Michael Waddell: Born To Hunt
What a journey... from Meriwether County to Realtree to Bone Collector. But the roots and passion remain right where it started for a kid raised on rural Georgia.
Michael Waddell and Georgia gobblers go back a long way. His love of turkey hunting and the skills he developed as a master caller and hunter when he was a teenager opened the door to an extraordinary outdoor career that has been going strong for over 20 years.
And even though his love of turkey hunting has taken him to nearly every state in the Union where gobblers can be hunted, there is only one place in the world you’ll find him when the Georgia season opens in March—deep in the magical woods and swamps of his beloved “Booger Bottom” in Meriwether County. It is here that his country roots go deeper than the tap root of a Georgia pine.
Michael thanks his lucky stars that he was born and raised in rural Georgia where he was brought up by two special parents with traditional country values. Those values included love of God, love of country and respect for others. Hunting and fishing was a way of life. Booger Bottom was a place where a boy could be a boy and play in the woods all day long, catch frogs and snakes and come home dirty. Of course, as soon as he was old enough, “playing in the woods” developed into chasing after anything that flew, swam, crawled or ran on four legs.
“I’m just a good ol’ boy who was born to hunt,” Michael often says. “If it gobbles, quacks, bugles or grunts, chances are I’ve chased it more than a time or two.”
Speaking of gobbling, Michael and his dad Edwin, (better known as PawPaw), went on their first turkey hunt together in the mid-1980s when Michael was about 13.
“Like everybody else in our community, we hunted everything we could—squirrels, rabbits, quail, ducks, doves, deer—you name it. But turkeys were just coming into our area and we had never hunted those crazy thunder birds. One day one of my uncles told us he had seen some turkeys down in a bottom, and that was all we needed. Dad and I looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s go!’ Mind you, we knew nothing about turkey hunting but that didn’t matter.
“Right before the season came in Dad went to K-Mart or somewhere like that and bought a Lynch box call. That’s what everybody used in those days, and it was a very good call. When Mama saw it she said, ‘Oh my goodness, now turkeys?’”
First Opening Day
“We got out the instructions and started going down the list: the yelp, the cluck, the tree call, the mating call, and several others. We had no idea what any of the calls meant, but Dad started sounding pretty good with that ol’ box, and he was a lot better at it than me. Since somebody had to call, and somebody had to be behind the gun, he became the designated caller. On opening day we set up down in a bottom where we heard a turkey gobbling. Dad was about 30 yards behind me and I was sitting with an old Remington 870. Dad started calling that gobbler and nothing happened. He never gobbled again. We sat there for 30 or 40 minutes with Dad calling every once in a while. Suddenly there was a shot off in the distance. The moment that shot rang out, an earth-shaking gobble erupted right on top of us and liked to scare me to death. I was pretty nervous, but I looked ahead and saw a blue, white and red head coming up a little rise right toward me. His head was bobbing up and down. When he looked up for a split second, I sort of instinctively pulled the trigger. The next thing I knew he was flopping down the hill and dad and I had our first gobbler. You would have thought that jake was a Georgia record because we showed it to everybody in three counties. I’m surprised the meat didn’t spoil, but we ate every bit of it.
“That was our first turkey hunt. Dad and I have hunted together almost every opening day in Booger Bottom since then, and that was over 30 years ago. We’ve called in birds for nieces, nephews, cousins and once took a good friend who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. There’s something magical and mysterious about being in the Georgia woods on opening day and hunting a southern turkey. There’s something different about hearing a Georgia gobbler echo through a swamp bottom. Being in the Georgia woods, seeing those big oaks and pines, hearing that first gobble in the morning—it’s like nothing else in the world. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to get your tail beat once in a while. They’re going to frustrate you and beat you up. That’s part of it, and that’s why I love it so much.
“Every year we always open the season in the same place, and every year it just gets better and means more. I’ve hunted turkeys in New York and Pennsylvania and all over the Midwest, but no place I’ve been compares to the Georgia woods on opening day. For me it’s a reset, like the renewal of spring. It’s like starting over. The dogwoods are blooming, and you know those cheese grits are waiting for you when you get home. I still feel like a 13-year-old kid when opening day arrives.”
Michael will be 48 in May.
“And to be able to do it with my dad and children is the best part. I hope that feeling never goes away.”
A Turkey Hunting Machine
After Michael and his dad brought home their first gobbler on their first-ever turkey hunt, Michael was hopelessly hooked. He studied all the great turkey hunters in Georgia like Joe Drake, and he tried out a variety of calls made by the best call makers. Like a sponge, he soaked up everything he could about turkey hunting. By the time he was in his late teens, he was a seasoned hunter who was getting his limit every year and winning turkey calling contests everywhere he went. Before he could drive, his dad drove him all over creation entering contests. Little could he imagine that he would soon turn his newfound obsession into a thriving and sustainable career.
Michael’s turkey hunting and calling skills caught the attention of Bill Jordan, who was also an avid turkey hunter. Michael was offered a position on the Realtree Pro Staff. Then, in 1994, the 21-year-old turkey hunter was offered a full-time job with Realtree. Michael soon found himself traveling across the country filming hunts for Realtree’s popular “Monster Buck” video series.
For a country boy from Booger Bottom, getting a job in the outdoor industry with a company like Realtree was not only big, it was beyond his wildest expectations. It was a dream-come-true. Only a few years earlier he had been traveling to other states and entering turkey calling contests, hoping to earn enough prize money to buy gas to get home on. Now someone was actually paying him to do what he loved doing. Michael was in his element. He thought he had died and gone to heaven. He got to meet some of the country’s top hunting and sports celebrities, and he got to travel to many beautiful and breathtaking locations around the country. What else could a young man ask for? Maybe not much, but fate certainly had other plans.
In addition to his natural hunting skills, Michael was blessed with an infectious personality and considerable creative ability. After several years as a cameraman with Realtree, he and fellow Realtree employee Steve Finch started kicking around an idea they had for a different kind of outdoor television show.
Michael remembers, “While everybody in the industry was filming all the basics of the hunt itself, we had this idea for doing a show that would go behind the scenes and capture some of those special and funny moments when the celebrities doing the hunts or the hosts like Bill Jordan and David Blanton let down their guard and started cutting up and telling stories and just having a good time. You know, sitting around the dinner table or playing Wiffle Ball outside. Or maybe going into the little town near the place you are hunting and talking to some of the locals about harvesting their corn. We felt like the outdoor audience would love seeing something simple and down-to-earth like that.”
Michael and Steve pitched their idea to David Blanton, Michael’s immediate boss at Realtree. David was very supportive and thought the idea had great potential. But there was no money in the budget to support such an undertaking.
“David gave it a lot of thought and came back to us and said there was a new outdoor television channel starting up called Outdoor Channel,” Michael said. “He told us we should be able to find plenty of sponsors and we might try our idea there to see if it got any traction.”
“Realtree Road Trips with Michael Waddell” debuted in 2003. It didn’t just get good traction—it exploded onto the outdoor scene and became an overnight sensation. Soon it was one of the highest-rated shows on Outdoor Channel.
Michael Waddell became an overnight celebrity.
“It was a great opportunity for me, but I didn’t think I was doing anything special,” Michael said. “I was proud of the fact that we were allowing other people to be in the spotlight, but I was getting a lot of credit I didn’t deserve. I was not prepared for the success the show brought.”
All of a sudden Michael Waddell was a national celebrity.
“People came to me and offered to pay me big money to promote their products and companies. It was a bit overwhelming.”
Predictably, Michael’s newfound celebrity status created some unforeseen problems with Realtree. How could he take money from promoters and companies that wanted to use his name when he had a full-time job? Many of those offers were too good to turn down, so he, Bill Jordan and David Blanton came to a mutual understanding. Michael would leave the company as a full-time employee, but he would continue to host Road Trips and he would always endorse Realtree products. This arrangement worked out well for Michael and for Realtree.
While Road Trips remained one of the highest-rated shows on Outdoor Channel year after year, Michael’s creative side led him to want to start another show that would take a strong stand for the hunting community and heritage in positive ways that had never been done before. Much like Road Trips, he also wanted to create a hunting show that captured the true essence of hunting camp while at the same time provided a little fun and off-the-wall entertainment to the viewers. In 2009, “Bone Collector” hit the airwaves and immediately became a blockbuster hit.
With co-host Travis ‘T-Bone” Turner” (who owned an archery pro shop in LaGrange and was a world-class shooter and avid deer hunter before the television bug came calling), and Nick Mundt of South Dakota, who was a former hunting guide and avid outdoorsman and former Realtree cameraman for nine years, Michael’s new endeavor quickly became one of the most popular shows on Outdoor Channel. Like Road Trips, it has attained top ratings for more than a decade.
I interviewed Michael for this story several days before the 2021 turkey season opened on March 20. True to form, he and PawPaw were preparing to take his 4-year-old son and several family relatives out to Booger Bottom on opening day. You could hear the excitement and enthusiasm in his voice. Michael’s considerable experience in the turkey woods has taught him to be a fairly aggressive hunter.
“If he’s out there, I feel like I have a pretty good chance to get him,” Michael says. “You’ve got to try to figure a way to manipulate the situation to your advantage. Say a dominant gobbler flies down after gobbling his head off and goes off in the opposite direction with several hens. That’s a pretty common scenario we all face. First of all, they may not go that far. They may be just over the hill, and they may come back in an hour or so. Be ready when they do. Or, there may be one or two subordinate gobblers hanging around that dominant bird that are looking for hens of their own, and they may sneak over to where you are calling from without making a sound. It could take them 30 or 45 minutes to get to where you are sitting. You’ve got to be ready for that quiet gobbler to come sneaking in at any moment.
“Maybe you think there’s a good chance that dominant bird and his hens are going over the hill to the closest food plot. In that case, you should use all of your ‘Choctaw’ skills to sneak through the woods and maybe set up an ambush. They may strut for several hours out in the field and be untouchable out there, but they’re going to come back into the woods at some point. Be prepared to take advantage when they do. That’s what I mean by trying to manipulate the situation. Like I said earlier, he’s going to whip your ‘you know what’ some of the time, but if you use the skills and knowledge you have, you can get that ol’ bird in your sights.”
Michael really is the All American country boy who “done good” and made it big in the hunting and TV industry. He is a natural in front of the camera. There is no acting or put on. What you see is what you get. People love his down-home sense of humor and the way he pokes fun at things. Those very traits have won the hearts of millions of fans. Everybody who watches him on television loves him for what and who he is and many of those in the industry wish they could be just like him. But there is only one Michael Waddell. He is truly a Georgia original.
Locally he really is just one of the boys. Outside of Georgia, though, it’s hard to comprehend the super-star status he has obtained. Just like homegrown Jeff Foxworthy is a gifted superstar in entertainment and comedy, Michael Waddell is a gifted superstar in the hunting and outdoor industry. To millions, Michael is the face of hunting across North America today.
Pretty good for a Meriwether County boy from Booger Bottom.
Through The Years… Booger Bottom Birds, PawPaw and Michael Waddell
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