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Freedom Fly finally makes it to White House

Inspired Oregon fly-tier Gerald James sends his symbolic post-Sept. 11 pattern to the president in 2001 and it now adorns the Oval Office

By Mark Freeman
Medford Mail Tribune ? June 25, 2004

It took a while, but Gerald James' Freedom Fly now adorns an Oval Office wall.

GRANTS PASS, Ore. ? Just after watching the second plane hit the tower during the Sept. 11 attacks on television, master fly-tier Gerald James retreated to his bench and tackled his emotions the way he knew best.

For the next 12 hours, he crafted fur and feathers onto a hook in such a way that he created an Atlantic salmon fly that resembled an American flag.

He dubbed it the Freedom Fly and a month later mailed it to the first President George Bush in Houston, with a letter asking him to forward it to his son in the White House.

"That was during the Anthrax scare, and I was afraid that if I mailed it to the White House, they might burn it up because they were burning some mail," James recalled.

"That was the last I heard of it. I figured it was burned, and I felt pretty bad about it."

Then in January 2004, a caller James mistook for a soliciting house painter informed him that the President finally got the fly.

It took a while, but the Freedom Fly now adorns an Oval Office wall, and the Bushes have acknowledged their appreciation in a letter with Bush's signature and the White House seal.

"Two years and three months to the day, and they finally opened the box," said James, 63, of Grants Pass. "When I tied a fly for his father in 1994, he sent a letter back in just one month.

? I'd once given up on it, but now I feel real good about it. It's fantastic just to know it got to the White House. ?
? Gerald James, on his Freedom Fly pattern

"The President's letter isn't as long as President Senior's letter, either," James said, "but he's got his hands full."

The President's mailbag is full of millions of unsolicited mail, especially artwork after Sept. 11, White House press aide Ken Lisaius said. And individual pieces often take a while to percolate to the top.

Lisaius said he doesn't know exactly where the Freedom Fly is hanging, and James doesn't care.

"Just knowing it's there is a great honor," James said.

James has a long history of using fly-tying as a way to work through problems.

Hit in the head with a hammer as a child, James suffered a brain injury that kept him from competing in traditional sports and childhood games.

He turned to tying flies and found he was better than just good at it. For several decades, he tied flies professionally for legendary tier Polly Rosborough, a gruff taskmaster who said James tied the best dry flies he had ever seen.

Chronic migraines forced James, a draftsman, into full disability in the 1970s, and even though the concentration it takes to tie great flies can overwhelm him, each fly from his bench gives James purpose.

"Through fly-tying I guess I hope to show other people with disabilities that they can contribute," James said.

James is a regular finalist for the Federation of Fly Fishers' national fly-tier of the year award, and he was dubbed the best tier on the West Coast in 1993.

More than a half-century at the tying bench has taught James much about where he fits in the world. And he never needed the bench more than the day the towers fell.

After a childhood injury, Gerald James turned to tying flies and found he was better than just good at it.

"I turned the television on just before the second plane hit the tower," he said. "It really, really got to me. An hour later, I went to my bench."

The Freedom Fly is a rendition of the only image James had when he sat down to tie.

"I just instantly saw the flag waving and I knew we'd do something about this," James said. "That's what makes our country great. Americans don't give up. They get the job done."

The fly is a mix of manmade and natural materials. The red and white stripes of the flag are dyed swan wings. The stars and blue field are actually dyed guinea feathers, with the feathers' natural white dots serving as the stars.

Tied on a gold hook, it may not pass muster with Old Glory traditionalists ? it has just five red stripes, four white stripes and five stars.

But to James, the fly is steeped with symbolism.

The dark collar at the fly's head represents the "death and destruction" of Sept. 11, with the flag representing American's support. The gold tail made of pheasant topping is in memory of the police and firefighters who died in the melee.

James tied three Freedom Flies. The Southern Oregon Fly Fishers, a club to which James belongs, fetched $500 for it during a fund-raising auction. A second went to Grants Pass auctioneer Wayne Liska as thanks for doing free auctions for the club.

James framed and signed the frame for Bush's fly and sent it East.

On Jan. 25, he received a call from a woman saying she was from the White House.

"I'd gotten several telemarketers calling the previous day, and when she said 'White House' I thought it was a house painter," James said.

"I said, 'no thank you' and as I was about to hang up the phone she said, 'It's the White House.' I almost fell down."

The woman, whose name James cannot remember, explained the situation. Four weeks later, the President's letter appeared.

Letters from both Bushes now rest in James' private fly-fishing museum.

He declares himself patriotic, but not very political.

"I thought (both Bushes) were pretty good presidents," James said. "No worse than the others, you know?"

But he believes that sometime during Bush's re-election campaign, which so far has included images of Sept. 11, the President will hold up the Freedom Fly as a symbol of how Americans have rallied together in the wake of terror.

"I definitely think it will come up in the election year," James said.

Either way, James plans on submitting an image of the Freedom Fly to the U.S. Postal Service as a possible postage stamp - something he tried unsuccessfully two years ago.

"I told them I don't want any money out of this," he said. "Any money should go to the firefighters who went into those towers."

"I'd once given up on it, but now I feel real good about it," he said. "It's fantastic just to know it got to the White House."

Gerald James

Premium Member
5,198 Posts
Nightstrikes Appreciate you "slumming" down here with the long rod guys. Many thanks for bringing this to our attention. Thanks much for a great picture of a way cool fly & a delightful story. Again, thanks for sharing. Ron

7,853 Posts
Great story. I think I will leave that kind of fly tying to the experts. It is way to pretty to ever use, but I bet it would even catch.

118 Posts
A member of SJCFA Reggie won the National tie a fly for freedom with a spread fly his fly was picked out 1000 flies entered I don.t have a picture JAY

5,585 Posts
Salmon flies are not really much harder to tie than deceivers. Just more feathers and other materials to work with.

By the way, great fly :D .

[ 07-17-2004, 08:59 AM: Message edited by: Fly Ty R ]
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