REMEMBER the days when the May fishing opener was such a big deal that we had bait shops open past midnight, fishing contests and landings that were beyond full?

Everyone knows that tribal spearing and reduced walleye bag limits helped erode that big boost to the tourism industry, but there were other reasons.

About the same time we lost the catch-and-keep bass season and the muskie opener moved to Memorial Day weekend, and both of those helped reduce the popularity of opening day on the first Saturday in May.

That could begin to change if an advisory question from the Conservation Congress gets support during the online voting that’s entirely replacing the spring hearings next month.

The question reads: “Would you support a change in the musky season opener to the first Saturday in May, with catch-and-release only through the month of May?”

The Congress has adopted a local resolution from Vilas and Oneida counties from a year ago. It was authored by Eagle River residents Elmer Jensen, a fishing guide, and Don Pfeiffer, an avid angler.

The question passed in Vilas and lost in Oneida by a single vote. But the idea had enough support from the public and the Congress’ warm water study committee to advance as a formal advisory question.

If it wins statewide approval, it could advance as a proposed rule change on the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) side of the 2021 spring hearing questionnaire. Those proposed changes, if approved, usually become effective the following year.

Pfeiffer says the reasons that prompted a later muskie opener more than 20 years ago are no longer applicable.

“Back then it was illegal harvest, added pressure from incidental catching by walleye anglers and the potential for spearing interference,” said Pfeiffer. “With a catch-and-release season from the first Saturday in May through the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, we don’t have to worry about anglers targeting trophy female muskies.”

Pfeiffer said the only worries brought forward by opponents today is whether the catch-and-release season would impact spawning females.

“We don’t believe that is an issue because virtually zero spawning females are caught by anglers in May,” he said. “Male walleyes are the aggressive fish in May and they are most likely the ones that will be caught and released. And they are fun to catch.”

They’re shooting for a statewide catch-and-release season in much of May because today, the release ethic is incredibly strong with all muskie anglers.

“There was a time when protections needed to be in place to protect muskies from harvest, but not today,” said Pfeiffer. “And this new catch-and-release season would still protect them from incidental harvest by other anglers.”

The goal of the proposal is to bring muskie anglers back to northern Wisconsin in early May, where they will boost the tourism industry and help restore a more vibrant fishing opener.

“With this, we would have catch-and-release fishing seasons available for smallmouth bass and muskie starting the first Saturday in May,” he said. “We could get back part of what we lost from the good old days.”

The scribbler has no problem supporting that advisory question, as spring tourism has suffered incredible losses since those earlier days.

We have a blast in early May throwing jerk baits for smallmouth bass, something that wouldn’t be possible if there was not a catch-and-release season in place from the first Saturday in May to the Saturday nearest June 20. Largemouth bass are no longer protected in May.

Muskie anglers want the same privilege, to be able to cast baits that target muskies without having to pretend that they are fishing for some other species.

Combine the potential for May muskie fishing with the guaranteed three-walleye bag limit that we have on every lake in northern Wisconsin, and there’s more reason to be optimistic about the future of May fishing and tourism here.

The three-walleye guarantee is a big deal compared to the two-fish and one-fish bag limits that made headlines and shadowed some of the premier walleye fisheries here for years.

While those reduced bag limits only affected the pre-Memorial Day weekend of May in most years, they had adverse impacts on sport angling and tourism because 60% of the walleye harvest occurs in May.

Also, keep in mind that the go-to waterbodies for walleye in central Wisconsin will lose the five-walleye bag limit starting next week, April 1. The more restrictive regulation hits the Wolf River and the entire Winnebago System this year.

That change will make the three-walleye bag limit in the “ceded territory” look better than ever before by comparison.

And while we’re comparing, keep in mind that our three-fish bag limit applies to lakes, not the territory. So anglers can go to a second or third lake to catch the rest of their five-walleye daily bag limit. That’s not so easy in Wolf River country.

All told, things might be looking up for spring fishing in the North Woods.

But the plan will take a hit if we don’t get enough yes votes next month on the early muskie catch-and-release season.