An Introduction to Gold Sniping

Gold sniping is a rough-and-ready method you can use to find gold flakes and nuggets in rivers and streams. Learn what equipment you'll need, how to find sniping sites, techniques to use, and how to pan for gold.
By Jim Ballard
July/August 1983
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Using a gold pan is quite simple, but also easy to do incorrectly.
PHOTO: JIM BALLARD
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We were thigh-deep in the chilly American River—just a goodly rifle shot from Foresthill, California—when my partner stopped short.

"Gold!" he yelled, pointing to a crevice in the bedrock on the river bottom.

We both plunged into the chest-tightening cold water and found, wedged in the bottom of that crack, a beautiful nugget! My friend carefully lifted the chunk of precious metal from the bedrock and held it, still under the water, for us to admire. I was only one of many "strikes" that my companion and I made along that course of water during the same afternoon.

The rough-and-ready gold recovery method that we were using is called "sniping", and if you have a hankering to do a bit of prospecting you may find it to be an especially productive way to pick up gold flakes and nuggets for your poke.

Of course, I can't guarantee that you'll be hauling up walnut-sized "lunker" nuggets—they're pretty darned few and far between—but I can say that it's likely you'll be able to come up with flakes and small gold specimens that will widen the eyes of your friends. And, should you combine a little sniping with a vacation to some top prospecting areas, there's a good chance that your "hobby" gold sniping could reimburse you for some, or even all, of the trip's expenses.

Placer Gold

Placer gold (loose flakes or nuggets found in streams and rivers) is much heavier than the sand and rocks that surround it. Therefore, the dense metal gradually works its way downward through the water's overburden (the boulders, sand, and debris covering the bedrock), much of it actually "burrowing" down to the bedrock. There it continues to inch its way along—pushed by the shifting of rocks above and around it—until it slips into a crack or seam. Once the gold is in such a crevice, its weight causes it to displace whatever sand or gravel is in the crack, and the metal works its way to the bottom. There it's likely to remain, unless it's dislodged by an earthquake, the forces of erosion…or a gold sniper!

How to Start Gold Sniping

Your first task—as a would-be snorkeling sourdough—is to head over to your local library. Ferret out every bit of material you can concerning potential gold-bearing streams in the area where you plan to prospect. Look over any and all information about the panning, prospecting, and dredging regulations that apply to your proposed sites. (These rules vary from state to state, and even from one river to another, and they must be understood before you can safely get your feet wet!)

In your search for sniping locales, don't neglect old newspaper files, as they often have detailed reports on finds that took place during the region's "gold rush" days. You also might want to contact the nearest mining or prospecting equipment supplier to ask him or her for advice. Say that you're interested in sniping a stream or "crevicing" (you may have to explain just what you intend to do), and ask about areas where you could reasonably expect to strike pay dirt. While you're at it, find out which places are currently claimed and whom to contact to get permission to work such sites. (The state office of the Bureau of Land Management will mail you—usually free—the requirements you'll have to meet, should you later decide to file your own mineral claim.)

Finding Placer Gold Sites in the River

Once you've done your homework and narrowed the list of prospective sites to one river or stream, then determine just where along it to begin sniping. You'll have to learn to "read" the water, much as a trout angler does. (Actually, the techniques are quite similar, because the spots where a large rainbow or brown might lurk while waiting for the flow to bring food are also often locations in which that same current will deposit placer gold.)

The inside bends of rivers tend to be quite productive because the water slows there, allowing the heavier sands and metals to be stopped more easily by obstructions. In fact, the streambed along an imaginary line connecting one inside bend with the next—either upstream or down—is known as the "gold drag," and will sometimes hold concentrations of flakes or nuggets.

Try investigating the exposed underwater root systems of any trees found along the bank. These act as natural gold traps, and nuggets can sometimes be found "netted" in the weblike growths.

Keep an eye peeled for large boulders, too. It's best to snipe on the downstream side of these monoliths, since the back eddies occurring there sometimes pull gold and other heavy materials out of the passing current and force them to settle.

Yet another worthwhile stream survey technique is simply to pan along the bank (I'll tell you just how to do that later), keeping notes all the while of the size and amount of gold encountered at each stop. Then, once you've covered a good stretch of water, go back and snipe downstream from the points where you panned the most gold.

Finally, and most important, be on the lookout for spots where underwater bedrock—especially if it's cracked—is exposed to the water, or covered with less than a foot or so of overburden. These can be real bonanzas for the sniper. But it's usually best to avoid "boil holes"—the smooth-walled cavities carved into rock by water action—because the trapped stones and rocks in such pits tend to quickly grind up any gold that happens to slip into the holes.

Gold Sniping Equipment

Your most expensive piece of sniping gear—an essential item if you hope to spend much time working in cold gold-bearing streams—will be a diver's wet suit or dry suit. (The former type lets water in, to use the trapped liquid as a thermal barrier, while dry suits seal all water out.) A wet suit is usually adequate in all but the most frigid of snow melt streams—where a dry suit is a real advantage! It's best to visit a divers' outfitting shop for tips before buying this costly piece of gear. Who knows, the folks there might be able to help you purchase a used suit at a reasonable price.

(It is possible to snipe while wearing chest waders. But I've found that some of the most productive crevices I investigate all too often reach so far into the bedrock that I can't fully explore them without "ducking under". A treasure hunter wearing waders would thus certainly have to bypass many prizes that a submerged sniper could reach.)

While at the diving equipment shop, you ought to pick up a tight-fitting mask and a good snorkel. To check the former for fit, just place it over your face and breathe through your nose. The mask should cling to your skin as a result of the vacuum you create when inhaling, and no air should be able to enter around the edges.

With your underwater gear chosen, go on to buy a gold pan made of plastic or steel. These range from 6" to 17" in diameter, with 14" being the size preferred by most panners. Should you choose a metal unit (and a lot of gold hunters swear by them), you'll have to "blue" it—by passing it, upside down, over a campfire or the flame of a gas stove—to burn off its rust-preventing oil coating. (Be sure to work slowly and evenly so you don't warp the pan.) This treatment keeps the oil from helping small particles of gold to be washed over the lip of the pan, and the blued dish has a nice dark color that makes it easier to spot the bright flecks.

Plastic pans are, as you'd expect, a good bit lighter than metal ones, and that feature can be a real godsend when you have to backpack a good distance to reach a prospective site. Furthermore, many plastic pans have built in riffles, which some miners believe are effective in trapping the gold.

More Gold Sniping Tools

A number of smaller items—many of which you can probably find around your house or workshop—will complete your sniping ensemble. Long stainless-steel tweezers are a must for ferreting nuggets out of cracks or for lifting them from the pan to your collecting bottles. The latter, by the way, are called "sampling" bottles, and are available, through prospecting supply houses, in either glass or plastic, in 1/4-, 1/2-, and 1-ounce sizes.

A pry comes in handy when you have to loosen jammed-together rocks or move aside boulders. I prefer a forged tool-steel implement, because it's light and strong. Moreover, that pry can often be used in conjunction with a rock hammer, which—by itself—is useful when you have to "rearrange" a piece of bedrock. When the task at hand isn't quite that gargantuan, I rely on one of an assortment of electrician's screwdrivers to give me the reach and leverage I need to open up small seams and cracks in the bedrock.

(Beware, though: Once used for sniping, these tools quickly become too blunted to fulfill their intended task.) To scoop potential pay dirt out of opened holes and cracks, or simply to dig behind boulders, I use a garden trowel or a spoon. And if the material is fine-grained—perhaps a bit of gold dust mixed with sand—I use a bulb snifter (a suction device that lets you draw small gold flakes up through a narrow rubber neck and into a squeeze bulb) and later separate the precious metal in my pan.

Gold Sniping Techniques

At this point you must be wondering just what—other than snorkeling in freezing water and keeping an eye open for yellow metal—the practice of sniping actually involves. Well, I'm afraid I can't answer that with any step by-step formula, because this prospecting technique involves a wide range of possible courses of action, depending upon the stream bottom conditions. Perhaps I can help you get started, though, by guiding you through a sample expedition.

Let's suppose you find a stretch of riverside bedrock that extends below the surface of the water and is covered with only a thin layer of overburden. Donning your gear, you head into the water and begin to remove the sand, clay, gravel, and large stones that have accumulated atop the bedrock. (The water's current usually lends a hand in dislodging and "sweeping" away the overburden.) Once you've cleared the surface of an expanse of bedrock (you can either clean a small spot and then work it, or prepare a large site before actually beginning to look for gold), inspect it for any cracks that are packed full of sand and/or gravel. Choose one of these and, using one of your screwdrivers, flip the stones and debris out onto the bedrock's surface. Any gold that you toss from the crack will tend to remain where it falls, while much of the lighter material will be washed away. Use your tweezers to gather and place in a sampling bottle any nuggets or large flakes, then collect with the snifter any gold bearing fine sand for later panning.

Be sure to work the crack thoroughly. Wield the pry and hammer—when necessary—to break pieces from the outer lip of the crevice, giving yourself room to reach further into the hole. (Larger nuggets are sometimes found as much as 18 inches below the surface of the bedrock!) And, when you've finished one crack, go on to work all of the others in the cleared area in the same way: collecting nuggets, using your snifter on flake gold, and simply spooning the material from any larger holes to save for panning onshore when the underwater portion of your day's activity comes to an end.

Panning for Gold

Using a gold pan is very simple…but, oddly enough, it's quite easy to do incorrectly. To begin, put your sniped sand or gravel into the pan (even if you're just panning material you've scooped up at stream side, never fill the dish more than two-thirds full). Then locate a section of stream with slower-than-normal current—i.e., where the flow won't actually wash any material from the pan—and submerge the container until it rests flat on the stream bottom. Now, being careful not to spill anything, work the sand-and-gravel mixture with your hands. Break apart any clumps of soil or clay completely and pick out, inspect, and either keep as promising or discard as obvious rejects any larger-than-usual pebbles. When the sediment is saturated with water, you can begin to shake the still-level pan, first from side to side and then in a circular pattern, all the while keeping the entire container below the surface of the stream.

When you're reasonably certain that you've agitated the pan enough to concentrate the heavy material at its bottom, you can lift it to the surface of the water and—by tilting the dish—allow some of the lighter sand and detritus to wash away over the edge. Then, after leveling and shaking the pan once more to concentrate the heavier stones (or nuggets!) on the bottom, repeat the process. As you gradually eliminate the less substantial material from the pan, use decreasing amounts of water. Eventually, you should end up with a mixture of heavy black sand and—if you're lucky—gold! (And remember to treat with care any unusual chunks you find. Because of their variety, larger nuggets, oddly shaped gold pieces and bits of the precious metal that are fused with another mineral such as quartz are often worth two to three times the value of the gold alone!)

Of course, not every crevice that you snipe, nor every panful of gravel that you carefully sift, will contain traces of the valuable metal. Still, sniping and panning together are far more productive than panning alone. And those folks who'd like to put a little gold into their pockets (and who wouldn't?) may find it to be a profitable way to get their feet wet!


For information on the locations of prospecting sites, check into the following sources:

  • The Gold Hunter's Field Book: How and Where to Find Gold in the United States and Canada, by Jay Ellis Ransom (Harper and Rowe)—provides an in-depth guide to sites across the U.S. and Canada.
  • Big Ten, Inc. has recently finished preparing its set of maps that pinpoint successful prospecting sites—based upon information taken from official records—in Alabama (140 sites listed), Georgia (500 sites), North Carolina (300 sites), South Carolina (130 sites), and Virginia (200).

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