In Service to the King

“Most of the bite continues to be slow,” reads the fishing report. It reads like many more like it in the doldrums of August. In the south, August is a merciless time of year. It’s the last gasp of summer, and its humidity and heat drain the life out of many an angler by midday.

Forty years ago, on a day much like this, the namesake of this lake passed away. I imagine the catfish bite was just as slow on August 16, 1977—the day the King left the building.

Elvis Presley Lake sits just outside of Tupelo, Mississippi, not far from where a young Elvis Aaron Presley was born. He’d run and play in the nearby woods—some say—the woods that now border the 322-acre lake. Home to channel cats, bass, bluegill and a sparsely used campground, the lake is managed by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

But a lake is the last image that comes to mind when most people hear the name Elvis. The lexicon of Presley is filled with jumpsuits, gold records and blue suede shoes. Four decades after his passing, his myth has grown to cartoonish proportions; and precious few remain who really knew the man. Those who did will lend you a revelation—the King of Rock n’ Roll was a country boy.

When the Presleys moved to Memphis in 1948, Elvis was in eighth grade. He’d spend his teenage years breaking down racial barriers, soaking in gospel at black churches on the corner and shadowing bluesmen on Beale Street at night. In August of 1953, he waltzed into Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios and changed popular music forever.

But he never left the fields of Mississippi behind.

Ed Sills knew the real Elvis well. He’d often carry a reminder of the man in his pocket: a weathered, golden badge. By the time I met Ed in 2006, he was 78 years old, and the badge had long ago lost its luster. Most of the engraving had worn away after decades in his pocket. He carried it wherever he went. And who could blame him—it was the same badge, apparently, that then-president Richard Nixon presented to Elvis in the White House in 1970.

Ed was a cousin, and along with the badge, he carried a family story that I’d never heard. He was a cousin, yes, but he was also a personal friend of Elvis.

For an hour or so, Ed held court with his badge in a derelict diner beside a Tennessee cotton field. He told the story of how he’d met the King, how he’d been a motorcycle cop in Memphis during the ’60s when he was assigned to escort Elvis to and from Graceland. Elvis had a notorious love for bikes and law enforcement, and it didn’t take long for their shared interests to form a friendship. Ed talked about riding motorcycles around Memphis, which even at the height of his fame was a safe haven where the locals mostly left rock n’ roll royalty alone, so common was it to see Presley or Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis at the local cruising spots.

The conversation with Ed is blurred now. Most of it is lost to the fog of time, but a few keys lines have always stuck with me.

“He loved to go to the farm,” Ed said. “We’d ride around in a Jeep and shoot.”

That farm was mostly likely the Circle G Ranch, a 160-acre farm in Horn Lake, Mississippi, that Presley bought in 1967. There, he’d shoot guns, hunt frogs by the lake, host picnics and ride horses.

The Circle G Ranch circa 1968

At Age 32, Elvis looked back to the countryside to restructure his career. That truth, and Ed’s story, remain astonishing to me. That a man with more fame and wealth than fathomable would look back to a little lake in the middle of nowhere should say something to us all.

If we work in fishing. If we work in the outdoors. We’ve at least got something figured out.

Forty years after his passing, thousands of tourists from across the globe have descended on his former home. The streets of Memphis and Tupelo are filled with lookalikes, tribute artists and fans. They’re fighting the oppressive August heat of the south, hoisting tribute candles, chasing the shadow of a man who grew to be larger than life. And, if you look closely, his story serves as a reminder that— sometimes— all you need is a tight line and a little fresh air.