A Quick Geology Lesson
Gold is formed almost as a by-product of quartz, hence the connection between quartz veins and gold. Quartz requires certain minerals to be present and liquefied, heat and pressure to form crystals. This means that quartz and gold both start life as a vein inside a large mass of rock.
The gold would remain forever embedded in the rock, but fortunately for us there is erosion. As the rocks are eroded, the veins of gold are exposed to external elements and are dispersed. The most common thing to erode rocks, and hence expose gold, is water as it flows through smaller cracks.
This brings us to the first general signs of a promising spot to look for gold. It must be in a mineral rich area. You should see signs of at least quartz in the surrounding hills.
Rivers -- Dry And Wet
Also there must be a river there currently or in the past.
Dry rivers can be a very exciting place to pan. Often dry beds have not been recognized -- and so all the gold is still there. However, they are elusive. Often they seem to disappear, only to reappear a mile away. Perhaps there is an even more pristine dry river bed nearby?
Now that we have located a likely area, we must find a good spot on the stream itself. To do this we need to know a little about how gold moves in a stream.
Gold is extremely dense, 10 times more so than sand. Being so heavy, it takes a lot of force to move the gold down stream. Then as soon as the water slows, the gold settles.
Another detail to keep in mind is that soil, when permeated with water, acts like thick water. Gold is heavier than sand and gravel, so when it stops moving it will push aside the lighter materials and sink all the way to bedrock. When walking on the soil, you do not sink as your weight is spread over much more area thus dispersing your weight.
This means that a gold bearing stream will be fast moving with rapids and water falls. If the stream is slow moving, then the gold will have already settled upstream if it has even moved. A dam on the river will stop the movement of gold. Anything found below a dam will have washed down from the surrounding hills.
Often areas above the river bed, as shown here, have
more gold than the river itself.
Working The River
The next step is to start “working” the river. In a river, gold will settle wherever the water slows. Ideal spots include sharp bends in a river, behind large rocks (opposite the current facing side), and in tree roots.
Always follow the current. The current pushes the gold downstream, so you just follow the path it follows. If are standing downstream of a spot where the river turns right try panning on the left side just below where the current hits the bank.
When working the river, be mindful of signs of gold. You can not have gold without black sand, but you can have black sand without gold. Black sand is also very dense, so anywhere it settles gold will also settle. Search for natural benches in the stream. Gold can not pass through clay, although clay may cover gold. If there is a shelf of clay with fine dirt on top, start right there. The same is true for bedrock. The closer you are to bedrock the better your chances of finding gold.
The last thing to remember is that gold is where gold is. A spot may look perfect, but have no gold and areas that shouldn’t have any gold may have a lot. The only thing you can do is get out there and find out.
Enjoy the day and linger in the excitement of finding even a little. Many people say gold fever strikes when you find a piece that will not fit in your vial. I say gold fever strikes a week before you go out when you are planning and envisioning what the stream looks like and where you will dig.
- The area should show signs of mineralization and quartz.
- The stream must be fast moving.
- Gold will settle wherever the water slows slightly. Look behind obstructions, newly formed gravel bars and in moss.
- Examine overflow areas such as run off channels and tops of ledges of clay or bedrock.
- Gold can not pass beyond a dam.
- If you are in a known area for recreational gold panning, look for signs of other people. There is a reason why there are so many holes dug into the sides of gold bearing rivers and it isn’t because it’s fun.
- Wash all moss. Moss is nature’s sluice box. Put the moss back afterwards.
- Don’t forget to look up. Many times the gold is coming from a point possibly much higher than the river and washes down each year in the spring.
- If possible, walk the river during spring while there is still some ice and again during high water. This will really give you a good idea as to how soil washes into the river and where the water is during flood season when the creek is being refilled with gold. This will likely be an eye opening experience.
- Sample quickly and often, especially on a new river. You never know where there may be gold. My rule of thumb is to work three pans from a single spot. If you find little or nothing, move on. If you want to find gold in possibly larger quantities, it is important to know how and when to sample a new spot and when to work a single place.
- Most important of all, have fun and enjoy yourself. If you are having fun, you will find the gold.