Michael Strickland has fished up and down the Santee Cooper Diversion Canal many times. Now he’s hunted there, too — in a bigger way than he ever expected, with an alligator hunt resulting in a gator that weighed in at more than 770 pounds.

“I’ve seen a lot of big gators up and down the canal,” Strickland said. “So I figured that would be a pretty good place to go.”

It was, even though it was his second choice.

Last summer Strickland had observed plenty of big gators while fishing on the Cooper River, mentally marking the locations in case he was fortunate enough to be drawn for the state’s alligator hunt for a second time in four years.

But when his hunting party began hunting on the river on the first day of the season, they quickly realized they might have to alter their game plan.

“It was so busy (with hunters),” Strickland said. “We hunted until 3 a.m. and saw fewer and fewer gators the whole time.

“So we decided to hit fresh water.”

The move paid off. The next morning, the hunting party — Strickland, his father Robbie and good friend Chase Cummins, all from Clinton — migrated to Cross near the Diversion Canal.

About midnight on their first night, they spied a massive gator that would turn out to be their pursuit for the next couple of weeks.

“We got a good look at him with the binoculars and knew that he was the one we wanted,” Strickland said. “But when we’d get close, he’d go (under water). He was playing with us, basically.”

But the hunters remained diligent. The group returned to the location several times over the next 2 1/2 weeks, spotting the big gator each time, but never getting within range.

On their third trip — their seventh day hunting the giant — their luck changed. Arriving around 2 p.m. on Sept. 29, they immediately spotted their target, and then put their boat along the shore and waited.

When the big gator eventually surfaced, it was only 30 feet away.

Strickland used a saltwater fishing rod to sink a large treble “snatch hook” into the gator, and then they got two other lines snagged into the beast.

“He dragged us up and down the Canal, probably three quarters of a mile,” Strickland said. “We were lucky just to keep him on. It was pretty nerve-wracking.”

After a two-hour back-and-forth battle, the big gator finally tired and came to the surface for good, and was quickly dispatched with a one pistol shot boatside.

Two other nearby hunters offered to help, but the five of them couldn’t come close to lifting the gator into the 23-foot boat. They attached the gator securely and motored slowly the 1 ½ miles to the boat ramp.

It took a tractor with a frontend loader to hoist the gator, which was 12 feet, 7 inches long and weighed a whopping 771 pounds.

“I believe it’s the biggest one to be killed this year (weight wise),” Strickland said. “Some guys killed one the other day that was a little longer, but not near the weight.”

The Stricklands each had killed a gator in 2009, but neither had measured close to their most recent conquest.

“This was pure excitement,” Strickland said. “We’ll be going back again if we’re lucky enough to get drawn again.”

Check out other big gators killed this year!