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Shipwreck showdown: Sam Collora's neighbor and friend had the honor of giving the massive Iowa buck the name "Shipwreck," but it was Collora who first laid hands on the antlers.

For Sam Collora, it all started with a pair of sheds. Nothing strange there; deer hunters are motivated by cast antlers every year. But these antlers were unique. What Collora knew the minute he looked at the heavy, non-typical bone was that he was gazing at the antlers of one special deer. What he didn't know was that the buck that dropped them had been the object of near-obsession for a neighbor and friend.

"Dave Malloy, one of my turkey hunting friends from Ontario, went out to scout the day before his season opened," Collora recalled. "When he came back, he was carrying the matched set from an old, heavy-horned, Iowa giant. He gave them to me and, awhile later another friend and customer of mine, Todd Pringnitz, came into my shop, American Outdoors (located in Salem, Iowa; I knew Todd was a serious bowhunter, so I said 'I've got something I want to show you.' And then I pulled those sheds out and he just stared at them. Finally he just looked at me and said 'We've been hunting that buck for three years.' Todd is owner of White Knuckle Productions, a hunting video production company, and Todd and his crew knew the buck really well. That day I got a glimpse into what that deer meant to them."

So began Collora's story of a buck called "Shipwreck," an Iowa monster that Collora killed just last fall. If you're a serious whitetail hunter you'll recognize the Collora name; the founder and owner of the popular "Mrs. Doe Pee" buck lures also happens to be one of the country's most successful deer hunters. In 1996, Collora killed the highest-grossing typical whitetail ever shot by a bow-hunter, a buck that landed him on the cover of this magazine. He graced another North American Whitetail cover a few years back when he shot another 200-plus-inch giant with his muzzleloader. While tagging Shipwreck completes an amazing trifecta for this down-to-earth Iowan, in my opinion the story behind this deer easily tops his other monsters. Though Collora shot Shipwreck the very first time he laid eyes on the buck, this monster whitetail had acquired near-legend status, thanks to Dan Johnson.

Johnson is a member of the White Knuckle Productions crew. Johnson, nicknamed "Dallas/Ft. Worth," helped bring Shipwreck to national attention in 2007. "I'd just acquired permission to hunt a property that, at first glance, didn't seem like much," he remembered. "But when I looked at it from an aerial it just seemed to lay right--like a perfect funnel for big bucks."

Johnson's analysis was spot-on. "The first year I hunted there was 2007, and I saw four bucks that would gross B&C," he laughed. "On a windy day in late October I did a rattling sequence and four bucks came out from a thicket; then came a giant buck with beams that hooked up and huge G2's that were forked. He approached a scrape that was a chip-shot from my stand and he was there at 15 yards while I stood at full draw, but the only shot I had was at his hindquarters. I was not going to take that shot."


Johnson watched the buck melt into the southern Iowa brush, but the spell had been cast. "I nickname most of the big bucks I see or get on trail camera," he said. "But I try to come up with something unique. Then I remembered my favorite G.I. Joe from when I was a kid. It was the Shipwreck soldier, and it just seemed to fit." Johnson looked hard for Shipwreck the rest of that season and couldn't find the buck, but the massive frame and hulking body of the trophy remained fixed in his brain.


Johnson entered the 2008 season ready to take up a new campaign on Shipwreck. But as so often happens, the monster buck had other ideas. "I never saw him that fall," Johnson said. "And I was just about ready to write him off when I got a trail cam pic of him during late season."

Johnson's hopes were high going into the 2009 season, and after his disappearing act from the fall before, Shipwreck suddenly went visible again. "I had plenty of pictures of him during that summer and fall, and he was just getting huge, pushing 190 inches," Johnson said. "Then, on October 28, I had another encounter with him. I was in the tree with my cameraman Kyle, and suddenly he said 'Big buck!' I asked him if it had a forked G2 and he said 'Yes!' And I knew it was Shipwreck. He was badgering some does and he finally stopped at 44 yards. I was at full draw. That shot is just too long for me, and Shipwreck was quartering toward me. I just wouldn't do it."

Johnson saw Shipwreck twice more that year. Then, late in the rut, Todd Pringnitz was hunting a neighboring property when Shipwreck showed up again. Pringnitz had the buck at 35 yards on a windy day, but he passed the shot. "We were in a ground blind and Shipwreck was at the edge of my effective range," Pringnitz recalled. "It was one of those situations when I could have shot, the cameraman didn't have him, and when he had him, I couldn't shoot." Though the monster buck escaped yet again, the footage of Shipwreck is amazing and can be seen on the White Knuckle Productions video "Ground Zero."

Johnson was piecing more of the Shipwreck puzzle together and was optimistic for 2010. "But I knew the properties I was hunting were not really his core area," he said. "To kill him I'd have to wait for the rut. In early November, I finally got the right wind to set up on him."

At dawn, Johnson watched a few does and a spike buck walk past his setup. He rattled after awhile but didn't get an immediate response.

"So I was just sitting there, talking to my cameraman and I caught movement to my left. 'It's Shipwreck!' I said. He was walking right in to us, and I came to full draw. When he was at 22 yards I took the shot and hit him hard. I knew immediately that my hit was a little high. But I shoot an 80-pound draw and use heavy arrows; I hoped that I'd get enough penetration to kill him cleanly."

Johnson decided to send a text message to Pringnitz, who advised him to retrieve his arrow and back out. "I found half of my arrow immediately, and decent blood," he said. "I figured I had about 5 inches of penetration and my broadhead was still in him, working." After meeting for breakfast, Johnson and Pringnitz and several hunting friends assembled to search for the buck.

"We were on the trail for about 300 yards when we found a spot where there was just really good blood," he said. "And right after that, the blood just stopped. I came back with a bunch of guys and we grid-searched every place that seemed likely. We just never came up with him. I was just devastated."

This is where Collora enters the picture again. Johnson hunts properties that are close to Collora's, and after he'd lost Shipwreck's blood trail, he approached Collora to tell him his plight.

"Collora was just great about it," Johnson remembered. "He told me 'If you get a blood trail that leads on to my ground, you go in there and get him.' But in all my searching, I never did find any more blood or evidence that the buck had gone into Collora's. He'd just disappeared. Obviously my biggest fear was that he was dead somewhere. I'm not kidding; I literally thought about Shipwreck every day since the first season I'd seen him, so I was just sick about it. As time wore on, I was sure either I'd killed him or he'd gone somewhere else. Then, on January 28, 2011, I got a picture of him. I thought, Oh my gosh, he's alive. And I started laying out a plan for the fall."

Johnson didn't know it then, but his turn with the giant whitetail was over. In the meantime, Collora had taken a couple of huge steps that would lead to his only encounter with Shipwreck.


"We've owned the property where I shot Shipwreck for 27 years," he said. 'And when I first bought it there was some tremendous bedding cover, but over the years the forest had matured and canopied. So two years ago I went in there with a chainsaw and just made a mess of things. I hinge-cut trees, I dropped some others. ... I just wanted it to get thick in there like it used to be. And then when I got done, I just left it alone. I've hunted that piece long enough to know how the deer move in there, so I put a stand up and walked away. The fall before I shot Shipwreck I hadn't stepped foot in those woods."

But on October 18, 2011, Collora decided it was time to hunt his honey hole. "We had a big cool front push in, and it just felt like the kind of day a big one would move," he said. "I got done with chores and got to the property around 2 p.m. I usually don't spend time goofing around when I could be in the woods, but I didn't want to get in there too early. So that day I just fiddled around our cabin for 45 minutes, then gathered my gear and headed out."

As he does on every hunt, Collora got into the timber and rigged up a drag rag and applied some Mrs. Doe Pee Doe in Estrous urine on the cloth.

"I had plenty of time, so I walked back along a ridge that leads toward the stand," Collora said. "I always 'heat up' the rag by stopping every so often and applying more scent. I made a loop around the edge of the clear-cut, then hung the drag rag within bow range of the stand. The rag was off to my right, not in the perfect place for a shot, but in the best place for the wind. I felt that any bucks coming out of the clear-cut would smell the urine and come in for a look."

Once he was safely in the stand, Collora went through a ritual he observes on every hunt.

"The first thing I do is look over my equipment to make sure everything is in place and ready," he noted. "I firmly believe paying attention to little details kills big deer. As I looked over my bow, I saw a little retaining clip by the cam had slipped, so I popped it back into place.

"Then I did the other thing I never forget; I look around for the worst possible place for a deer to appear and give me a shot. It didn't take me long to see that one of the trees that I'd hinge-cut had fallen away from the cut and toward my tree. At first glance it looked like the tree was completely blocking one of the better trails and I couldn't shoot that direction. But I stared really hard and found two little holes where I could slip an arrow through. Then I settled in."

It was a beautiful, cool October evening and, as Collora had predicted, the wind was absolutely perfect for the spot. "Off to my right was a ravine we've nicknamed 'Death Valley,' because of all the deer we've killed there over the years," Collora said. "When I set the stand I figured a northwest wind would carry my scent into Death Valley and away from approaching deer. And it behaved beautifully. I watched four smaller bucks come out of the clear-cut, work in to the drag rag and not (wind) me."

"Then I caught movement off my right shoulder. It was a big buck and he was coming off the scent trail and, of course, heading right for that brushy, hinge-cut tree. I could see he had beams that hooked up at the ends and I remember thinking, Well there's 01' Shipwreck. I oughta kill him. Well, he was already so close it was too late to stand up. So when he put his head down I turned some on my seat and got drawn. It was a goofy angle and I just couldn't get anchored right. He was so close it was tempting to just take the shot but I told myself, No shot is better than a bad one. So I just kept adjusting until everything felt right. He was behind that downed tree and only 8 yards away, and I thought, He's gonna step right into that hole there, and as soon as he did, the arrow was off the bow, just like it had shot itself

"Shipwreck blew out so quickly that I was still staring at my arrow as he ran off. But I recovered pretty quickly and I did something I've learned to do with the big bucks I shoot with a bow; I roared really loud at him. He slammed to a stop at 35 yards and turned to look back at me. I know I was the last thing he saw, because he was staring right at me when he tipped over dead. And then I did something else I always do when I'm lucky enough to kill a great big deer. I looked up to the sky and said 'Thank you.' That's where all our deer come from and we need to remember that."

There was celebration, mixed with a little marvel, that evening; Shipwreck was a local legend, a buck that was at least 9 1/2 years old when Collora ended his reign.

"One of the first things I did was call the local warden so he could inspect the buck," Collora said. "I've been around enough to know what the rumor mill can produce. Then I skinned Shipwreck and we found four holes in him. He was just an old warrior. I found the spot where Dan had hit him the fall before; there was a deformity right where one of the ribs met the spine, just the thickest spot."

One of the next things Cobra did was call Johnson and Pringnitz. "I couldn't reach Dan," Collora recalled. "But I told Todd 'I've got good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that Shipwreck is dead. The good news--for me, anyway--is that I killed him. I just want to let you know so that you can have closure on the buck.' Todd seemed genuinely happy and congratulated me."

Shortly after he learned, Dan was right on the phone, calling to congratulate me. You know, that's one of the neatest things to me about this story; we were friends before I killed Shipwreck and we still are. You hear all these stories about guys who let big bucks ruin a relationship. That didn't happen here, and that's the way it's supposed to be. I sincerely hope Dan kills a giant next year, and when he does, I'll be the first one to shake his hand."

And how did Johnson--the man who, understandably, focused years of effort on the buck--feel about the end of Shipwreck? "Actually, I was relieved," he laughed. "I could finally tell my fiance she was the No. 1 thing on my mind every day! But honestly, it was an honor just to hunt Shipwreck. That buck taught me a lot--about big deer and how they behave, and about myself. When I heard Collora had shot him, I was disappointed for a couple minutes ... and then I thought, You know, this right here is a life lesson. Sometimes no matter what you do or how hard you work, there are just times you fail."

"A few months after season I visited Collora's shop and he saw me come in and said 'I've got something to show you.' He pulled out Shipwreck's rack and finally, after all that time, I got to put my hands on him. It was actually a pretty cool feeling."

"I didn't get that buck, but I've got a great story--and a great friend--that I'll have the rest of my life."
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Author:Bestul, Scott
Publication:North American Whitetail
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 25, 2012
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