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In the Macleay River, bull sharks are the real river monsters

Bull sharks have a unique knack in being able to inhabit water that’s fresh, brackish or salty. Photo: Marc Conlin Unprecedented shark numbers have been spotted along the west coast.
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Jamie Leeder with a bull shark caught earlier this year, one of the many he and Jarrad Smith have caught. Photo: Supplied

Another hot summer day’s end and the Macleay River is beginning to glass off. Suddenly the mirror water is shattered by mullet tearing through the surface.

“Something big’s chasing them,” Jarrad Smith says.

They say the land along the river bank around Kempsey on the NSW mid north coast is so fertile that a discarded 10-inch nail left overnight turns into a crow bar, but this summer the deep brown waters are alive with bull sharks.

Nearly every other night since early December, Smith and some of his mates finish work in town and head off to fish for bull sharks.

Sometimes their partners and children watch them cast lines from the banks. Other times they fish from boats.

They have favourite spots: a 20-metre deep trench scoured out where the Macleay floods and water slams into a granite cliff on a bend in the river; the “honey hole” on the Belmore River and the boat ramp at Frederickton five kilometres north of town along the river.

They’ve been landing bull sharks up to metre or so long. Some Kempsey mates landed a two-metre plus monster on Tuesday night.

“Sometimes we get none a night,” Smith says. “Other times we’ll land two or three. Catch and release usually. Of course, some blokes catch and fillet.”

A boiler maker, Smith worked in the Bowen Basin coal mine for a while but the FIFO life drove him around the bend and he returned home to work in a machinery store, father two children and hunt bull sharks.

The shark terror that started in Western five years ago and spread to the NSW north coast two years back became political football in both states. Victoria got into the act this summer with unprecedented shark numbers spotted along west coast surf beaches.

Everybody has a theory.

ChrisBrock, one of the surfers who opened up the NSW north coast in the 60s, reckons the great whites are back because nobody is killing whales. Jarrad Smith thinks the long line fishers have so depleted stocks that sharks are cruising the n continental shelf in search of food.

Great whites and tiger sharks get a bad press but bull sharks may be the real villains.

The bull shark (also known also as the requiem shark – not for the Mass for the repose of the souls of the dead but rather an English take on the French word for shark, requin) has a unique knack in being able to inhabit water, fresh, brackish or salty.

“Why the rivers?” Smith asks. “Well, they come up to have their young. Reckon all the hot weather and no rain has pushed salty water up the river and the bull sharks are here to get among the bass and mullet.”

The stretch of water where the Kempsey crew fish near the Frederickton boat ramp at the junction of the Macleay and Christmas Creek has a special place in the history of n shark attacks.

On January 31, 1837, 12-year-old Alfred Howe, became the first European to die in a shark attack in the colony of NSW.

“The unfortunate youth whilst washing his feet in shallow water, on the banks of the stream, in charge of a man servant, was suddenly seized by a large shark, near fifty miles from the harbour, and dragged into the current. The man rushed in and grasping the boy at the hazard of his life, pulled him out of the monster’s mouth and swam to land, just as the fish pursued them furiously to the shore,” the February 1, 1837, issue of the Sydney Monitor newspaper reported.

“The effusion of blood was instantly stopped, but symptoms of mortification exhibiting themselves, the surgeon in attendance peremptorily ordered a removal to Port Macquarie, for amputation of the limb, but death terminated his sufferings by locked jaw in a litter on the road.”

Smith, 27, grew up at Kempsey and like all locals, bull sharks were part of childhood fears. They all know about Alfred Howe.

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