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Click to enlargeGold Panning and Prospecting Mistakes

Gold Panning and Prospecting Mistakes

Here are some typical mistakes made by novice gold panners and prospectors. Avoid these errors and be more productive.

Not Seasoning Your Gold Pan

The newer models of plastic gold pans will have a sheen on them from the manufacturing process. Water will tend to pool and bubble on top rather move freely over the surface. Rough up your gold pan thoroughly using gravel and rough sand to let your gold pan work at peak efficiency.


Test your panning with one of our gold concentrate bags. Loaded with gold it will allow you to practice at home before going out on the river. Great for hand panning practice too!




Not digging deep enough

All too often I have seen people new to prospecting wasting their efforts by scooping up material from the surface of the river bank. Gold is heavy - it will sink to the lowest possible point over time. Most gold may be found on top of the bedrock of the river. Concentrate your efforts on working the material just above the hard pack or bedrock. Ignore the loose material on top - this is just "overburden" and likely contains little to no gold. Now, some gold may be found in the loose top material but it is surely far less than what can be found deeper. (Note: the reverse may be true just after flood season when the gold may be churned up and moved closer to the surface. Over time though this gold too will also sink lower.)

Consider the following: any gold found in the top layers of material will likely be fairly new gold - gold that has just been deposited. Now imagine hundreds perhaps thousands of years where Mother Nature has worked its magic through breaking down tons of rocks and minerals and depositing gold throughout the river bed. Over time, gold, being heavy, will sink through the lighter top material and concentrate near the bottom of the river bed - just on top of the bedrock. Get down to this bedrock and be rewarded.

If digging a hole down to bedrock is impractical due to depth or is just not your style, you can still be very productive. Try crevicing or sniping for gold. Look for cracks in the bedrock where gold may have become lodged. Use small hand tools such as garden trowels, flat head screw drivers, dental picks, and scrapers to remove material from these areas and pan this material out. (See other tips for more on crevicing and sniping for gold).

Not digging test holes before setting up heavy equipment

Before you drop your dredge into the water or set up your sluice box for a day's work, spend some time testing likely areas for gold deposits. Gold is not evenly deposited in rivers. It will concentrate and form paystreaks or pocket up in certain areas. (See our other gold prospecting tips to learn how to identify these likely areas.) Use your gold pan as a sampling tool - take some material from various locations and pan it out thoroughly. Use a safety pan or catch basin under your pan because you will be counting the "colors" found in each pan. Pan your test material thoroughly and note the presence or lack thereof of gold from each location. You may find ten colors in one pan from location #1 but only three from location #5. Spending a little preliminary time scouting the area and panning the material from test holes will yield a much better pay off and save you from hours of digging in less productive areas.

Not Knowing How Gold Accumulates - Learn to Concentrate Your Efforts

The best places to find gold exist where turbulence changes to slower-moving water flow. Check out slower water below rapids and waterfalls, deep pools, and the downstream side of boulders. Inside bends of meanders, upstream ends of sand or 'point" bars are good places to pan fine gold, which is renewed yearly during runoff. Bedrock crevices or pockets acting as natural riffles can collect gold. Scoop out and pan material from these spots.

Investing in heavy equipment too soon

Ask anyone inflicted with Gold Fever and he will be sure to tell you the rush and urge he had to buy the latest and greatest gold getting machine! If you are still fairly new to prospecting but have already been bitten by the gold bug, take your time. Learn the ropes, join a local or national prospecting club, and ask for advice. Don't blow your wad on that fancy new 6" gold dredge before you know what you are doing. Your state or local county may not even allow you to use it!

Be sure your skills in finding gold will match the money you have invested iin equipment. Even with the highest-end multi-thousand dollar set up - you can only find gold where it exists. And then you can only find what your skills will allow you to find. Even with a mean gold gettin' dredgin' machine you can suck the river dry but unless you know what you are doing and know where to look you will soon find your investment sitting in your garage. The upkeep on a dredge coupled with transportation and set up costs mount quickly. Be sure your hobby can support itself financially.

Consider the following evolution for investing in new gold prospecting equipment.

Stage 1: gold pans, classifiers, snuffer bottles, 5 gallon buckets, etc...
Stage 2:sluice box - portable or heavy duty model, add black matting and miners moss as needed
Stage 3: a 2"or 3" backpack dredge or dredge / highbanker (power sluice) combo
Stage 4: black sand cleanup equipment - mini sluice or gold wheel
Stage 5: a 4" dredge
Stage 6: a 6" dredge (anything beyond a 4" or 6" intake and you will need another helper for both safety and efficiency.)

Not Respecting Mother Nature

Recreational gold panning is a privilege. One that is sadly becoming more and more rare thanks to the efforts of the "ecoterrorists". Keep some simple ideas in mind when prospecting and help keep these people of our backs.

Here are some tips from the USGS: "Be aware that some types of panning, sluicing, and suction dredging can adversely affect water quality, thereby impacting vegetation, fish, wildlife, and ultimately people.

During the process of separating soil from minerals, silt may be washed into streams, creating turbid water. Fish, fish eggs, and the aquatic insects have difficulty living in heavily silted water because of its reduced oxygen supply.

Avoid washing soil and vegetation into streams, and do not dig in stream hanks. This increases silt in the stream and is also dangerous. Many banks are unstable and can slide without warning.

To reduce silt, dig only in active stream gravels. Return rocks or boulders moved during your efforts to their original positions. Aquatic insects, an important food source for salmon, often make their homes under these rocks. A little care will help ensure a healthy water ecosystem for both miners and anglers."

Mining Glossary

A glossary of mining terms Part of any endeavor is knowing the language. Here are a few of the more common terms used in mining. Knowing these terms will help you be a better recreational panner and help you have more fun, too. alluvial fan--cone-shaped gravel deposit formed where a stream emerges from mountains onto a lowland. bedrock--solid rock underlying gold-bearing gravel.

claim--mining ground held under federal or state laws by virtue of location and record.

color--a particle of gold found in the prospector's pan after the gravel has been washed.

concentrate--minerals which have been separated from less valuable materials.

false bedrock--a hard formation, usually a clay layer, within a placer deposit some distance above bedrock.

fines--sand or other fine-sized material associated with placer deposits. Usually the last material left during the panning process.

flour gold--finest gold dust, much of which will float.

float--rock separated from the parent vein by weathering.

heavies--minerals of high specific gravity in a placer concentrate, also called black sands.

lode deposit--a vein of mineral ore deposited between nonmetallic rock layers.

nugget--a piece of gold that can usually be picked up with the fingers.

patent--a government deed that conveys legal title of public land to the party to whom the patent is issued.

pay streak--a limited horizon within a placer deposit containing a concentration of gold rich enough to mine.

placer deposit--a glacial or alluvial deposit of sand or gravel containing eroded particles of valuable minerals.

point bar--the area on the upstream end of a gravel bar which can contain superficial concentrations of flour gold in a thin surface layer.

poke--a bag or sack of gold.

prospector--a person who searches for valuable minerals.

riffles--small ridges in the bottom of a sluice box that catch gold in sand and gravel.

sluice box--an elongate wooden or metal trough with riffles, over which alluvial gravel is washed to recover gold.

stake--laying out and marking the corners of a mining claim. Originally wooden stakes were used.

suction dredge--uses a water jet and venturi effect to suck gravel off the stream bed and run it over a set of riffles.

troy ounce--1/12-pound, used in reference to amounts of precious metals.



Add your own thoughts - What did you wish you knew when you first started prospecting? Drop us an EMAIL and we'll post your ideas.


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