Florence, Alabama: They Got The Swampers and Smallmouth, too!

Bob May with an 11-pound blue catfish taken below Wilson Dam. Photo by author.

In the song “Sweet Home Alabama,” the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band sang “Now, Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers and they’ve been known to pick a song or two. Lord they get me off so much, they pick me up when I’m felling blue-now how about you?” The Swampers was a house band that played in the FAME recording studio. Bob May and I recently savored the sights of the Shoals and experienced some good fishing too.

The Florence/Muscle Shoals area is a seven-hour drive from central Indiana down I-65. We got off at the Highway 43 exit in Tennessee, a more-direct scenic route that took us past the Charlie Brewer Slider Company in Lawrenceburg. We picked up Slider bass, crappie, and panfish grubs and my favorite, the four-inch Slider worm.

Florence is a beautiful river-locked city of about 40,000 people with historic, well-kept buildings, good restaurants and great country music. We stayed at the Residence Inn where they had a heated pool, hot tub, gym and a gas grill.

The Swampers left FAME in 1969 and bought a studio in Sheffield called the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios where the Rolling Stones recorded three songs, including “Brown Sugar.” Keith Richards wrote the first few lines of “Wild Horses” before Mick Jagger locked himself in the small studio bathroom, for two hours, to finish the composition.

The Swampers were innovative, gluing styrofoam from electric meter shipping boxes to the wall as well as burlap sacks to buffer the sounds. Maxi-Pads were once stuck to the ceiling to silence the sound of rain hitting the roof during a recording session. They played in over 500 recordings with 75 being gold or platinum hits. They were given their name by Leon Russell.

Cher’s 1969 album was titled “3614 Jackson Highway,” the address of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios where it was recorded.

When Billy Powell joined Lynyrd Skynyrd (derived from the name of their high school janitor), he was to play bass. The band was working on “Free Bird” which originally had a guitar intro. At lunch Powell stayed behind and when the band returned, Powell was playing the intro on a keyboard, an instrument he never told them he could play.

May and I enjoyed touring the studios plus, The Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

A real treat, aside from the fishing, was the great eateries in the area. The best blue cheese dressing either of us has ever tasted was at the City Hardware Restaurant. Next door, was Ricatoni’s Italian Grill. They served dry herbs that you mix with olive oil to make a dip for Italian bread.

My sweet tooth has kept me from drinking hard liquor and it got satisfied with orange pineapple hard ice cream at Trowbridge’s; it is rated in the top 100 by Southern Living.

Water flowing over Hellen Keller's hands from this pump taught her that words have meaning.

Surprisingly, the best tour was Ivy Green in historic Tuscumbia. This 700-acre estate is where Hellen Keller was born and raised. Google Search this one and you will want to visit.

We fished with Brian Barton Outdoors below the Wilson Dam using live shiners and shad to catch catfish, drum and one bass. May caught a blue cat that weighed 11-lbs. Barton has caught them over 70-lbs.

The turbines injure shad coming through the dam and the big cats are there to gorge. Barton fishes with live baitfish for bass and catfish and we pulled up to a friend who was using a long-handled dip net to catch shad. Every dip resulted in a load of baitfish; the gentleman would sort out the gizzard shad and throw the rest back.

There was a Heartland bass tournament on the Saturday that launched on Pickwick at McFarland Park. Barton elected not to fight the crowd so he went go crappie fishing down lake several miles. We used plastic grubs and tubes. The fish were scattered and at different depths but we caught some big crappie.

I checked in with Heartland Tournament Director Scotty Johnston. Most fish caught were shallow with a winning five bass limit of four smallmouth and one largemouth weighing 27. 78 lbs. The team of Todd Rackley and Michael Reid also had the top largemouth at 8.27 lbs. and a hawg smallmouth weighing 7.39 lbs.

Second place was almost as good. Can you imagine going to the scales with four smallies and one largemouth weighing 27.35 lbs. and not winning? This is an unbelievable bass lake where a 10 pound plus largemouth was taken this spring.

A total of 55 teams weighed 20 limits on a cold front with bluebird skies. Pickwick must be the best smallmouth fishery in America. Unlike renowned smallmouth lake Dale Hollow, Pickwick has stained water that makes fishing more productive year-round.

Johnston recommended two bass guides who can put you on fish using artificial bait: David Allen at 270-205-9380 or Cameron Gautney at 256-577-6962. Find Brian Barton on Facebook or call 256-412-0969. One of his clients caught a huge smallmouth the day after we left.

Good fishing and a lot of history has me wanting to return to the hit recording capital of the world.


Official Visitor’s Guide to Florence Alabama.