pure enjoyment side of the sport - offering shorter, fatter, and flatter boards that excel in small to medium sized waves and paddle + catch waves similar to the sensation of a longboard. It is with all this change that we are starting to see the surf industry move back to the fish design as the ultimate one board quiver. But what exactly makes this shape so special?

Steve Lis in 1973 with one of the original fish. Photo: Warren Bolster

History of the Fish

Before we get into the design of the Fish surfboard, we must first think about the origin of the fish.

The original fish design was first introduced by Steve Lis in San Diego back in 1967, originally designed for kneeboarding. During the mid to late 60’s, surfer’s became obsessed over trying to ride deeper and tighter in the pocket. Kneeboarding could get you deeper in the barrel and closer to the pocket of the wave than stand up surfing - in part considering the length of the boards that were used during the time period.

Below: Steve Lis dropping in on his fish. Photo: Warren Bolster

At the time Lis was riding pin tail boards while using swim fins to help him get into waves. He noticed that the fins would hang over the tail of the board and create drag in the face. He then had the idea for the “split tail fish” design, to create a board that had extra width to hold the swim fins but still have the hold of a pin tail board. When coming up with deign, he literally kneeled on the floor with his swim fins on and traced an outline around himself. The resulting outline was the first template for the fish.

Though Lis was the mind behind the shape - it wasn't until the style master himself, Dave Nuuhiwa, and Jim Blears started riding the Fish that the design busted into the lime light. Though Nuuhiwa had been riding the fish for a few years, during the 1972 world championships the San Diego boys were not psyched that Nuuhiwa was getting all of the attention on what they claimed was their shape. Nuuhiwa was doing well in the contest, and days before the Finals he discovered that his board had gone missing from his car - and was now broken in half and nailed to the pier!

David Nuuhiwa on a fish. Photo: Jeff Divine

Lis was not the first to create a split tail board, nor a twin fin surfboard. These were already pretty well known in the early 70’s (though only few people “stand up surfed” a fish by 1973). However, Lis is credited for the design because he combined the two into what you find at most surf shops around the world today.

Mark Richards was another pioneer of the surf industry when it comes to the fish design - although his take was a bit different than the Steve Lis fish. At the time, Mark was a pro surfer from Australia competing on the pro tour. After seeing a few surfers using a fish during some of the competition events, MR began his work on a fish design in 1976. With master surfboard craftsman Dick Brewer helping MR with his design, he developed his famous 6’2 fish, with large twin fins set around 11 inches from the tail.

MR's Famous 1976 Twin Fin, which he named the "Bumble Bee"

Mark Richards rode his fish design through the 70’s and into the early 80’s during which he was atop of all of his competition winning the world title. He was able to maneuver the fish better than anyone at the time, throwing tighter carves in the pocket and harnessing all of the speed the twin fin has to offer.

Shortly after MR's twin fin craze, Simon Anderson convinced the world that they should be riding thrusters (or three fins) and so began the evolution of modern high performance surfing. Fishes were still being made during this time period but took a back seat to the more progressive and high performance shapes. Even most of the "fishes" being made were much more performance oriented than the original Steve Lis design. A great example of the "new age" fish is the Round Nose Fish by Lost Surfboards that took the world by storm in 1997 when the film 5’5” x 19”¼” was released - with Lost team riders Chris Ward, Andy Irons, Cory Lopez and Bruce Irons showing everyone how it was done.

After a bit of a hiatus - the true retro fish template has began to make a comeback over the last few years, and we couldn't be more stoked.

The Design

The fish is one of the most unique and recognizable surfboard outlines in the history of the sport.

Most people have had the assumption that the retro fish was suited for small and weak waves. This is one of the biggest misconceptions in surfboard design. What most people think of as a groveler, or small wave surfboard, is actually one of the most versatile and misunderstood shapes in surfing. After all, the first incarnations of the fish were made to surf steep and hollow waves - not weak and gutless dribble.

The fish is suited for speed and power with an overall wide outline and a straight rail line, a wide nose, and twin pin tails.

The wide nose and outline allows for increased paddle power to help get into the waves with ease and be up and riding early. This also means that the board will have more buoyancy, or float, which means that we can ride it shorter that a standard shortboard - keeping it maneuverable.

The straight outline helps the board trim and keep speed down the line, but also limits the turning radius - resulting in more drawn out turns. This is complimented by a down rail which helps grip the water and make the board plane faster and hold thru turns.

The most unique feature of the fish is the "twin pins" tail - known as a swallow tail. The swallow tail is a “split tail” design that offers plenty of surface area like a square tail, but has two points that give extra hold and traction. The wider tail allows it to maintain a great amount of speed in soft parts of the wave. For this reason, the fish can work when the waves are small or when the waves are steep and hollow.

The two ends allow the board to feel solid and engaged when holding a hard turn and moving fast. The swallow tail is one of the most versatile tail designs for waves of all shapes and sizes.

Combining speed, hold, and ease of catching waves, the fish design is the ultimate wave weapon.

Fish Surfboard Fins

The true retro fish features two fin boxes, or (better yet) glassed on fins, often referred to as “twin fin”. The goal of the twin fin setup is speed. Having two large, wide set fins along the outside of the tail allows for minimal drag while moving through the water. This, combined with the wider outline of the tail, is guaranteed to send you screaming down the line at Mach-10.

The downfall of the retro twin is the lack of quick/tight turning, as they usually have a lot of rake and surface area. This helps with speed and flow, but not so much with quick pivots. Luckily there have been some killer advancements in twin fin design, so efforts can be made to make a retro fish more radically. A more upright twin fin will allow for tighter turns in the pocket - but will sacrifice speed and drive. It's up to you to find the balance that works for your style of surfing.

Glass On Twin Fin
Removable Twin Fin
Removable Quad Fin

Many modern fish designs or “hybrid” fishes offer a quad or a five fin setup, allowing the to have a bit more control of the surfboard. A modern fish is usually a bit more pulled in at the nose and the tail, and features less width/volume overall. This leads to increased maneuverability but less speed, making it a bit more manageable for surfers that prefer a performance shortboard but still want that fishy flow.

Needless to say - we are pretty stoked to see the fish making a comeback into modern surfing. These boards provide a unique experience, whether being surfed in small summer time surf, or pumping hurricane waves.

Need some inspiration? Lookup videos of Asher Pacey, Dave Rastovich, Rob Machado, Torren Martyn, or Ryan Burch riding a fish and watch these guys flow. One of my favorites below featuring Torren Martyn on his trusty twin.

How to Read a Surf ReportA guide for tracking waves and finding surf