Rarely do the hunting, fishing and shooting industries produce a personality that transcends beyond the outdoors and into the mainstream.
Grits Gresham did it.
Bill Dance did it.
And now Michael Waddell seems well on his way to doing it, too.
The magnetic outdoor television star is armed with a warm Southern manner, quick humor and larger-than-life coolness tempered with tomato-sandwich sensibility. Waddell charms his audience like a Leprechaun in camouflage. With a grin and mischievous wink, he can step right out of a plasma screen, wrap an arm around the shoulder of hunters and non-hunters alike, and lead them spellbound toward adventure in forest and field; a pied piper for a generation torn between cyberspace and open space.
Waddell’s surging appeal—and passionate understanding of hunting and fishing’s ties to conservation—make him an ideal honorary chair for this year’s National Hunting and Fishing Day, set for September 27.
“I started hunting when I was 11 years old but I didn’t think much about conservation until I turned 16 and bought my first hunting license. That’s when I realized who takes care of wildlife. Without hunters and anglers and their money, we wouldn’t have the abundance of fish and wildlife that everyone enjoys today,” said Waddell, now 34.
Today, via licenses and excise taxes, America’s 34 million hunters and anglers generate $100,000 every 30 minutes for fish, wildlife and habitat programs. It’s a conservation model unique to North America, envied by nations around the globe. Congress created National Hunting and Fishing Day in 1971 to help the public understand what Waddell learned early on.
“True hunters know how conservation works but we tend to take it for granted. We also tend to forget that most other people don’t know. And they’ll never know if we as hunters don’t tell them,” he said.
Waddell grew up fishing and hunting with his father and grandfather near Woodbury (also known as Booger Bottom), Georgia. He started with crappie, squirrels and rabbits.
“It was like grocery shopping in the wild. Everything we caught or killed wound up sizzling in Lake Crisco. Nothing was wasted,” he recalled.
One of his best childhood memories is the morning of his first deer hunt, when his father escorted him into the woods and dropped him off at a tree stand. Before dad was even back to the truck, the 12-year-old Waddell had already killed a buck.
“That deer wound up winning a local big-buck contest. My prize was $700. And I spent it all on guns and ammunition,” said Waddell.
At 14, he bagged his first turkey on his first turkey hunt.
Waddell soon began competing in turkey calling contests, winning many of them, and using his skills as a hunting guide.
It wasn’t long before camo giant Realtree discovered him. Originally hired as a cameraman for Realtree television and video productions, Waddell’s natural charisma soon landed him in front of the lens. He now hosts two outdoor TV shows including the award-winning reality series “Realtree Road Trips,” where more and more viewers who once clicked past the hunting shows are discovering him, too.
He has now hunted all over the world. It’s a far cry from his humble beginnings but Waddell is determined to never forget where he came from.
Routinely swarmed with fans like a rock star on Main Street, he has autographed a million hunting caps yet never misses an opportunity to sign another. He enjoys the frenzy. But he also carves out quiet time to return phone calls to terminally ill kids who adore him.
Waddell still lives in Georgia, spending every spare minute with wife Ashley and their four children, showing them how to bait a hook and hold a gun or bow. In March 2008 he introduced his 7-year-old son to turkey hunting. Like his pop, the young hunter bagged his first gobbler on his first hunt.
“That evening we cooked and ate his bird. My son was puffed up like Hulk Hogan at the idea of being the provider,” laughed Waddell.
Part of his smile is just knowing the Waddell family tradition has now come full circle. The rising mainstream celebrity has created another new hunter and angler—another keeper of conservation in America.
And another person to celebrate each year on National Hunting and Fishing Day.
About National Hunting and Fishing Day
National Hunting and Fishing Day has an official home at Wonders of Wildlife museum in Springfield, Mo. Wonders of Wildlife is the only hunting- and fishing-focused museum affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Major sponsors for 2008 include the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Bass Pro Shops, The Sportsman Channel, National Wild Turkey Federation, Realtree, Cabela’s, Woolrich, GunBroker.com and Safari Club International.