Jets and pheasants in Winner

KELOLAND.com Original

WINNER, S.D. (KELO) — One runway at the Winner Regional Airport has more feet than the city has people.

The 5,500-foot concrete runway is long enough to accommodate small jets and large turbo prop planes including the jets that fly pheasant hunters in for the season. The 2,751-foot turf runway is used by other aircraft.

The city’s estimated population is about 2,700 people.

Winner is in central Tripp County. It’s the county seat for Tripp and Todd counties. The town is at the intersection of U.S. Highway 18 and U.S. Highway 183.

The regional airport needs the 5,500 feet to handle aircraft such as medical transport planes and helicopters. Travelers flying across the state who need fuel or a place to wait out a storm use the airport.

Some aircraft land at the airport for business in the town or area.

But pheasant hunting season is a busy time at the airport.

The Winner Regional Airport. Photo courtesy of fixed based operator Dave Howard.

“The majority is jets or turbo props, especially hunters,” Tessa Howard said of airport traffic. She and her husband, Dave, have been the fixed base operators at the airport since 2014.

Hunters arrive in “Gulfstreatm IVs and Vs. Those are big airplanes,” Dave Howard said of the jets.

Others come in larger turbo prop airplanes. A Global Express jet has also brought hunters to Winner.

The Howards handle the airport operations including landing and department aircraft. The Howards are also mechanics so they fix aircraft as needed. And they handle other related tasks.

“It can be challenging,” Tessa said of air traffic at the airport. “It keeps you on your toes.”

Dave worked a hunting season before the couple became the airport FBO or managers.

“He really didn’t know how busy it would get…,” Tessa said.

“It’s not just Winner, but Gettysburg, Aberdeen…,” Dave said. “A lot of cities are hunting destinations. It’s not just us.”

Flightaware.com records the number of daily arrivals and departures at airports. On Oct. 14, there were 13 arrivals and departures at Winner. That’s compared to six in 2020 and 10 in 2019. Air traffic picks up during pheasant hunting season. For example, there were seven arrivals and departures on May 17, six on June 23 and six on Aug. 29. City of Winner photo.

Hunters fly elsewhere in the state but the area around Winner usually ranks fourth or fifth in pheasants harvested each season, which makes it a consistently top place to hunt, said Mike Scott, the executive director of the Winner Area Chamber of Commerce and Tripp County Economic Development Corporation.

Tripp County had 3,598 nonresident pheasant hunters in 2020, according to the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks Department (GFP). Those hunters harvested  32,362 pheasants. The top county was Brown with 4,108 nonresident hunters who harvested 36,955 pheasants.

Tripp County also had 989 resident hunters who harvested 11,294 birds in 2020, according to the GFP.

Scott said the economic impact of pheasant hunting in the area was estimated at about $9 million to $10 million in 2019 and 2020 The impact is felt by the county and the city of Winner, he said.

The GFP broke that $9 million impact in 2020 to $7.1 million for nonresident hunters and $1.5 million for South Dakota resident hunters.

The area “absolutely gets it” when it comes to understanding the economic impact of hunting, Scott said.

Examples of those who benefit from pheasant hunting include landowners who may lease hunting land, hunting lodges and businesses such as the one that cleans and processes the birds for hunters, Scott said.

The city of Winner understands the benefit.

“Anytime hunting comes around…there’s always an economic impact in the area,” Winner Finance Director Chandra Phillips said.

The city added 1,000 feet to its concrete runway to make it 5,500-feet around 2014, Dave Howard said.

The airport allows hunters “to fly directly to the city and then they can go to a lot of the local lodges,” Phillips said.

When the hunters land

Hunters will arrive at different times of the day. Some pilots let the Howards know of their schedules. The Howards also follow flight schedule software. But sometimes, the Howards don’t know when an aircraft will arrive.

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“We do live at the airport,” Dave said. “The city provided a house for us. We walk maybe 50 yards to the office.”

When an aircraft arrives, “We marshal them to park…we get the baggage,” Tessa said.

They make sure the passengers and pilot have needed transportation, Tessa said.

“We find out what they need…,” Tessa said.

The Howards have provided lunch for pilots when they arrive or when they leave.

Hunters and even their pilot may stay in the area for several days.

When hunters leave, “They may have a catering order and they ask us to do the catering,” Dave said.

The Howards work with local businesses to arrange for food to be at the plane when the hunters leave.

Hunting changes

Scott said the hunting has shifted from public lands to hunting more on private land and/or lodges.

“On opening weekend, it used to be wall-to-wall people,” Scott said. “Now there are more groups that spread the hunt out.”

Hunters arrive throughout the season instead of all piling in on opening weekend, Scott said.

Prairie dog hunting has also remained strong in the area, he said.

Prairie dog hunting is popular because hunters can use a variety of firearms, Scott said.

But out-of-state prairie dog hunters don’t fly into Winner, Scott said. Those hunters are usually on a budget, he said.

Why Winner is winner to hunters

Hunters who fly into Winner are from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, New York, California or Washington, Dave said. But there are other states as well, he said.

Some have hunted in the region for years.

“We hear that all the time. Groups will tell us they’ve been coming here for 30 years,” Dave said.

“They fall in love with the state…,” Dave said.

“It’s the wide open spaces and hospitality,” Scott said of features that satisfy hunters.

Pheasants in the field in 2012.

Hunters not only have a chance to harvest pheasant but they also comment on how well they are treated, Phillips, Scott and the Howards said.

Phillips credits the service provided by the Howards as one big reason why hunters and fliers return to Winner.

“We thoroughly enjoy meeting people. We’re gonna keep at it,” Dave said.

The pheasant season runs through Jan. 31.

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