by Weldon E. Dodson

I recently taught myself how to pan for gold. I’d talked with several professional gold miners and a number of veteran gold mining hobbyists. All had agreed that efficient panning would take some time to learn. Most claimed that it had taken them months, or even years, to learn their technique. Even author Tom Bishop addresses the issue in his popular book “Gold.” Bishop says on page 8 that “I am acquainted with a man who makes his living panning gold. It took him about three years’ work to become really proficient.” Well, I did not want to wait three years–or even three months. I wanted to learn right then. So I decided I had to teach myself. And, indeed, after a little research, and, after I discovered a very effective way to practice, I became an expert at panning for gold in less than one day. It was easy.

Before I taught myself, I’d asked the experts about how to pan and about where to find gold. Most of the advice that I received was about where to look. Remarkably, few of the experts offered any tangible suggestions on how I could develop an actual panning technique. Sure, I received lots of good information: I was told to “Hold the pan like this,” or, “This is how you dip it in the water,” or, “This is how you swirl it around.” All this is fine when you hear someone explain it, but how do you know that you will really be able to perform the task?

How do you know that you won’t be washing away the gold? I was afraid that I might find a spot containing tons of gold and I wouldn’t be able to extract it from the soil.

The problem was simple; I needed a way to practice and no one was willing to let me experiment with their gold. How could I blame them? Would you let a novice and stranger fondle your favorite nuggets and flakes? The solution was to find a gold substitute. I needed a substance with similar properties. After only a brief search, the answer came from one of my old college chemistry books; it was lead.

Why lead? Actually, lead has many of the same metallic properties as gold. It is soft, malleable and can be easily cut into small flakes or shaped into large nuggets. It is also dense. It is denser than metals like copper, nickel, or iron and it will easily sink to the bottom of “black sand.” Lead, however, is not quite as dense as gold. This is actually an advantage when you practice because, if your technique will effectively retain lead, it will undoubtedly capture the heavier gold.

Proper technique is easy to learn. Begin with a few small lead fishing weights and a large empty coffee can. Fill the can with dirt, gravel, and sand, and dump it into your gold pan. Cut the lead fishing weights into ten small pieces. Lead is so soft that you can use almost anything to cut it with; I use regular wire cutters. If necessary, a hammer will help to shape the lead. Make sure your pieces include “nuggets” of different sizes and shapes and you also need to include some smaller “flakes.” Mix the lead with the sand and gravel and

then put it back in the can. Head for water and begin practice.

The actual method that I use is simple and it is the same for both lead and gold. First, I place a small amount of sand and gravel into my pan. Next, I immerse the entire pan into the water. I do this by sinking the pan into the water so that all the sides submerge evenly. This crates an intense “swirling” action that carries away particles of the lighter sand and dirt. After each submersion, I take the pan from the water and I quickly pour off the swirl of sand and water by slightly tilting the pan forward. Then, with just a little water in the pan, I give it several moderate shakes. This helps the heavier particles to settle to the bottom. I pick out the gravel and rocks with my fingers as I go along. When I get to the heavier sediments, such as black sand, I still do basically the same thing, except that I work a little more slowly and carefully.

When practicing, you should continue the process until the can is empty. Ideally, you should have recovered ten pieces of lead. If not, just start over–lead is not expensive. When you can consistently recover all ten pieces, you have excellent technique.

Everyone uses a slightly different panning method to recover gold. I developed mine mostly by trial and error. I suppose everyone must determine what works best for themselves. People use many different sizes and shapes of pans. Both plastic and metal are readily available. Some people use magnets and special equipment to enhance their efforts. I use only my fingers and a pair of tweezers, but I’m not a professional, either. The possible variety of equipment and techniques is limited only by the imagination.

All that’s left is finding the gold. I will be the first one to admit that this is where I needed the most help. I bought two books for reference, and, I listened carefully when the experts spoke. Most preferred small streams, deep holes, tiny falls, washouts, and similar places. I decided that I would begin my search in a comparable locale.

A few months ago, I made my first outing and I discovered that my self-taught technique really worked. I spent two days fishing for trout and panning for gold. On the afternoon of the first day, in a trickling stream near La Porte, California, I found a 1/8-ounce nugget. My discovery came in a pool where water tumbled two feet over small boulders. Within two hours, I had another 1/8-ounce of gold flakes. The next day, nearby, I found over 1/8 ounce of small flakes and tiny nuggets. My total for the two days was nearly 1/2-ounce. I was thrilled. This probably falls well short of most professional efforts, but it is not bad for a few hours of work from a novice who taught himself how to pan for gold in less than a day!

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