Most people who get into this hobby never find even one flake of gold.
They get all excited and buy a bunch of equipment. Then they go out once or twice, don’t find any gold, and their prospecting gear finds a comfortable spot in the corner of their garage.
Over the years I have seen this happen to a lot of people. You will run across these folks on the prospecting forums. They will show up, ask lots of questions and show great enthusiasm. Then they will go silent. A few month later, they are selling their gear in the classified sections.
Not Finding Any Gold Gets Tiresome
I can understand why so many people quit. Quite frankly, this isn’t for everybody. Many, many, many people who get into prospecting have grand dreams of living off the land, digging multi-ounce gold nuggets and living the good life out in the country. Late nights around the campfire and pockets full of gold. Sounds good!
Of course, this fantasy wears off pretty quickly after you spend a few days out in the field, scratching and digging in the dirt. If you have no experience and no idea where to go, then there’s probably a 99% chance that you won’t find any gold on those first trips out.
How many times do you come home empty-handed before you lose interest? Even if you’re lousy at fishing, go a few times and you are going to catch some fish. But new gold prospectors are going to come home empty-handed a lot. Even really good prospectors strike-out somewhat regularly. You’ve got to accept this reality or this probably isn’t for you.
Can’t Find a Place to Go
There’s no doubt in my mind that the biggest barrier to attracting new folks into this endeavor is access to gold-bearing ground.
Lots of guys I know complain about the state and federal government limiting their mining rights, and they’re not wrong. But for the average guy just getting started with a shovel and a gold pan, it isn’t Uncle Sam who is preventing them from finding gold. It’s access.
There are thousands and thousands of mining claims throughout all of the western states and Alaska. Basically anywhere that has had significant mining is heavily claimed. The average guy who buys a gold pan from the local hardware store and wants to see if they can find a few bits of gold, they are met with signs like these:
Yes, there is definitely open ground out there that you can still find good gold on, but not much compared to the amount of claimed ground. I’ve run across signs on public land threatening to shoot trespassers (yes, on OPEN public land). It gives miners a bad name and makes us look like a bunch of idiots. A lot of folks get intimidated and give it up completely.
Sometimes people even have some luck, but they still don’t find enough gold to keep their interest. I don’t know about you, but I personally consider ANY day that I find some gold to be a good day.
I was recently in Northwestern Arizona recently swinging my Minelab Equinox 800. It was a hot, dirty day. I was crawling around cactus, kicking rocks aside and dealing with a frustrating amount of tiny lead birdshot pellets. I found ONE little nugget that weighed 0.43 grams.
You know what, I was happy! That little nugget was enough to put a smile on my face that day. Yep, I spent 8+ hours digging in the dirt to get what amounted to about $20 worth of gold. That’s a darn good day in my mind!
Ask the average person if they would spend the entire day digging holes in the Arizona desert for the equivalent of $20 in gold? Very, very few people would say yes.
A lot of people who start out have a similar experience. Even when they start finding some gold, it just isn’t enough to keep them interested. I have been on club claims that are located right in the heart of gold country, and if you spend a little bit of time digging out the cracks in bedrock and panning it out you will find some gold.
It’s almost a guarantee. But I can also pretty much guarantee that you’ll be doing well if you can find even 1-gram of gold in a long day. Die hard gold prospectors are usually tickled to come home with a gram of gold at the end of the day. But if you were one of those folks with dreams of living off the land with pockets full of chunky gold nuggets, well, not so much.
You Never Learned to Use Your Equipment
This is a big one. I see it a lot with folks who try metal detecting for gold. They take their shiny new metal detector out into the desert and start swinging it around. It beeps, chirps, dings and squeeks all sorts of weird sounds at you. You never learn what any of those sounds mean and you assume that the darn thing is broken.
Even worse is buying equipment that isn’t up for the task. Using a cheesy $75 metal detector and expecting it to perform like a specialized gold detector is going to give you fits. Anyone who does this is basically setting themselves up for failure.
Now your metal detector is propped up in the corner of your closet, where it has been for the past 3 years.
The Realities of Prospecting: Maybe This Ain’t for You
So basically I have talked a lot about expectations, and the differences between dreams and reality in regards to finding gold. I want to be the first to tell you… if you feel like you have to find gold ever time you go prospecting to enjoy your time outdoors, or if you have to find enough gold to pay your bills… then this adventure simply isn’t for you. AND THAT’S OK!
Look, when I was a kid I enjoyed playing basketball. I may have had dreams about joining the NBA someday, but that wasn’t the reason that I played. I played because I enjoyed it.
For the average “pick and pan prospector,” this is a hard livin’. There are very, very few guys who can make it work as a full-time profession. Those who do are living LEAN!
Now to be fair, there is a difference between prospecting and mining. There are some good-sized gold mining operations out there who are doing well for themselves and making money. But you have got to walk before you can run. If all you have ever done is a little bit of panning on club claims or maybe bought a new metal detector in hopes of finding a nugget someday, you are not going to suddenly start up a full-scale mining operation and start piling up cash like a pro.
Bottom line: If money and profit are the sole reason for getting involved in gold prospecting, let me save you some time. This isn’t for you. Most of the guys I know who are really good at finding gold would still tell you that most of the time they are lucky to make minimum wage. Especially when you figure in gas and expenses spent to get to the goldfields.
I Need A Place to Go? How to Find a Spot to Dig
Now if you accept the realities of gold prospecting is and you WANT to find gold but just aren’t successful and you’re losing hope, let’s start making it happen. To do that, we need to take a look at these challenges that you are encountering and find a way to get past them.
First is access to new areas. Wilderness areas and mining regulations are definitely a challenge, but more likely than not, the biggest challenge you are finding is that everywhere you explore is all claimed up. This is especially true on creeks and rivers where there is enough water to run a sluice box.
Finding a good gold-bearing area that is unclaimed is indeed a challenge, but this is also part of what the term “prospecting” is all about. You have got to spend a lot of time researching if you want to find good areas that haven’t already been claimed. I don’t have a single “silver bullet” solution for you here. This is always a challenge. In fact, this has been a challenge ever since the first ’49ers ever arrived in California.
Here are 4 tips for gaining access to gold-bearing ground:
If you simply can’t find a spot to do some digging in your area, then I would recommend that you seek out a local prospecting club in your area. All throughout the country there are prospecting clubs. Most of them have club claims, which provide access to claims for members. Joining them is usually pretty inexpensive. These claims are usually worked over pretty hard, but it’s a great way to get started.
In some areas you will come across areas on federal lands that have been withdrawn from mineral entry. This means that the land cannot be claimed by an individual, and as a result they are open to casual prospecting. No guarantees that you have a place like this near you, but do a bit of research and see if you can figure out some good spots.
Some mining districts are claimed up pretty heavily. It can seem almost impossible to find a place to go. The closer you are to population the harder it is going to be. For example, I have found it’s way harder to find open ground in California than in Nevada. If a mining area is 100+ miles from any decent sized towns, you can expect to find less active claims than if you are less than an hour away from a major city.
This might be my favorite tip for you. The thing that will really make a difference between success and failure is hard work. Claims are almost always located right were someone can get to with a vehicle. If you are willing to hike a mile or more from a road you will find all sorts of open ground. You also have a better chance of finding a rich source of gold that has been missed by others.
Master the Skill of True Prospecting
Finding a good piece of gold-bearing ground is half the battle. The other half is just as important… you’ve got to understand how to actually find the gold when you are on site, and find it as quickly and efficiently as you can.
It’s not as easy as some might think. I could put most people right in the middle of a good nugget patch and hand them a metal detector, and odds are they wouldn’t be able to find any gold. Hand a gold pan to a random person on the edge of a rich gold-bearing river and there’s a good chance they would have no idea where to start digging.
It takes time to learn any type of skill. Gold prospecting is no exception. It takes more than 1 or 2 trips out with a metal detector to understand all the sounds that it makes. It takes experience (trial and error) to learn how to properly set up a sluice box. The same can be said for a gold panning technique.
Successful people put in the time to master their craft. If you don’t have the patience to learn the how, why and where of finding gold when you are on location, regardless of the method you are using, then how can you ever expect to get good at it?