Hook & Barrel’s John Radzwilla spent a few days with ‘Bone Collector’ Michael Waddell. Spoiler alert: he’s even cooler in person.
“Sorry, Michael couldn’t make it, he’s busy building a dirt bike track,” Ryan Wakenigg says as he climbs down from his large, white pickup truck. Bone Collector’s marketing manager and I were slated to meet Michael Waddell for lunch at the Whistling Pig Café in Pine Mountain, Georgia. But Waddell’s morning had other tasks at hand.
It’s a clear, cold afternoon a few days after Christmas. Waddell had just given his six-year-old son Waylon a dirt bike. So, he did what any dad with 500 acres and access to a skid steer does. He woke up and built him a dirt bike track.
This was my first indication that Michael Waddell — champion turkey caller-turned hunting show host — was every bit the guy you see cleaning his own kills on TV. He’s a diligent, honest, legitimate southern boy who despite his success still values hard work and doing the job right. Even if that means doing all the work himself.
Meeting Michael Waddell on his own Turf
After a lunch of smoked brisket and chicken taters, Wakenigg and I roll through a pair of gates with “DD” emblazoned in iron. The letters stand for Downton Dixie, the name Waddell and his wife Christie gave the 500-acre farm they call home. It’s a tribute to their favorite TV show Downton Abbey.
We slowly creep through a meticulous grove of barren Georgia pecan trees before arriving in front of the dirt bike track. Waddell drives a skid steer as it bounces over freshly graded jumps and ramps. Boys on bikes and buggies speed around him. Waddell looks up from his morning’s road work, waves at us, and jumps out.
“We’ve been waitin’ for ya!” he says, greeting me like I was his best friend coming into town for the weekend, even though we’d never met. “Glad we got that water pipe fixed for you. Boy, woulda hated to have you have to get a room out in town.”
He is referring to the water pipe in his guest barn that froze over Christmas weekend. Designed for the Waddells’ house guests, the ‘barn’ is an elevated apartment that he has graciously invited me to stay in for the night. It stands over a work bay where Waddell, his sons, and his father work on the farm’s heavy equipment. When consecutive days of freezing weather caused a pipe to burst, he and his father spent the day after Christmas repairing it. No one was hired. Like everything on this farm, it was a family effort.
A Family Farm Built by Family
Waddell bought his 500-acre farm on the outskirts of Hamilton, Georgia, in 2016, fulfilling a lifelong dream of owning land where he could hunt, hike, and explore to his heart’s content. At the time, it was a wilderness of pine trees and low-lying brush behind an overgrown pecan grove. But through endless hours clearing roads and building deer blinds, he created a legitimate sportsman’s paradise.
“I like to teach the young ones they gotta work,” he says as we bound through the outer reaches of his property, setting coyote traps along his well-maintained dirt roads. “We had Waylon driving all kinds of farm equipment. During COVID we were like, well, what do we do? So we taught him to drive a skid steer.”
Waylon, the youngest of Waddell’s five children, was barely four.
The pickup truck we’re inside was formerly the property of Waddell’s oldest son, Mason, who is now 22. Waddell plans to give it to his son, Macoy, who is 15. “He don’t want it, though,” Waddell complains. “He wants something lifted, something fancy.”
The compromise, Waddell says, was to have Macoy earn enough money to pay to have the truck lifted. To raise funds, the father and son chopped firewood, bundled it, and sold it to people and businesses around Hamilton. They made about $1,500.
Traps & Blinds, on the Way
In addition to setting traps, we’re also out scoping a spot to set up a field expedient ADA deer blind. The next day, Waddell and his Bone Collector team are having an impromptu doe hunt. Bone Collector co-host Travis “T-bone” Turner recently had a leg amputated as a result of long-standing cancer and is restricted to using a motorized cart to get around the property. Waddell wants to create a blind he can still reach.
Waddell sets a few more coyote traps, sharing a story of how he freed a pitbull from one of them a few weeks ago. And then proudly shows off the small pack of recently captured dead coyotes in the back of his pickup. “It’s like a vacation for me when I’m out here,” Waddell says as he finishes sticking a small PVC pipe over one of his coyote traps. “Getting to work on all this stuff, it just relaxes me.”
Building a Bone Collector Empire
Even after nearly 30 years on television, Waddell says he’s still on the road half the time. But his TV life of hunting around the world is only the tip of the Bone Collector iceberg. From the show’s success, he spawned entire lines of licensed outdoor products and began making branded shotguns and other firearms in 2022. He even started a music company called Georgia Boy Records, which makes what Waddell calls ‘hunting albums’.
“We just made it to have music to put on hunting shows that people would know,” he says. “It went platinum, but nobody knows it.”
He has partnerships with companies ranging from Chevrolet to Mountain Dew and Sheffield Financial. And now he’s even getting into the world of monetized social media.
“My little girl (Audrey), at the time she was 13, said ‘Dad, you gotta get on TikTok, you’d be so funny!’” he says. “And I was like everybody else, you know, oh, China’s just hacking us. But then I got on there and it took off pretty quick. We got a Bone Collector account, and it got up to a million. We’re fighting an algorithm cuz you can’t put any hunting clips on there. So it’s just kind of weird stuff.”
Winding Down with Guitars and Whiskey
When he’s home, and the sun has gone down, and there’s no work left to do, Waddell enjoys the comforts of his farm’s centerpiece—an old plantation home atop a small hill above the pecan grove. Or, at least, it looks old. The house was completed just before 2020. It was designed to look 200 years older. Tall, white Georgian columns line the front, with a side garage that looks like it could have once been a stable.
Inside, weathered wood floors lead into a towering main living room, where a moose head hangs above a two-story stone fireplace, and a spacious kitchen with whitewashed cupboards wraps around the outside.
The Waddell family gathered in the living room where Christmas decorations are still hanging. Waddell and his oldest son Mason pulled out a Gibson acoustic guitar, which the young man received as a Christmas present. They begin jamming on everything from Eric Clapton to Hank Williams. The Waddell family, in addition to being skilled sportsmen — Mason recently graduated from the University of Montevallo, where he attended on a bass fishing scholarship — are also incredibly musical. Christie says this is a pretty regular way of winding down the night in Downton Dixie.
“He didn’t try and mold himself into what he is. This is not an act,” Christie says as Chief, the Akbash, who guards her chicken coop, climbs up to join her on the sofa. “Some people think that he’s…that it’s just for TV. But that’s who he is, he’s just himself all the time.”
Simple Goals, High Satisfaction
Just off the kitchen is Waddell’s office, a glass case of impressive rifles sits behind his large wooden desk. Taxidermy lines the wall, and a small humidor fills the desk’s center. “It’s the perfect backdrop for Zoom calls and podcasts,” he says, as he pulls a couple of Ashton cigars out of the humidor.
An extensive collection of spirits in the living room’s multi-story bar beckons. Waddell offers up a small-batch straight bourbon from High Wire Distilling, then invites us to adjourn to his outside patio, which is warmed by a fresh fire. “I’m scared to death of being satisfied, but this is the happiest I’ve ever been in my entire life,” Waddell says through a puff of cigar smoke. “I feel like I’m a hell of a lot better father, better husband. Sure, I ain’t perfect, but at the end of the day I have very simple goals.”
The night is seeping into early morning. Though the Waddell’s are happy to host as late as their guests want, the morning’s work still looms over everyone. Waddell offers me a ride back to the guest barn, with a hearty invitation to return at any time. “If you don’t ever come back here, that’s on you,” he says as I climb out of his pickup truck in front of the guest barn. “The only way you’re gonna piss me off is if you’re back around here and don’t stop by and have a beer.”
He’s not just saying that to be civil, because after just an afternoon, I know Michael Waddell never says anything he doesn’t mean. And if you ever have the pleasure of spending an afternoon at Downton Dixie, chances are it won’t be your last.
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