He has stared down a black mamba snake, got off two clean shots as he took on a charging elephant and twice watched his partner get mauled by lions. So very little rattles James Sarkauskas.
“I am cool under pressure,” Sarkauskas said. “I perform my best when the pressure is greatest.”
And that coolness under pressure has led Sarkauskas to earn international recognition in the sport he loves-clay target shooting.
Sarkauskas was named to the Briley All-American roster this season for the second time in three years.
“That may not be a big deal, but I am 68 years old,” Sarkauskas said. “To compete at the level I do, even at age 25 there are many people that can’t compete at that level.”
In order to earn the distinction, Sarkauskas had to excel at tournaments throughout the season and around the country.
“It is a combination of events and participation,” he said. “You have to compete in the higher end tournaments and score well. You are competing against the best shooters in the world, so it is always tough.”
Still, Sarkauskas managed to hold off the competition enough to earn 110 points to secure a spot on the team along with shooting partner, Barry La Duke. They were the only two shooters from Wisconsin on the All-American Super Veteran’s team.
Encountering the elephant
Sarkauskas has been around guns and shooting since a very young age.
“I have been handling guns since I was 10 or 11 years old,” he said.
His early experiences came through hunting, which grew into his passion.
“I am a professional hunter,” Sarkauskas said. “I have hunted everything from aardvark to zebra. I have hunted most of the southern half of Africa at one time or another.”
Sarkauskas estimated in total he has spent the better half of four years of his life in Africa, though not at one time.
And spending time in the wilds of Africa has led him to some harrowing experiences that have helped him remain cool under pressure.
Perhaps the most hair-raising of those experiences was the time he shot down a charging elephant moments before it crashed into him and sent him into the bush.
“We were out cruising in the trucks looking for track, which is typically how you hunt for elephants,” Sarkauskas said. “You find a track big enough. Rule of thumb, if you can put both your feet in the track, that is the elephant you want to start following.”
The group came across a set of elephant tracks that fit the criteria and began following the trail.
“So we were tracking these-we figured-three bulls,” Sarkauskas said. “We caught up to them at 5:30 that night, about a half an hour before sunset.”
Sarkauskas added the group began following the herd around 10 in the morning.
The entire hunt was being filmed by a cameraman and when the group came upon the elephants, they stopped to decide what the best way to proceed was.
But one of the elephants decided to take matters into his own hands and force the issue.
“We were looking at them with the binoculars and one decided to come after us,” Sarkauskas said.
The cameraman was in front of the group filming until he figured out the elephant meant business.
“When [the cameraman] realized what was happening, he ran directly toward me, with the elephant right behind him,” Sarkauskas said.
With seconds to react, Sarkauskas leveled his double barrel rifle and once the cameraman was clear, fired two shots into the elephant’s head. The animal fell to the ground and in the process collided with Sarkauskas sending him skidding along the ground.
“I don’t think I was knocked unconscious,” he said. “I remember vividly the bullets going into the face of that elephant. I can see both bullets going in. The next thing I know, I was rolling, knowing that I had to reload. So I got up, popped the gun open-the empties go flying-and I reloaded.”
But the elephant was already dead and laying in front of Sarkauskas.
“I think he fell into me and knocked me into some trees,” Sarkauskas said. “My [right] side was all torn up from rocks and dirt. I must have slid, but I don’t remember.”
With adrenaline pumping through his veins, Sarkauskas said the pain did not settle in until that night.
“It was a four-hour ride back to camp, so we got there at bed time,” he said. “Of course, we had been out all day, so you are dry and dusty and I got into the bathtub and that is when I realized how much I had been injured because it burned. It was a tough couple of nights’ sleep because I couldn’t lay on my side and I couldn’t lay on the other side either, because of the blanket.”
Miraculously, the encounter with the elephant left Sarkauskas sore but in one piece.
“I was all beat up, but no broken bones,” he said. “So I just took pain killers and had some pulled muscles that ached for a year.”
Eye to eye with a deadly snake
The run-in with the elephant was not the only time Sarkauskas faced danger in Africa. On one hunt, while tracking an eland through tall grass, he and his group stumbled onto an angry black mamba snake, one of the deadliest snakes in the world.
“Mambas are exceedingly deadly,” Sarkauskas said. “There is no treatment for them. If you survive a mamba bite, it is because you were going to survive. Not anything anyone did.”
The incident began as Sarkauskas was hunting eland, the tallest member of the antelope family.
“They stand six feet high at the shoulder,” Sarkauskas said. “When you are tracking them, you are on a trek. When you track them through the tall grass, their heads are above the grass. The grass is almost as tall as us as we are walking through it.”
With the limited range of sight, that can make the hunt a dangerous one, as Sarkauskas and his group found out.
“So we are tracking this eland and suddenly there is the ant hill,” Sarkauskas said. “And this mamba snake came out from behind this ant hill and came after us.”
Mambas are notoriously territorial, so anything wandering into its area is considered a threat.
“Later we decided the eland went by there and disturbed that snake,” Sarkauskas said. “Probably a mom with kids.”
As the snake moved in, quick thinking by one of the group members may have saved them.
“My partner whacked it as hard he could with the shooting sticks and we ran,” Sarkauskas said.
Whether the blow was a fatal one to the snake, Sarkauskas said no one was willing to cut off the escape to check on its welfare.
“We didn’t bother to look,” he said. “We got out of there.”
Passing on his passion
While Sarkauskas has cheated death on his hunting excursions, and even seen his partner mauled by lions on two separate occasions, it has not lessoned his love of hunting and shooting.
Sarkauskas is passing on that tradition with his work as a shooting instructor at his shooting academy, Rancho del Zorro just outside of Rhinelander.
“I love to shoot, I love to coach it and I love to teach it,” Sarkauskas said. “I have seen some very good students, some very bad and some go from really bad to really good.”
Sarkauskas has been coaching shooting for nearly 20 years but said he still starts his lessons off with the same piece of advice.
“I tell them the most important thing is to have fun doing this,” he said. “It is a form of recreation like other things we do, so I want you to have fun. Just think of the whole process as a game. My job is to help you get as good at it as you are willing to work.”
And it is that attitude, along with a refined ability to perform under pressure, that has made Sarkauskas a force in the sport clay shooting circles.
“I have competed in tournaments throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Africa,” Sarkauskas said.
His favorite tournament is the US Open for one reason.
“The best shooters in the world will be there,” he said. “It is always a learning experience. It is always a challenge.”