Two Hawke's Bay fishermen were disappointed to haul up an empty craypot - but awed by the great white shark they accidentally caught instead.

Daniel McDonald and his brother-in-law George Eivers were shocked at their unintended catch yesterday afternoon between Bare Island and Waimarama, a beach 21km southeast of Havelock North, where the two men live.

Mr McDonald estimates the shark was about 2m long.

When they winched the craypot to the surface and their 6m-long boat began leaning to one side, they soon realised the cause was the large fish emerging, tail first, from the 12m-deep water.

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"It was a bit docile; I think it had been there a while," says Mr McDonald.

They braked the winch and leaned over the side of the boat to untangle the shark's tail.

"It kicked a couple of times and threw us towards the boat as we were hanging over the side, but because it was hanging upside down it took a bit of the sting out of it."

"I think we were running on adrenalin - we were laughing our heads off because we couldn't believe what happened."

After the pair untangled the shark, it "swam away quite happily". Department of Conservation shark expert Clinton Duffy, who has seen the pictures of the shark, says it is "definitely a great white".

He estimates it weighs 180-200kg and is two to three years old. The fishermen did the right thing in releasing the great white - the species is protected under the Wildlife Act. "It's not an offence to accidentally catch one, but it should be reported to DoC or a fisheries officer. The animals have to be released immediately, unharmed." Had the shark not been freed, it would have drowned, probably in under an hour.

"It's not uncommon to see them this size off the Hawke's Bay coast at this time of year. Most of the records I have of great whites from Hawke's Bay are from May to late November.

"In the Hawke's Bay-Gisborne area, they are probably there all year around, but August and September seemed to be the peak months."

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"This size range is very common along Hawke's Bay but there are some larger ones too, 3.6 to 4m long."

The last report he had received of a great white in Hawke's Bay was of a 4-5m animal seen further south by a commercial fisherman six to eight weeks ago. One of the ways in which Mr Duffy identifies individual great whites is by their tail colourings. "Unfortunately because this one has been tangled it has been beating its tail against the cray pot so it's scratched up. It's obliterated the colour pattern."

NZH