On South Carolina’s opening day of the 2018 alligator hunting season, Daniel, Jennifer, and Justin Cunningham, along with Rutt and Candice Iusti left Santee empty-handed and headed back to the upstate after a long but fruitless encounter with a big gator. But they went back this past weekend and filled their tag with a 13-foot, 6-inch beast that weighed 1052 pounds.

“On opening weekend, we hung a big one and had several lines in it for over two hours. Once we got it to the boat, it broke three of our rods and got away. When we got home, we talked about everything we did wrong and came up with a plan to fill our tag, and went back this past weekend,” said Daniel Cunningham.

But it wasn’t easy. The crew, all from Laurens County, SC, rode around the lake for several hours on Sept. 29 and saw well over a dozen gators, and when they found a spot with a handful that were big enough to target, they decided to stay in that area until they had a gator in the boat.

They were easing their way around with the kicker motor on Cunningham’s 20-foot flat-bottom johnboat, trying to get into range when a large gator swam within 15 yards of them. Cunningham picked up his heavy-duty fishing rod and cast a Striper Slayer Lures weighted treble hook, snagging the gator’s side. Rutt Iusti did the same with another hook. Their Hi Seas steel leaders held firm, and the fight was on.

Attached to the two lines, the gator swam away, dragging the boat with it for well over an hour, then sank to the bottom and stayed put.

“We were trying to pull him up but he wouldn’t budge. Finally it came up to get some air and swam over real close to the bank. It pulled the boat into a bunch of bushes, and then my brother (Justin Cunningham) got a harpoon in him,” said Daniel Cunningham.

“Once the harpoon hit him, he really took off and pulled free of our treble hooks, but we had a buoy on the harpoon and were able to follow him,” he said.

Pretty soon, the crew had another line in the gator, and confident that the beast was worn out, they pulled it toward the boat, where Iusti hit it in the head with a bangstick. Unfortunately he narrowly missed the sweet spot, and the gator kicked into survival mode and pulled the boat around for another hour.

“When we brought him in the second time, Rutt hit him with the bangstick just right, and the gator immediately went belly up,” said Cunningham. “It was a long day and night, and we were worn out, but it was worth it. It was definitely a great experience.”