I've ridden a lot of helicopter accessed terrain on a range of boards for years. Like everyone else in the early days I rode a “traditional” shaped powder board of about 1.68m; I didn't have any trouble turning boards or riding in any conditions found on the hill.
I had dinner one Christmas with a Burton rep who waxed lyrical about their new Fish and how well it worked in powder. I generally rode Burton powder boards, but I wasn't particularly looking to change model. Eventually I agreed to risk just a day of heli time checking out a preposterously small Fish to see if it was as good as the hype.
2008/2009 model year?
This review was originally for the 2001/2002 models, updated for each year's Fish as they arrived until the 2007/2008 model. During that time Burton tweaked things a little, and of course changed the graphics, but mostly the board simply got a little lighter. I didn't notice much difference in riding my old Fish compared to the latest models.
For the 2008/2009 season Burton made more significant changes, including:
- The board now has "S-rocker", which looks like camber at the back and rocker for the nose. I've not ridden these (for reasons below), but would say that although the key factor probably is the taper, these may well perform differently from the boards reviewed here. I've ridden with people on the new boards, and they don't fall over or anything, but equally I've not heard rave reports about this 2008-9 design.
- The new board discards Burton's old 3-hole insert pattern for a Forum-style "finbox" system based on 2 bolts. As I ride hard bindings, I can't ride the new boards at all. I had a look with Burton's 2-to-3 hole adaptor kit, but that seems to work only for Burton bindings.
Even if I could get some specific mounting system going, I'm not convinced that riding hard onto two bolts would not result in a warranty claim. Burton's own bindings are soft plastic; even a little guy like me can exert much more force on the board with my hard bindings than you could on those.
I could just use soft bindings and be done with it. One thing to bear in mind if you are forced to go that way: with Burton's EST bindings your stance is limited to +24/+12 or so. Not a problem for park-rats in Milton Keynes, but not much good for back country. The way around this is to use non-EST bindings from Burton with their adaptor plate. The result is basically the same as leaving one bolt out of your old 3-hole Burton mounting...
I've never seen anyone tweak their stance much during a day's riding, so I'm not sure that the 2/4 bolt difference is much advantage. Having tweaked both systems for people "on the hill", I can't say I found the EST system easier. You have less chance of losing the bolts I suppose, but getting the precise stance seems awkward.
Some suggest that the 2-bolt system allows to the board to flex "better". That's as may be, although here's a shot of a competing board from 2008-9 ridden in powder, clearly showing that boards flex pretty well even with race bindings.
A competing board showing perfect reverse-camber in powder. Bindings securely mounted with 4 bolts a piece.
I chose a 156cm board, which is the recommended size for my 65kg togged up. The board has a large slightly pointy nose, and a much smaller rounded tail. The key to the design seems to be a taper between the front and back: the edges aren't parallel. As someone pointed out, this is a return to the way snowboards used to be made. The default stance is set way, way back on the board, making it look like there's hardly any "tail" at all.
At first sight the 156 is just way too small for deep snow: you seldom see adults negotiating deep powder competently on anything shorter than 168. However the board's large nose shows it's clearly intended for deep snow use, and 156 is the recommended length for me, so that's what I took. I fitted my Intec race bindings using my hugely expensive titanium Burton-hole adapters as close to the centre of the board as I could get them. At least Burton still lets you use narrow stances (unlike Salomon). For off piste I ride at a mellow 50 degree parallel. Probably not many Fish are ridden at steep angles, but I like to go fast through the trees. Bollocks to fashion.
cute bottom shape
It took a couple of tree runs of waist-deep medium-dry late 2002 vintage BC powder (800m vertical each) to accommodate to the Fish. Initially my front leg informed me that I was sitting back a little, and it took some experimentation to get the front-back balance of the board correct. I didn't fall over or otherwise stuff up however - the board's not that different from everything else out there.
Once settled down I could think about how the board compares with more traditional gear. In steep and deep trees the main feature of the board is the narrow tail. Depending on how you choose to turn there's pretty much no lateral resistance from the back of the board. From an expert's perspective that just makes turning potentially faster. There still seems to be enough “bounce” from the rear to make the ride comfortable. In short, this thing rocks through the trees.
Jumps are as easy to start as they are with any other board. Landing is straightforward too. Although I'm not clear on the dynamics of landing jumps, I didn't have any trouble at all sticking almost everything I went off, which is pretty good for a new board. I think the tail probably sinks gently and eases you down. Although the back of the Fish is narrower than most off-piste boards, I didn't find balance on landing to be a problem (as it is if you try to land a narrow GS board in a snow drift).
On open glacier runs the board behaves pretty much the same as any other board. It's easy to cut short swings or long arcs; the edge to edge time is quick and the board runs without the nose hooking in the turns. The taper and small tail make the board easy to ride in "upside down snow": conditions where the upper layers of snow are more dense than those below.
Although the board is short it was stable at back-country high speeds. It accelerates slower than bigger boards, but that's not much of an issue for me. I suspect that it rides slightly lower than traditional boards because of its lower surface area, but that's irrelevant so long as you don't look down.
On tracked out chicanes the Fish is easier to handle than traditional off-piste boards. I think this is because the board's narrower where it matters, particularly by the rear foot. Although the large nose gets pushed around a little, overall the board tracks well and the rear foot feels particularly stable. I rode home on some long cat tracks at Powder Mountain Catskiing without thinking that the board wasn't suited to the purpose.
Burton stopped running with two different 156 flex patterns from 2005/6. The 160 only ever came in one flex pattern. Early Fish had 40mm of taper; this was reduced to 30 mm from 2004. I've ridden each year's model and not noticed much difference: they all work. Some are prettier than others, not that anyone cares. From the 2008/2009 model year Burton made rather more significant changes - see side panel for more on this.
It's been a few years and a half-century of powder days since I picked up my first Fish. The board has become more and more popular at heli/ cat operators. It's now the standard board for just about everybody, experts down.
Both Wiegele and Powder Mountain Catskiing recommend these boards. You do still hear internet pundits sneering at the Fish - it's either not difficult enough to ride, or not fast enough for them. You don't see or hear anyone like that when you break out of the forest into a clear cut at the end of a screaming run though. Mostly I doubt the detractors have ever ridden real powder.
Overall the difference between this board and a traditional big off-piste board is a bit like the difference between a Jaguar and a Porsche 911, or a slalom and a GS board. The Fish is small, fast and manoeuvrable.
I had been worried that this may be a board for beginners, and although it may well work for them, it's also fun for old gits who like to rip through the trees.
I'm not giving it back. Now all Burton need to do is dump the 3-hole insert pattern and sort out that little problem they have with alpine gear. I won't hold my breath.
yes, you can carve in powder
images: barry/phil/jim. rider:phil. Originally written in 2003 updated 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009