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‘Bone Collector’ Avoids the Fame

Baltimore — Michael Waddell didn’t plan on being famous, at least among the hunters who now watch his weekly Bone Collector television show on the Outdoors Channel. He never thought about people buying his camouflage hats, T-shirts and other merchandise. He still can’t believe that he has his own trademark muzzleloader with his now-recognizable logo engraved on it.

“I never even really had a dream of being a television personality,” Waddell said last week in Frederick, Md., where he was one of the main attractions at the National Rifle Association’s Great American Hunting and Outdoor Show. “I realized that the hunting industry was growing and it was becoming entertainment. Once I saw that, I wanted to be the best hunter I could be and make people understand how much it meant to me and how it could mean that much to them.”

It’s not that Waddell is some overnight success, but to the good ol’ boy from a place the locals call Booger Bottom — a little speck of dirt and pine in southern Georgia between Warm Springs and Woodbury — it doesn’t seem so long ago that he was installing heating and air-conditioning units for a living and trying to figure out how to find the time and money to hunt.

Known to some in the hunting community as a world-champion turkey caller, Waddell was hired in 1995 to “run a camera” for a television show put on by Realtree Camouflage. Eventually, Waddell found himself in front of the camera for the company’s “Realtree Road Trips” show beginning in 2003 and then with his own show in 2009.

“I’ve been very blessed to get into the hunting industry at the right time,” Waddell said. “I’ve had a chance to voice the way I felt about hunting creatively and what others felt, and having people around me who are experts (in television production) in what they do and help me follow through with the ideas I have. I’ve always had a great production team to do the shows, always had really good guests on the shows.”

Along with the long-bearded Robertson family from Duck Dynasty, as well as the two Oklahoma anglers who have turned a somewhat dangerous — if not disgusting — form of catching catfish called “noodling” into an art form on Hillbilly Handfishin’, Waddell has become one of the biggest names in reality-based television hunting shows.

Largely because of the 39-year-old Waddell, Bone Collector has become one of the Outdoors Channel’s most popular hunting programs. The show recently received its third straight “Fan Favorite Hunting Series” recognition at the Outdoors Channel’s Golden Moose Awards in Las Vegas.

Jason Heathcoe, 22, a producer on the show, grew up in Mobile, Ala., watching Waddell, whom he calls his “hunting hero.” Heathcoe found that the guy he watched for years on television is the same as the one with whom he has worked the past two years.

“What you see on TV, the goofy, most down-to-earth dude you’d ever imagine, is what he is in real life,” Heathcoe said.

The show might be more traditional hunting than what is done by the Robertsons or by the city slickers learning how to pull out catfish out of the muddy waters of the Red River with their bare hands, but Waddell understands the value of entertaining his audience. It’s one of the reasons he tries on occasion to have celebrity guests.

“We do enjoy from time to time bringing a celebrity on, but we try to keep our show as down-home and to the grassroots and pure hunting with everyday people as much as we can,” Waddell said. “It’s nice to have the celebrities on because they have such a loud voice. Our goal is to promote hunting in a positive light so people understand what hunting is truly about. It’s good to have a persona like a Blake Shelton or a Miranda Lambert on to let people know that they also hunt. With their word and their reach, they can tell the audience what hunting is really about.”

As for Duck Dynasty, which some say is to hunting what Everyone Loves Raymond was to sportswriting (in other words, there’s very little hunting that goes on), Waddell said: “I think when it comes to it, when you have a hunting show, you have to be a legit, passionate hunter, but in this day and age, the world is starving to be entertained. Our job is to entertain at what we do the best and what we consider ourselves good at.”

The Bone Collector has taken Waddell a long way from his current home in Harris County, Ga., and an even longer way from Booger Bottom. He has been to Africa to hunt big game — on an upcoming episode, Waddell kills his first Cape buffalo with a bow — as well as to Mexico for whitetail deer and all the way to Alaska to hunt caribou on Adak Island.

The hunts are typically filmed over a five- to 10-day stretch and, as Waddell said, “There’s no retakes or redos. You get it right the first time or you don’t shoot it.”

The name Bone Collector came about six years ago without much planning. Waddell was practicing on the range one day with a prototype for a muzzleloader he was trying out for the show. The manufacturer wanted to attach Waddell’s name to it. As he was hitting the target with one shot after another, Waddell said: “I don’t know what we’re going to call it, but it’s sure going to be a bone collector.”

A trademark — and a budding hunting star — were born.

Waddell is still a little surprised by his celebrity.

Not that he minds fans lining up for his autograph or to take a picture with him, as they did Jan. 26 at the Frederick Fairgrounds. Or marketing everything from the muzzleloader to key chains to car seat and steering wheel covers, as well as food seasonings and fan club membership to The Brotherhood on his website. Or using his backwoods, and sometimes off-color, politically incorrect sense of humor to reach a wider audience through social media.

But the television show still is Waddell’s most valuable asset to his increasing celebrity.

“The television show is the No. 1 marketing tool we have,” he said.

Waddell’s profile continues to expand. Heathcoe said Waddell’s company is in negotiations with Warner Music Nashville to produce a country music album under the Bone Collector logo, with songs geared toward hunting themes. The songs are being written and produced by some respected country singers, he said.

“Within the hunting world, Michael Waddell is literally a household name,” Heathcoe said. “It’s pretty cool to see how it evolved.”

For Waddell, he is just a guy from Booger Bottom who got lucky.

“I don’t know if I really consider myself a professional hunter or a celebrity. I just enjoy hunting,” Waddell said. “I just enjoy hunting and I just want to represent the sport to the best of my abilities. It would be pretty shallow of me to consider myself a celebrity. I just want to be as real as I can, I don’t consider myself any better than the next person. The thing I’m most proud about our team is how humble everybody is and has remained throughout our successes and failures.”