John Bailey: Thoughts on the passing of an angling hero 

Jimmy Hendry

Jimmy Hendry - an angling hero - Credit: John Bailey

Half a century ago, almost, I bought my parents Rum Owd Boys, a book by James Wentworth Day.

The “Boys” in question were amongst the last generation of Norfolk men who lived on the land and from the land, and knew the land down to the last grain and sod. I’d met up with them during and just after college, working both as a worm digger for a year and for five or six summers on farms around the Blickling area.

I also played football with some of them for a thousand or so games with Blakeney and I was mightily impressed. These were men of unbowed independence and who held firm views. They shared a no-frills attitude to life and didn’t go in for unnecessary pontification, unless they had a few too many in the Walpole Arms or White Horse perhaps. They were possessed of a fine sense of justice, generally swiftly administered and always fairly so. They had been brought up the hard way and were imbued with courage, determination and an aversion to whinging in any shape or form. Loyalty was ingrained in them, along with a sometimes concealed generosity and a sardonic sense of humour. They didn’t cry, but they were deep down sensitive and caring. Above all, being brought up in nature, they had an intuitive understanding of her and how all her constituent parts fit together to form a harmoniously working entity. They weren’t sentimental about the natural world and saw it warts and all, but , by God, they loved it and cherished it in their hearts. All these attributes, I believe, were a part of the character of Jimmy Hendry, a Norfolk angler of legend who, sadly, has recently passed away.

Jimmy was a member of the Norfolk Flyfishers’ Club for nigh on 30 years, some of those spent as a bailiff and most of them seeing him play his part on endless working parties.

In his later days, he didn’t seem to fish that much, certainly when I saw him there, but he was always on hand to advise and hand over a fly or two that might win the day. He was a cook of note and his extravagantly-filled rolls were frequently the toast of the fishing hut. As was his revered recipe for hot smoked rainbow trout. Basting the fillets in whisky for hours (or days or weeks?) was the essential element. His culinary skills were critical to his fishing as well. His cheese paste was the most devastating chub catcher the Wensum had ever seen and whilst Jimmy might give you a generous sample or two when you were struggling, his recipe he would never divulge. If he truly has taken those magic ingredients with him, then the chub hereabouts will breath all the more easily. 

I don’t know much about Jimmy’s personal life because we always talked fishing but I did know that his beloved grandson had been killed out in Afghanistan and that by sourcing and selling fishing gear, Jimmy raised a small fortune for the Parachute Regiment. It was a good way to cope with the loss. And talking of losses, there have been a fair few stalwarts taken from the NFC hut these last years.

In my time as a member, Great Owd Boys like Jack Fitt, Billy Giles, Reg Sandys, Frank Wright, Michael Robbins and Jim Knights, along with very many others, no longer thread their lines outside it. Of course, this is the inescapable fact of life, but my sadness overflows as I write. 

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Jimmy was a superb wildlife photographer and that is because he knew his fieldcraft and was skilled at his watercraft. That is how I got to know the man way back in the 1970s when he was undisputed master of the Wensum, along with his pal and double act Jimmy Sapey. What a river the Wensum was in those days. Has there ever been a better English coarse river and has there ever been an angler better at fishing it than Jimmy? The first time I came across Jimmy was exactly 50 winters ago when I stood behind him at a match on the middle Wensum. He winkled out three gigantic roach averaging two and a half pounds each and though I might be an ounce or two out here, the miracle of the memory remains. Jimmy was good, bloody good - he would have appreciated the expletive. He could trot a float like no other, certainly better than me, probably better than John Wilson, who was watching with me that day.

There was a horrid downstream wind and rods and lines weren’t up to much back then but his quill float never wavered as it wended its way to the giant red fins. David Niven was the man back then, but even he could not produce magic to equal the show Jimmy put on for us.

Then there was the time I came across Mr Hendry at The Falls, downstream of the NFC lake today. It was a Sunday in late February and I’m sure the year was 1973. I’d glimpsed Jimmy at work on the pool there so I parked the mini van and walked back to investigate. For once he was pleased to see me (he privately regarded me and Wilson as cocky upstarts) because he had a dace in his net of massive proportions and no scales. Back I came with the Avons, the net was hoisted and that dace looked the size of a silvery salmon. It was all pigeon chested with spawn and I made it a fraction under one pound three ounces. “Nice fish” was all Jimmy said as he slid it back: I would have been celebrating to this day. 

Yes, we have lost a grand old river in the Wensum, and it pained Jimmy greatly to see the Wensum decline like it did, especially as few of us seemed to care.

And we have certainly lost a grand old boy with the passing of the man himself. From the flood of emails I have received this past 48 hours, everyone appears to care very deeply and correctly about that.

Jimmy Hendry will long be missed and for sure, the Wensum will never see his like again. God bless him.