CLENDENIN — Holding the throttle wide open, Scott Smith steered his boat into a narrow, shallow side channel on West Virginia’s Elk River at nearly 30 miles an hour.
Rough-water waves slapped at the aluminum hull. Smith ducked an overhanging tree limb and threw his craft into a controlled skid that skirted a gravel bar by mere inches.
It was over in seconds. The boat zipped through the shoals and roared into a long, green pool. Smith relaxed and grinned.
“See? This boat can go places [propeller-driven] boats can’t go,” he shouted over the motor’s roar.
To a casual observer, Smith’s craft looks like any other fishing boat — wide, low-slung, with an outboard motor, a trolling motor and a casting chair.
The differences lie underneath. The bottom of the boat has a shallow tunnel that forces water toward the motor. The motor has no propeller; instead, it has a slatted intake that allows water to be sucked in, sped up and shot out the back many times faster than it came in.
“The chief advantage of a jet drive is that I can run through water that’s only 2 to 3 inches deep,” he said. “In a lot of the rivers I fish, that’s a real advantage. I can get to places conventional boats can’t.”
Smith, a hardcore muskellunge fisherman from Charleston, has joined the growing legion of anglers who use jet-drive boats to reach their favorite fishing spots. He did it, he said, because he got tired of fishing the hard way.
“The first time I saw a jet boat was probably 10 years ago, on the Licking River in Kentucky,” he recalled. “We had floated downstream in a johnboat, and we were dragging our boat back up the river through all the shoals.
“In one deep, nasty shoal where we had already fallen down several times, I heard a noise — and here came a guy in a jet boat, flying up the river. He waved as he went by, and I said to myself, ‘I’ll have that one day. I will not drag this johnboat any more.’”
Five years later, he got a chance to fish out of a jet boat for the first time.
“That did it,” he said. “I went and bought one of my own.”
Since then, he’s jetted up and down several Mountain State muskie rivers that are difficult to navigate with conventional craft — the Elk, the Tygart, the Coal, the Little Kanawha and the New.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s a roomier boat, much more comfortable, with space for all my gear and plenty of room to handle big fish.
“The best part, though, is that I can get places quickly, upriver or downriver. As long as I have enough water flow, I can run for miles with this boat in a very short amount of time. I can get into spots you just can’t get to without paddling a kayak or a canoe.”
Jet boats were invented in New Zealand, to run that country’s wild whitewater rivers. They made their West Virginia debut in 1989, when a Utahan named Dean Waterford built one for use on the New River.
Early jet boats, which used automobile engines mounted inboard, were powerful but expensive. When marine manufacturers started building compact outboard jet drives, the boats’ popularity as fishing craft took off.
“My boat definitely opened a lot of new muskie water for me, especially some of the water in Virginia that I just did not have the proper equipment to fish,” Smith said. “The James River, and the New River in Virginia and West Virginia, are now places I can go.”
Even with a jet boat, those waters aren’t for the faint of heart. Bumps and scrapes happen all the time.
“The bottom of my boat looks like I dragged it down a gravel road,” Smith said. “If you’re going to jet, you’ll hit some rocks. You’ve just got to get used to it, and try not to have a catastrophic event.”
So far, Smith has broken two intakes off the bottom of his motor, and he once hit a rock hard enough to put a hole in the boat’s hull. He hasn’t yet had what he calls a “day-ending, boat-destroying wreck,” but he has friends who have.
“But you can have those in a prop boat, too,” he said philosophically.
One secret to avoiding such mayhem is to become accustomed to a jet boat’s unique handling characteristics long before attempting to run any riffles or rapids.
“I’d advise anyone who buys a jet boat to ask the dealer for some lessons in driving one,” he said. “Then they should go to a lake or a big river and learn to handle the boat.”
Smith said driving a jet boat is like driving on ice.
“They’ll slide on you, and they’ll doughnut on you very easily,” he said. “Turning one is almost like doing a controlled slide on ice. By trimming the [motor’s] impeller up and down, you can change the boat’s speed and turning ability. All that comes with practice.”
The practice really pays off when the fish are biting. But even if they aren’t, Smith finds a way to enjoy his time on the river.
“If the fish don’t cooperate, I just run the river, go up through the shoals and see where I can go,” he said. “Jet boats are just plain fun.”