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Michael looks out over the Chattahoochee River from his home as we talk shop and chew the fat about hunting.

Hunting for Answers with Bone Collector’s Michael Waddell

I am not quite sure what an Editor-in-Chief does at other publications, but here at Hook & Barrel, it’s not all fun and games (though by our Instagram, you may think so). My job description spans from the face of the company to the stock-boy. Sure, I get to meet some great people and go on some amazing hunts, but that all comes with a lot of hard work in between that most don’t see. One of my favorite responsibilities is stocking the local stores.

A few weeks back, a man named Dennis approached me while I was unloading my truck. “Looks like a long day,” he said, motioning to the 25 boxes of magazines I had in the bed. “Yes, sir,” I responded. “Gotta’ get the new issue out.” He smiled, and with his hand cupped to the side of his mouth, whispered, “Good, I have been waiting for the deer porn to arrive… you know, the kind of deer I’ll never get to shoot… God, I wish I had a shot at one one day…” He then walked away. You could almost see sadness in his stride.

That got me thinking, have we put too much emphasis on the trophy? Are we glorifying high-fenced bred deer too much? Are “influencers” taking the specialness out of our hunts due to internal-self-social-media-comparison? Is there a such thing as deer-shaming, as stupid as that made-up term sounds? And if so, what good is it doing us, the industry, and the future of the sport? So, I set out to find answers.

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Michael gluing new fletching on to his wife’s arrows for this season.

There is no other man I could think of that has more fun hunting than, my buddy, Michael Waddell. With a quick flip through my iPhone contacts, I had Waddell on the line and a trip to his pecan farm in Georgia planned to get his perspective on the subject.

Most know Waddell as the Bone Collector—a primetime Outdoor Channel icon with 11 seasons under his belt, owner of the highly successful Bone Collector brand, a man who has hunted the world and who owns more taxidermy than most normal men should. I have come to know him a little differently though. I know him as the father of five, who rolls in the grass as his youngest of age four, Waylon, tackles him during a local concert while his wife, Christie, watches with a smile. A man with four more kids including a teenage daughter, all growing up faster than he can believe—tack on a blind dog and a three-legged cat, and Waddell has a full house. But he is a guy who truly understands that the greatest trophy is the life he lives between the hunts and the friends and family he gets to share it with—no matter how chaotic his household may get.

Waddell was raised in rural southwestern Georgia in an area he lovingly refers to as Booger Bottom. “Booger Bottom is not on the map, but everyone in the area close to it, knows where it is,” he says. He grew up a country kid in a small home that lacked air conditioning for the sweltering Georgia summers and that was heated by a wood stove in the winter.

“The house only had one bathroom for us all. It was just normal for us all to stroll through the house with a towel around us, like “hey y’all, what ya’ doing?’”

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A young Waddell poses with his harvest.

The family hunted for their food, and still to this day Waddell holds that squirrel makes for better white gravy than pork sausage. Hunting for Waddell was never about the trophy or someday becoming the TV personality he is today, but more about spending quality time with his loved ones and that feeling of fulfillment he gets by providing food for their table.

Booger Bottom is a place where boys can grow up and not worry one bit about the fast-paced life of the city. Though on a side note, he often begged for his mom to drive him the 50 minutes into town so he could ride his skateboard, that through the wonders of the one television they owned, Tony Hawk vicariously sold him.

“We didn’t have pavement. Heck, we didn’t even really have a porch that you could ride a skateboard on. I used to just sit there and stare at it. There in my hands, just thinking about learning to ride it. I hope I have done that to some city kid somewhere with a bow. He’s just sitting in his room holding it, begging his dad to drive him to the country so he can shoot it,” he says with a laugh.

Waddell has come a long way since winning a turkey calling contest that landed him on Realtree’s pro-staff and a position in their video department. It’s something he is humbly proud of, but he never forgets where he came from—Booger Bottom.

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Kids toys, random hunting bags, and a wall full of memories.

“I can remember calling my dad from one of my first business dinners with Realtree. We were at some Italian restaurant, and they ordered a few appetizers. I said, “Papa, you ain’t gonna believe this, but these people order food before they even eat their meals … and I think one of the things is squid… fried squid, Papa!”

Fast forward to one fate-filled day when he was chatting with Bill Jordan, owner of Realtree. Waddell had put together a concept for a hunting show that was as much about hunting as it was about the community that surrounds it. It was about the lifestyle and all the things that hunters love: the music, the campfire camaraderie, home life, and family. And with that, Realtree Road Trips was born, launching Michael into the spotlight. To this day, it still holds the record as the only show on the Outdoor Channel to win seven Golden Moose awards and three Fan Favorite Hunting Show awards. In 2009, he launched his next show, Bone Collector, and the rest is history.

Before I jumped on the plane to his farm, I poked around the Bone Collector YouTube channel a bit (you should too). Two videos stood out the most to me: one where Waddell shot his first buck on his new property, a 125” deer and one where he shot his biggest buck to date—a 193” deer in Kansas. Both episodes culminated the same way—with Waddell shaking, at a loss for words, overjoyed, overwhelmed, and thankful for the buck he had taken. That’s the kind of guy Waddell is; one who celebrates the hunt for what it is… an experience no matter what the deer scores out at.

“Personally, I measure my success as a hunter by the stories I can share and the friendships I have built during my adventures, not by what’s hanging on my wall—and I think that is where we have lost sight. Too many focus on the trophy and truthfully, I don’t think anyone will ever shoot a big enough deer in their own heads. And so what if they do? Some hunters think if they kill a huge buck, that it’s going to change their life. Your wife won’t love you any more. You certainty ain’t going to be any richer.”

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Edwin “Papa” Waddell, Michael, and family friend Ronnie O’Neal cutting up while a break from hard work on the farm.

And with that statement, I knew that the perspective I was looking for from Waddell was right around the corner.

Sitting on the back deck of his home overlooking the Chattahoochee River, just miles from where Alan Jackson penned one of his most famous songs, Waddell spoke up, “Here’s something to think about: I often do appearances. I meet folks from all walks of life. I think about the guy who punches the clock every day. He saves all year to get on his deer lease, and his wife is already frustrated by that. He then buys a $1,200 bow he thinks he needs; he then talks to me and I talk him into $30 broadheads. In his mind he knows that if his wife finds out, she is going to skin his ass, but he buys it all anyway. Also, he doesn’t get much time off of work, and he saves his days to hunt—also, frustrating to his wife because they haven’t been on a romantic date in a year. The day comes, he’s in the stand, the buck walks in, he draws back, and the shot is perfect. All of the stress, the worry about spending all slip away when that eight-point drops. He walks up to it, and sure it shrinks a little when he gets closer, but who cares, he is on cloud nine. He gets it back to camp, and the first thing his buddies do is ask him why he shot Bambi? He feels defeated.

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Michael poses in front of his high school truck, still sporting its original front license plate. The truck was redone as a surprise to Michael and now sits proudly in his barn.

“You know what is going to happen next year, John?”, Waddell asks. “He is going to say, ‘You know, I am going to sell that bow. Maybe my wife was right, hunting is a waste of time and money.’ And that is sad,” he finishes with a pause.

Looking off into the distance, Waddell continues a moment or two later, “I am as far as I can be in our industry. I am in the prime slot on outdoors television, but I still don’t know what to say to get our sport past the ego side of it all. To get people to realize that it’s not about the biggest deer, but it’s the smallest things that matter the most. The squirrel under your stand, that bird that lands on the limb next to you, the God-given sunrise breaking through the limbs, and the comradery of deer camp—not the trophy. Now, I will say, there is nothing wrong with killing a great buck, I love killing big bucks, but I don’t let that be the only factor that keeps me in the trees. Hunting ain’t about killing, it’s about the experience.”

And there’s the rub. We all still dream about a big buck, and for the sake of not sounding like two liberal hippies whining about “deer-shaming,” we moved on with our conversation.

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Three generations of Waddells pose with a Georgia buck. Left to Right: Papa Waddell, Mason Waddell, and Michael Waddell.

Looking out over the river, rocking slowly in well-aged chairs, we both grabbed another beer, and each lit up one of Waddell’s favorite cigars. The conversation again turned back to business and politics. In that moment though, I found my answer.

We do put too much pressure on ourselves, and the joy of the hunt is often robbed from us by the external expectations that we place on ourselves as hunters. Those fantasy buck pictures are just that—deer porn. This season, sit back and enjoy the experience of it all. Do your best to get a great deer, but also realize the biggest trophy you will ever get won’t be able to be hung on your wall, but it will hang in your memory forever.

Keep on hunting, y’all, and never stop celebrating the small things.