Where to Find and What to Look for When Gold Prospecting and Panning
Reading the Stream
This hub will convey information that I, an amateur prospector, have learned about the location of placer gold. Believe it or not, it took me quite some time to figure out how to increase my odds of finding placer gold. Due to the fact that discovering gold is an exciting prospect, people frequently delve into the activity simply digging, most often near a bank, at a claim where gold has been found before. Usually it is after several trips that the neophyte realizes that there must be more to finding gold (even at a location that has produced gold) than simply digging. Well, the good news is that there is more to it.
Gold Is Heavy
The first piece of information you need to understand is that the placement of gold in stream beds is based upon the speed and volume of water that can run in rivers, stream beds, or creeks. Gold is 19 times heavier than an equivalent volume of water. It is about 6 times heavier than the solid material flowing down from higher elevations in rapid water as a result of melting snow pack and rain. Realizing how heavy gold is will lead you to the next fact about gold depositing. When rapid moving heavy waters pick up gold flake or nuggets and takes them down a watercourse, anything that slows the current down gives the gold a chance to settle out and sink to the bottom.
When you get to the site of your claim, many times near a stream bed or ancient waterway, look upstream. Analyze the twists and bends as water would come toward you. One of the first things you look for is some kind of obstruction to the flow of water. An example that all prospectors with a minimum of experience know of is big boulders. If you see a big boulder in the stream, especially if it is near a bend, it has slowed water. If you have looked at rocks in a flowing steam, no doubt you have seen eddies or swirling areas on the DOWNSIDE of rocks sticking up out of the water. That is because the water has slowed. As gold flake rounds the boulder it is heavy enough that the current no longer keeps it afloat, and it sinks to the bottom where it collects. Rocks under the water can act as barriers and stop gold flake also, but for a newbie, collecting material on the downside of an underwater obstruction is probably a bit beyond the true beginner's capability. So one place to start digging is the downside of a protruding big rock. The same is true of a tree with a sizable trunk which may be growing in a dry riverbed. Here we run into an ethical issue. If you are digging by the trunk you run the risk of damaging the tree. I follow this rule (and I have found flake behind trees). I dig but do not cut big roots. After I have removed material to wash, I fill in the hole. The government expects you to fill in your holes on federal claims, but not forgetting to fill a hole near a tree is extra important. In the Southwest where I explore, shade is an expensive commodity. As the leader of our club has often said, "A little shade from a healthy tree is more valuable than gold."
Next, you must realize the common course of gold down a waterway. Think of a steam wandering down from a mountainous area to lower elevations. As the water makes its way, bends are created. When gold flake hits an INSIDE BEND, it slows down. Frequently you will also find other heavy materials that have fallen out and formed a bar. The upside of a bar on an inside bend is a very good place to sample. If the waterway is dry, focus on where the water has caused a bend. The OUTSIDE OF A BEND would be the area not protruding in to the stream (see drawing above right). If you see a lot of material like rocks and gravel on that shore, that might also be a good place to dig. In a previous article about panning at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, I found one flake and a tiny nugget (a small piece of quartz with a flake of gold attached to it). However, more often than not, the inside bend of a stream bed is the primo first place to look for gold.
Gold Clubbers On a Budget
There are plenty of great articles on "how to find gold." The emphasis here will be, as I said, the amateur prospector, but also a prospector freshly interested in finding gold, and on a budget. Let's face it, mining equipment is rather expensive. I have found that one can have a lot of fun searching for gold with little more than a pan, 14 gallons of water, a tub to hold water, several buckets, a whisk brush, and a snuffer bottle. Are you going to find as much as someone who owns a $600 dry washer? Probably not, but there are a few people who own such equipment who do not even know what I have learned.
And to make the introduction a bit longer (sorry) this information is for people who have decided to join a prospecting club. When you join, you are able to go to areas that the club has claimed. These areas historically have produced placer gold. For a newbie to simply go out into the wilderness to try to find gold is overwhelming. You need to know something about geology, you need to make sure you aren't on someone else's claim, you need to know how to use a GPS system or be VERY good with a compass, and you need the experience of an outdoorsman. Joining a club eliminates these considerations since you can go to the claims with a group, return another day with confidence that you are in the right place, and begin to learn the steps I am going to tell you about.
Gold Flake Size
The next point I want to mention has to do with the size of gold flake in a waterway. Since gold is heavy, once settling out it will work its way down through sand and gravel until it hits bedrock, or another substance referred to as false bedrock. In Arizona, I have found that digging in an arroyo you frequently will hit something pretty hard. But if you hit it with gusto with a pick or shovel, the material will crumble. That is composite rock (rocks that have essentially been cemented over geologic time with calcium and other minerals to form a very hard continuous crust) forming a false bedrock. When you get to something like this, start digging out sideways and moving material away. The material coating the false bedrock is what you want. That is where the gold stops its journey through the stream bed. Using a whisk brush and a dustpan, save that material for panning. While whisking, notice any cracks or crevices which collect gold. Whisk them out or use a miners pick to crack the sides and sweep out material for panning.
Now a consideration for using your time efficiently. Most of us have a limited amount of time to prospect because most of us have other responsibilities (even though the thought of living the life of a prospector may seem inviting). If you dig sparingly before you bring material back to your camp site for panning in the tub, you are using time to wash your material in the pursuit of gold. If you have already sampled these prime locations and found some flake, your time is better spent gathering "dirt". I usually bring dirt home (or concentrate I have not completely panned, ie black sand). I can do my final washing at my home at my leisure while having more material to pan. I only mention this if you really are interested in bringing home as much gold flake as you can. In the beginning, I couldn't wait to pan it and see the gold. Then I would snuff it. What I brought home was a snuffer bottle of material that I panned (which isn't much). Nevertheless, I found finding the bright yellow metal right away was more rewarding than bringing dirt home. Now that I have satisfied that feeling of elation on seeing "color", I bring dirt home, which theoretically should contain more gold!
Grass Is Stealthy
Now for another location to find gold flake (and maybe a nugget- it happens). I have noticed that if you are at an inside bend and you see a good amount of grass growing above, digging around that grass can be profitable. The grass acts as a sift and the heavy gold falls to the roots. Usually the flake you find there is very small (fine, sometimes referred to as oat gold), but there can be quite a bit of it. Of course, no rule for prospecting is perfect, but all of this gives you good places to sample and then dig for gold at a club claim.
I have mentioned sampling a few times. When you sample you take material and pan it to definitely determine if gold exists. Mark that spot and come back to it or choose to dig there first.
Most experienced prospectors will take an area and sample in several odds-on places, choosing to do their digging where they find the most flake. Others dig enthusiastically as soon as they find a sample with gold. When you start to prospect, I figure it is whatever you want to do.
I think that this gives the first time amateur prospector information that will prove important on a first outing with a gold prospecting club. You can obtain this level of info just by talking to the other club members, but that can be hard since you have not already made friends. After a couple outings you will have made friends and shared information. Usually there is a club leader who is also a valuable source of information. From then on, you will be amazed at what you learn!
May all your club claims be rich with gold!
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Questions & Answers
© 2011 John R Wilsdon