Charlie Rush and I were knee deep in a fast-flowing stream a few miles from Dahlonega, Georgia. We'd been panning for color all morning and the sun was about noon-high, just right to spear light into the stream at a certain angle, and Charlie was in just the right place to see it.
"Gold," he yelled, pointing to a crevice on the river bottom.
Suddenly, we both felt the same kind of fever that must have gripped the discoverers at Sutters Mill. Gleefully, we both plunged into the water and found, wedged in the bottom of a crack, a beautiful nugget. Charlie carefully lifted the chunk of precious metal from bedrock and held it up for me to admire. It was the first of several finds we were to make during the course of that afternoon.
We both set our pans aside after finding that nugget in the crack, and went with an old-fashioned method of gold retrieval called sniping. In the right location and under the right conditions, it can be a very productive way to find gold flakes and small nuggets. Sniping works, because placer gold, loose flakes or nuggets found in streams and rivers, is much heavier than the sand and rocks around it. The denser metal gradually works down through the debris covering the bedrock, actually burrowing to the bottom. Driven by the force of the water, the gold inches its way along until it slips into a crack or seam, its weight displacing whatever was in the crevice. There it is likely to remain, unless it is dislodged by an earthquake, forces of erosion, or a gold sniper.
If you've never tried hunting for gold, and you'd like to give it a shot, don't just go out and hunt the nearest river, stumbling blindly along. Go to the library and do some research. Look up every bit of material you can find on the area you plan to use as a hunting area. Check with state and county authorities about panning, prospecting or dredging regulations. Visit your newspaper office and check their morgue for old stories about past gold rushes or mining operations. Locate the old sites and use them for the center of your search area.
Try to narrow your prospective sites to only one stream or river at a time. Then concentrate fully on that location. You'll have to learn to "read" the water, much the same way a trout fisherman does. Locate the most logical places where gold might be found, just as a fisherman tries to figure the best place to find fish. In your case, the far side of a bend in a stream, along riffles where the deep stream gives way to the beginning of a fiord, and wherever bedrock might show. Keep an eye peeled for large boulders and snipe on the downstream side of those rocks, since the back eddies sometimes pull gold and other heavy materials out of the passing current and allows them to settle down.
You can simply pan along the banks and remember where you found the most color. Then snipe downstream from those places. Be on the lookout for spots where underwater bedrock is exposed. Look for cracks and fissures in the exposed surface. These can be bonanzas for the sniper.
I would advise, if you intend sniping, to obtain a diver's wetsuit. A wetsuit is usually adequate for all but the coldest of snow-melt streams. A wetsuit allows water to flow in and then uses body temperature to warm it up, thus providing a warmer and more comfortable time for the gold hunter. While at the dive shop, you might also pick up a mask and snorkel to enable you to duck under the water now and again for a better look at the bottom.
Next, obtain a good gold pan, either metal or plastic - treasure magazines always list many sources for these supplies. Most panners prefer a 14-inch pan, although they range in size from 6 inches up to 17 inches in diameter. Plastic pans are becoming quite a favorite among gold seekers, because they are light in weight and easier to carry. If you choose a metal pan, talk to your supplier about how to prepare it for the stream by passing the metal over a fire to remove the oils on its surface.
A few other things you might think about for your sniping excursions are: long, stainless steel tweezers for lifting nuggets out of cracks or for transferring them from pan to collection bottle; a small pry bar is also handy for loosening rocks and lifting bigger ones out of the way; a handy screwdriver is nice for opening up small seams and cracks in the bedrock, and a small trowel or a spoon is also nice for scooping out holes and cracks.
Now, what does sniping actually involve? How do you do it?
Frankly, there are no set formulas. Only tips from others who have done it and are willing to share their expertise. Perhaps the best way to explain sniping is to tell you how a prospecting trip, maybe a vacation in search of gold, might be carried out.
Let's suppose you have carried your gear to the stream of your choice and you've found a stretch of riverside bedrock that extends below the surface and is covered by only a thin layer of sediment. You put on your gear and head into the water, beginning to remove the sand, clay, gravel and large stones that have accumulated on the bedrock. Note that the water's current lends a helping hand to sweep away the sediment as you loosen it.
After you've cleared a section, begin to work it, inspecting the surface of the rock for any cracks or small holes that might be packed full of sand. Use your screwdriver to flip the stones and sand in the crack out into the flow of water to be swept away. Gold that you toss from the crack will linger long enough for you to see it and gather it in. Use your tweezers to pick up the smaller flakes and nuggets.
Work the cracks thoroughly with the hammer and pry bar or trowel and spoon, whatever the situation calls for. In large, deep cracks, the bigger nuggets will have worked their way to the very bottom of the crack and you'll have to clean out everything to get to them. When you've finished one crack, move to another, then another and so on until you've worked the entire surface of the bedrock. (As you might know by now, any form of gold hunting requires a bit of patience. )
Of course, not every crevice, crack or hole that you snipe will contain gold. Few modern prospectors have ever gotten rich by seeking gold. But, there is gold and enough can be found to satisfy a need. But, do the work carefully, sift the gravel and the sand, and you will eventually find color. Do the research and remember the flow and drift patterns of the water. Who knows, you may find enough to line your pockets after all.