What is a Fish Surfboard?

Fish surfboards aren’t as common as other types of boards. So there can be some confusion when it comes to buying your first fish, because of the lack of information out there. This guide will help you understand what a fish is and why you might want one in your quiver.

Fish surfboards are also known as a swallowtail surfboards. They are called that because the tail of the board resembles the tail of a fish or a swallow. Fish surfboards are usually built for surfing smaller waves and come in different types, including the hybrid fish and retro fish.

They have a flatter bottom, are wider and have more volume than most shortboards. A fish traditionally has 2 fins, but modern versions can have up to 5 removable fins.

Now that you know the basics, let’s get into some of the details of these versatile boards and how you can find the right fish for you. I’ll show you how to figure out the right length, your fin setup options and a brief history of this board design.

What’s the Difference Between a Fish Surfboard and a Shortboard?

A fish is technically a short board.

However, when most surfers say “shortboard” they are referring to a board that is longer, narrower and thinner than a traditional fish. A shortboard usually has a thruster fin setup (2 side fins and 1 tail fin), compared to the traditional twin fin (2 side fins) design on a fish.

Most shortboards either have a pin tail or a squash tail. Pin tail boards are used in big, heavy waves because they allow water to move across the tail faster and won’t slow the board down. The tradeoff is that they are harder to turn.

Squash tail shortboards are used in smaller, weaker surf and give the surfer more control of the board because there is more surface area at the tail. The wider tail also helps generate speed during flatter sections of a wave.

The distinctive tail of a fish surfboard combines elements of both the squash tail and the pin tail. It has the width of a squash, helping the board maintain speed and maneuverability in smaller surf. But it also has a “double pin,” which helps water move faster across the tail in hollower sections.   

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the look of a fish, compared to a squash tail shortboard. The fish is the green board on top.

Fish vs shortboard

Is a Fish Surfboard Good for Beginners?

It’s actually easier to learn to surf on a longboard. A longboard is very stable and allows you to catch very small waves. This gives you more practice and will help you learn faster.

However, once you learn how to surf on a longboard, a fish is a great board to help you transition to a smaller board. It can still catch small waves, but is much more maneuverable, and much easier to transport, than a longboard.

A fish is more stable than a shortboard and will allow you to catch more waves, so it’s a great way to improve your skills before you decide to add a shortboard to your quiver.

So if you are just starting out, a longboard is generally ideal.

But if you have your heart set on learning how to shortboard, or you simply don’t have enough space for a big board, then a fish is probably the next best place to start. 

How Long Should a Fish Surfboard Be?

The ideal length of a surfboard really depends on your height/weight and the type of waves that you will be surfing in. Since fishes are wider, thicker and flatter than most shortboards, fishes don’t need to be as long.

It’s not only about the length of the board though, but it’s actually more about the total volume of the board. Does the board have enough volume to support your weight?  

Your height can play a role in sizing your board, but your weight is more important.

Fish surfboards for adults generally start at about 5′ 5″ (165 cm) and run to about 6′ 5″ (196 cm). You can ride a fish that is considerably shorter than your ideal shortboard.

Beware: A lot of the online fish surfboard sizing charts are not accurate. They are using shortboard sizing. 

A good rule of thumb when it comes to finding the ideal length of a fish surfboard, is to first find the length of your ideal shortboard. Then subtract about 4 in (10 cm). The shortboard sizing charts are generally more accurate because more people ride shortboards. 

There will have to be a little experimentation to figure out the size and shape of the ideal fish for you (like with most surfboard types). But that guideline will get you into the right ballpark quickly.

…and forget that beginner/intermediate sizing nonsense that is on a lot of sizing charts.

You are going to be at least an intermediate surfer at some point, so buy the “intermediate length” board from the start. Sizing boards by skill level never made any sense to me.

Fin Setup on a Fish Surfboard

Today’s fish surfboards can have anywhere from 2 to 5 fins.

A traditional fish surfboard has 2 side fins. When a board only has 2 fins, it is much faster and more maneuverable, because it does not have the third trailing fin slowing the board down. The trade off is that it’s harder to control in bigger waves.

Some surfboard designers have expanded on this design and added 2 more fins on the sides, for a total of 4. This provides additional drive, without slowing the board down too much.

There can be up to 5 fin boxes on a fish, but most surfers won’t use full-sized fins in all 5 fin boxes at the same time. They will mix and match, according to the current wave conditions. 

The most common setups are:

  • Twin fin: 2 side fins
  • Quad fin: 4 side fins
  • Twin or quad fin with a nub: 2 or 4 side fins and a mini tail fin

A mini tail fin gives you a little extra stability, but doesn’t affect the speed or maneuverability of a fish, as much as a full-sized fin. Here’s Sean Mattison describing his Nubster mini fin.

You could ride a fish with just the tail fin, but it doesn’t work as well. A thruster setup (2 side fins and 1 tail fin) isn’t as common, but you could try it out to see how it works for you.

Having 5 fin boxes on a fish gives you a lot of flexibility. Experiment to see what works best for you, there’s no “best” fin setup.

It really depends on how you surf and the type of waves you are riding.

A Brief History of the Fish Surfboard

The fish design was originally invented in 1967 as a kneeboard, by Steve Lis. It was created to surf the bigger, hollow reef breaks in San Diego, not the small mushy waves that it’s associated with today.

As far as I can tell, the first person to stand up on a fish was Jeff Ching, a friend of Steve Lis. He loved the board from the start and said: “The Fish is the most versatile wave-riding vehicle ever invented!”

The popularity of the fish has come and gone over the years. Several surfing championships have been won on fish tail boards, including four world championship wins by Mark Richards.

Even though the fish died out in the 1980s and early 1990s, it looks like the fish is here to stay and you can get variations of this board design from most major surfboard makers.

Tom Curren would ride a variation of a fish at Pipeline in the mid 1990s, showing that a fish wasn’t only limited to small waves. This sparked the comeback for the design.

For a more complete history of the fish surfboard, go here.


So that’s everything that you need to know to get started with a fish surfboard. They are very versatile boards and are a lot of fun in small waves.

But they can also hold their own in hollow conditions too, so don’t be afraid to experiment a little. You might have to change your fin setup, but you might be surprised at what a fish can do.

Once you ride a fish, you might find yourself giving up your longboard.

Hugh Kimura

I grew up in Hawaii and I've been surfing since I was 9 years old. Since then, I've learned to ride all types of boards from bodyboards to standup paddle boards. I started Stoketopia to share the stoke of being in the water.

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