One of the most recognized hunters in history talks about his humble roots in Booger Bottom, Georgia, and how he met Realtree's Bill Jordan
Before Michael Waddell became an outdoor industry icon, he was an air conditioner repairman whose claim to fame was winning local turkey-calling competitions on the weekends. Unbeknownst to Waddell, he'd caught the attention of Bill Jordan, who'd heard about the talented young turkey caller from Realtree pro staffers. In 1994, after watching Waddell win a contest in Perry, Georgia, Jordan approached the 20-year-old and invited him to become a Realtree junior pro staff team member.
I was freaking out, Waddell says. I was like, 'Man, I can't believe this.' It was a country boy's dream come true.
Waddell had been watching Jordan on TV for years and was a huge fan of Monster Bucks, Realtree Outdoors, and Realtree camo.
Bill was an icon. He was a celebrity and I was jacked up to meet him, but I was most impressed by how kind and down to earth he was.
Waddell said he and his father, Edwin, were eating breakfast at another contest when Jordan joined them.
A big Friday night where I came from was going with your parents to eat at the Bonanza buffet.
My dad especially loved the fact that Bill didn't look down on us two rednecks, Waddell says. He was nice and personable, and that left a big impression on us both.
Waddell had no way of knowing at that time that Jordan had set the wheels in motion that would eventually lead to him becoming one of the most famous hunters in history.
A self-described country boy from the backwoods of Booger Bottom, Georgia, Waddell believes a key factor to his success has been staying true to his rural roots. Most of my fans are just like me, he says. They also come from rural backgrounds and appreciate the same simple things in life that I do.
Before he started working with Realtree, Waddell's life experience was limited. He had never flown on an airplane or been to a big city. A big Friday night where I came from was going with your parents to eat at the Bonanza buffet, he says. Growing up, I wasn't around a lot of culture outside of my own.
But that all changed when he started working for Realtree.
Set Loose With a $5,000 Camera
While I was serving on Realtree's junior pro staff team, Bill and David Blanton found out I lived only an hour away from the Realtree office, so they asked me to come help guide a few media hunts for them. I was beyond thrilled for the opportunity, but thought it'd be something I'd only do temporarily until I found a real job that paid better money. But after a few years of working with Realtree, I realized I could make a living in the outdoor industry.
Waddell decided whenever Realtree presented him with an opportunity, no matter how small, he'd go above and beyond to deliver.
I was doing more and more guide work for Realtree and one day David said in passing, 'Hey, you need to learn how to operate one of these cameras. You can run one when you're guiding for turkeys and capture some extra footage for us.'
Waddell spent a day at the office with Realtree video producer Steve Finch, who gave him a crash course on how to operate a camera.
The folks at Realtree are very trusting, Waddell says. After the daylong course, they handed me a $5,000 camera and told me to go film some stuff.
It was the first week of February, and Waddell called turkey-calling champion Ricky Joe Bishop to accompany him to a local state park, where they filmed several gobblers strutting in to their calls. Waddell took that footage back to Blanton, who was blown away with it.
Recognizing Waddell's talent, Blanton hired him to film Jordan turkey hunting at the Babcock Ranch in Florida. Waddell ended up filming Jordan's hunts the entire year, impressing Blanton with his initiative.
In 1996, Waddell joined Realtree as a full-time cameraman and continued to win some major turkey-calling contests. Realtree started giving Waddell the opportunity to present some turkey-hunting pro tips on camera. Then he began hunting on camera.
My first filmed hunts were more of a bonus, Waddell says. Like, 'This kid's been working his butt off. Let's let him hunt.' They weren't grooming me to be a Realtree personality in the beginning.
As time passed, Waddell's charisma on camera became evident, so Jordan and Blanton decided to give him a bigger presence on film and encouraged him to continue capturing footage himself.
I had access to the best cameras and production equipment in the world, he says. If I had a weekend off, I'd grab some friends and we'd just stack up turkeys. I made sure all my buddies were wearing the right camo and had the right gear, and we captured some great footage.
A Hunting TV Star Is Born
Around 2002, Steve Finch and I conceptualized the idea of Realtree Road Trips. We liked the thought of a hunting show that showcased the behind-the-scenes stuff and the real hunt-camp experience, but at the time, neither of us planned to take on an active role with the show, Waddell says.
The last thing I had in my mind was that I'd become an outdoor TV star, but people liked what they saw because they could relate to it.
We pitched the idea to David and he loved it. He thought it'd be a good show to pitch to the Outdoor Channel, which was brand new at the time. He said that I should host it and Finch should produce it. So, David immediately got on the phone with the Outdoor Channel execs. Then, he and I called Hoyt, Ameristep, and Wrangler about sponsorships. Everyone we talked to wrote us $20,000 checks, and that's how Realtree Road Trips got its start.
The show was an instant success that catapulted Waddell and his co-stars Travis T-Bone Turner and Nick Mundt to outdoor fame.
The last thing I had in my mind was that I'd become an outdoor TV star, but people liked what they saw because they could relate to it, Waddell says. They could see that we were down to earth, authentic, and having a great time on the road and in camp filming these hunts. The fans loved our mischievous antics and the hardcore hunting. I knew we were onto something big.
Bone Collector - The Next Chapter
Waddell says a lot of positive things came about for him because of Road Trips, but there were also challenges.
As time went on, companies that partnered with Realtree began wanting to use my name and likeness. They were offering big money. I wanted to do the right thing, so I took it to Realtree management. They explained that since I was a full-time Realtree employee, I couldn't accept those offers independently. I knew I had an opportunity I needed to take advantage of. So, after a few years of starring on Road Trips, I sat down with David, Bill, and the managers to discuss what I should do. They recommended that I officially leave Realtree but continue to host the shows on a contract basis, so that I wouldn't be bound by the corporate structure. I did just that and immediately began signing up with some great gigs and generating more money.
Waddell began to think hard about the next phase of his career. He wanted to start something bigger than himself, and he came up with the idea of the Bone Collector TV show and brand. He asked Turner and Mundt to jump on board. The show and brand launched in 2009, became an immediate success, and continues to thrive today.
A Voice for the Industry
When it comes to the future of the Bone Collector TV show and brand, Waddell and his team plan to keep doing what they've been doing because it works.
I don't see it changing a lot, he says. Hunting shows are like other popular TV shows. Take The Dukes of Hazzard for instance. If you mess with it, it's just not the same. That's why I've been very conscientious about not making big changes to Bone Collector.
While he doesn't plan to change the Bone Collector vibe, Waddell says he's making some personal changes.
As a 48-year-old man, I've decided to take on a more serious ambassador role, he says. I'm rooting for all the legit hunting shows and personalities that I believe can take the industry to a new level. I want to be a peacekeeper and a positive influence who joins forces with others to make a difference for the good of hunters everywhere.
Waddell says being a face of the industry is a big responsibility, and he wants to use his influence to help fight for the hunting culture and change the perception of hunting so that it's celebrated on a national level. I want to represent the sport well, and when asked, I want to respond with the solid, detailed answers and narrative that make people think. I want to be like a fiber-optic cable that flows what is positive about hunting and fishing, the outdoors, and the simple life to all who are willing to listen.
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It's been 27 years since that day, when Bill Jordan invited Waddell to join the Realtree team, and Waddell says he still sometimes feels as if he has to pinch himself.
When I first got started, turning my love for the outdoors into a sustainable career seemed like a pipe dream. But I'm living it. It's doable, and I'm eternally grateful to the folks at Realtree for supporting me and providing me with the opportunities to make it all possible.
In turn, Waddell says he plans to spend the rest of his days supporting and advocating for others who share similar down-home values and a desire to make a go of it in the outdoor industry.
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