Pass-shooting Sandhill Cranes

by Brad Fenson

Once a popular way to hunt waterfowl, pass-shooting places you within effective shotgun range of target birds moving back and forth between two points. Often, the shooting point is close to feeding locations or the roosts used by birds when resting.

One reason the technique is not as popular as it once was is because it is often associated with sky-busting, or shooting at birds beyond a reasonable range. That’s not the case as serious focus and the ability to accurately range birds is required.

The beauty of pass-shooting is hunting without outside stimuli (like decoys and calls) or blinds. But that also means you must have a solid scouting knowledge of where birds fly regularly. Your location should be specific on the map, taking advantage of an existing flyway sandhill cranes use when moving between spots.

Wherever the birds stage, thousands of them typically share secure roosting areas used at night. At first light, a steady progression of cranes will leave the wetland to spend the day feeding in surrounding fields. Setting up along a regular flight path can produce unbelievable action.

Considering the deceptive size and wingspan of these birds, you must learn how to judge distance. Hunting in a small party allows one participant to use a laser rangefinder to inform the other hunters of the known distance to passing targets.

Stay well hidden to escape the keen eye of these wary birds that avoid predators—including hunters—by watching for them. Wind is essential, as a flightline is usually weather-related. A shift in wind can shift the crane movement. Watch the first waves of birds and decide if a location change is required to stay under the moving waves of sandhills.

Extended-range choke tubes are advantageous for pass-shooting, creating a dense pattern of shot at farther distances that should be focused on the head and neck of the target bird. Pattern the shotgun intended for pass-shooting and know ahead of time what the effective pattern is at different ranges.

Pass-shooting is more than an unplanned opportunistic hunt. Watch the birds regularly when staging in an area, and use that insight to help you be in the right place to harvest birds efficiently and ethically.