Guide Profile: Fly Fishing the Missouri River with Mark Raisler of Headhunters Fly Shop

Mark Raisler fly fishing
Mark Raisler on the Missouri River (Photo: Bryan Gregson Photography)

Mark Raisler lives and breathes the fly fishing found on the Missouri River. Deeply devoted to these waters, Mark has made Craig, Montana his home and the Mo his passion. Mark is a pro for companies such as Sage and RIO Products, and as owner of Headhunters Fly Shop, Mark’s life is centered around this river, and he knows the fishery about as well as anyone. Mark recently sat down for an interview with The Venturing Angler:

Why do you guide where you do?

The best and most consistent fishery in the West. But I didn’t know that until after, well after, I landed here on Central Montana’s Missouri River. The length of the guide season is 250 days long, although it was not always quite that an extended period. The opportunity to guide from mid-March through mid-November is second-to-no-other trout fishery on earth. And the fishing here is unreal, ever so consistent, and perpetually changing, which keeps the job challenging. I haven’t learned it all and will never achieve that incredibly lofty goal.

What is your favorite fish specie?

Brown trout. I just like the looks of brown trout. It is the regal fish in our resource. Brown trout are better looking than the rainbow. Although I like a cutthroat for enthusiasm and brook trout for coloration, I dig the brown trout. I like brown trout because they are predators and will chase a skated fly, sometimes unintentionally. They love to track down the streamer or soft hackle waking after it in the skinniest of waters. Brown trout are not afraid of the grasshopper. Brown trout eat rusty spinners like a cheesatarian plucking a nice aged blue from an appetizer buffet! Delicate, calculated, confident, ignorant, and greedy!

What is your favorite thing about guiding?

Interaction with people, teaching, and working outside. I have always said that if I weren’t bullsh*tting someone in the drift boat I would be doing it on the side of the road for free! Love to be with and around other anglers.

Teaching skills to fly fishermen in the boat is rewarding. A tidbit of info, improved technique, or reaching new heights are a few of the things anglers can return home with. Guided discovery is an important goal of mine. If you can steer an angler in a direction and watch them learn, and fail, and succeed, and move to a new level of skill during the trip; that is guiding success.

Having the opportunity to work outside on a river such as Montana’s Missouri River is a real treat. I have worked outside my entire life in both the ski business and in many capacities of the fly fishing industry. A real privilege. Seeing the sun rise and fall in conjunction with enjoying the four seasons of the river is beyond explanation. I can only be thankful for the opportunity to work, live, and play in this incredible environment.

Fly fishing Missouri River
Fly fishing the Missouri River. (Photo: Bryan Gregson Photography)

What is the most memorable trip you’ve guided and why?

Guided a feller, his name was Bob, years ago fishing with his two sons and their sons. This gentleman was an average angler at best. He was 92 years young. His sons were both in their late 60s with the grandkids in their 30s. Fishing was tough the first two days. Day three we rolled the dice gambling on a good brown drake spinner fall that evening. Slow fishing all afternoon while we waited for the anticipated drake event. The son in my boat caught a couple trout as the sun set. It was looking dire for the patriarch of the family. A few hundred yards above the boat ramp we spotted a big brown greedily gulping the remaining spinners on the water. “Do you see that fish on the shore sir?” Bob nodded yes. “Make a long reach cast across that flat Bob, right on his nose…you only have the one shot!” Bob made two false casts and let his size 8 brown drake cripple fly toward the target. A textbook reach dropping right in front of the rising brown trout. A 50-footer while sitting followed by an 18 inch drift. Absolute perfection. The next action was Bob setting the hook.

“Bob. That was the best cast you made all day. Shoot, all week!” I exclaimed. Bob replied simply following the release of the majestic large kype-jawed brown trout: “Best cast I ever made. That was the one. I enjoyed that.” All the while smiling almost sheepishly. A humble man enjoying the presence of his family in a great outdoor theater.

I too enjoyed the day with Bob. The entire week. I think of that moment often. Bob’s perfectly executed cast, his smile, his respect of nature, and mentorship of his family. A memorable day that still makes me smile.

What is the funniest thing you’ve experienced while guiding?

Funny or amazing? This was amazing, and unbelievable. A client from my home town of Mt. Vernon, WA was fishing with her husband. We were throwing a Griffith’s Gnat at fish rising to trico spinners. Debbie threw the fly into the open mouth of a rainbow. The mouth closed and I calmly said, “Hit it Debbie.”

Bruce immediately asked me “Did the fly land in that fish’s mouth? “Yep. That’s how you do it Bruce!” I said.

Amazing indeed. Have only witnessed that one time. I’ve heard legend of it before and after. But that was pretty funny, and amazing.

What makes your guide service great?

High level of customer service. Long time career fishing guides. Our gang of guides rowing the Missouri River are here to stay. And, we do not travel to fish other rivers in the state. We do a bit on the Blackfoot, but 99.9% of our work is done here on the Missouri River. Many outfits bounce around from river to river throughout the trout fishing season in Montana, but we stay put all 12 months. Opportunity to fish the same resource all four seasons allows you to become quite intimate with your home water. The upshot is a deep knowledge of one river, this river.

We are fortunate to have a fantastic support group as well. Our shop staff has very little turnover. The benefit is that our fishing guests get to know not only the fishing guides well, but all of the Headhunters players. What you get as a customer is the highest level of customer service from the time you are introduced to the website, the ease of booking on the phone, the on-site and river lodging options at Craig Trout Camp all the way through the guide trip.

We are blessed to live, guide, and love Montana’s Missouri River. The river is the star. Without the Mighty Mo, none of this would be possible. The resource is second-to-none as a technical dry fly fishery.

Missouri River trout
Wild trout release on the Missouri River (Photo: Bryan Gregson Photography)

If you had only one day off all year, where would you fish and what fish would you target?

I’d like to catch more bonefish. I have fished the Florida Keys over 500 days. I have caught some bonefish, and some nice ones too! I have caught my one permit on a fly, checked off the list. Done. I have primarily fished for tarpon. Love Tarpon. All of that done from the bow of a flats boat. But I have never wade-fished the flats. That would be a kick. That is what I would wish for. Sightfishing for singles or doubles … bones. In any logical location.

What are your favorite three flies?

LaFontaine’s Buzzball. The best generic fish catcher on the planet. Three flavors of hackle: orange dyed grizzly, medium dun, and grizzly. Looks like nothing, and yet, everything. I am a believer in presentation. Presentation first. Fly first. That is the key. And a LaFontaine’s Buzzball.

Parachute Adams. Hard to beat. I like the large ones. Like a 10 or a 12. Fish that blind and fish eat it. Fish it big and confidently. Fish eat Para-Adams! Daily. Fish it to a finicky bank sipper and watch it disappear. The best.

Rusty Spinner. When trout are eating the Rusty Spinner fishing is good. And when summer fishing is good, they are eating the Rusty Spinner. I am fond of the traditional poly winged pattern. Syl Nemes said that fish see the profile and eat it. I once had some clients from Japan who had tied their spinners with the tips of the wings turned/trained up, towards the sky. They worked! I like to fish a large and oversized spinner too. Just like the Adams above, fish will eat an oversized spinner. Ohhh … the Trusty Rusty. Love it. Live it.

There’s been a good bit of recent attention to Spey fishing for trout on the Missouri River. How did this come to evolve to where it is now? How has this become so popular?

Headhunters is the Trout Spey specialist on the Missouri River. My business partner John Arnold has been tossing the Spey rod since the late 80s. I picked one up six or seven years ago. The staff is fully engaged in fishing with a trout Spey rod much of the time. We started carrying Spey gear at the shop seven or eight years ago. At that time, the lightest rods were in the 6wt range. Now of course we can fish rods as light as the 2wt. We now have 30+ demo Spey rods ready for action for all to check out. And the lines too. I don’t know how many demo Spey lines we have, but I once counted over 100 and that has been a few years ago.

We hold free Trout Spey casting clinics many times during the winter. I think we are in the 6th or 7th year of hosting these wildly popular day long classes. We also run many Missouri River Spey trips throughout the fall and winter months into the spring. Private casting lessons are available as well for those wishing to accelerate their learning curve. We truly believe in fly fishing education and is a big part of our focus.

The style of cast along with the propensity of our trout to eat a swung fly has evolved into the perfect match for us. The four seasons of the Missouri coupled with not too many days that you cannot fish has brought more and more attention to the Missouri River. Spey season starts in October and runs through May.

It is not uncommon to see several Spey fishers when driving down the river in any winter month. It certainly has become one if not the primary method for five months of the year!

The popularity is due to several factors. The availability of appropriate trout Spey gear. The evolution of not only the rods but also of the fly lines too. The ease of wade fishing here on the Missouri. The opportunity to fish the river fall thru spring. The internet. All are factors leading to the increasing popularity of the Missouri River and its association with trout Spey.

Sage PULSE from Sage Fly Fish on Vimeo.

What is the one piece of gear you couldn’t bear to leave at home?

Ketchum Release Tool. I cannot live with out it. I can cut the line with my teeth, but that release tool is imperative for fish health. You never have to touch the fish. Get the tool on the line, descend towards the hook, find the hook, and release. I have three or four back-ups in the boat bag just in case I break one.
If there were a second it would be the Dr. Slick Mitten Scissor Clamp — the other tool in my boat. Those two are all you need. The Mitten Scissor Clamp has an eye spike, both cross hatched and smooth areas of the tip, squeeze through operation so you don’t have to align your fingers while removing it from your shirt/vest. Easy operation, a cutting device, eye opener, and barb crusher. Again, I have several of them in my possession for when I drop them overboard … which happens!

Do you have any other passions?

I like shooting photos. I like skiing ten runs a year. I love to cook, smoking meats, and cheeses. If I weren’t doing the fly fishing thing I would be in a West Coast city operating a taco cart. And maybe doing some content writing too. I wouldn’t mind being a beat writer for the Seattle Mariners. That would keep me occupied for half of the year. The other half I’d be swinging on the Mo!

To check out more from Mark Raisler and Headhunters Fly Shop, please click here.

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