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Does Metal Detecting Pay?

Well, Does It?

If you broadly define profitability as simply a positive return on your investment, then my short answer is yes, definitely—it pays! However, if you narrow it down to strictly time and dollars invested versus dollars returned, my answer is still yes—but rarely! Read on for details.

What Qualifies Me as an Authority?

I supported myself for years as a roving, full-time detectorist living solely off the gold I recovered, often in remote, hard-to-get-to locations primarily in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and to a lesser extent in Nevada, Arizona, and Alaska. It was an exciting, independent, free-wheeling lifestyle. With every new day came the thrill of the hunt—the inspiring prospect of discovering a life-changing bonanza.

For most of those years, I didn’t have rent, truck payments, or the usual list of other monthly bills to weigh me down. If I had had a home and family, I would not have been able to come close to consistently supporting them off what I made from ‘nugget shooting.’ However, as it turned out, I made a living for myself, earned a ton of great memories, and I am only left with one regret, which is that I cannot go back in time to do it all over again.

So, as in my case and that of most other detectorists (hobbyists and pros) that I know, the question of whether or not metal detecting pays is a subjective one. Most do not consider income the sole measure of satisfactory compensation; if they did, my guess is many would have abandoned the game within the first year. Personal gratification, physical and mental health benefits, and the support and companionship of those throughout the metal detecting community, all figure into their assessment–together with the value of their metal detecting finds.

While seasoned devotees will not claim that metal detecting is an easy pathway to wealth, most will agree that based on the totality of rewards, personal and monetary, metal detecting does pay, and—for the favored few—it pays bigly!

There are many targets in which hobbyists commonly specialize, including:

· Coins
· Gold and Silver
· Relics
· Caches
· Jewelry
· Meteorites
· Lost Mines/Treasure

The best degree of success usually favors those adopting proven hunting parameters. For instance, hunting gold nuggets where gold has previously been found has proven to be far more productive than randomly hunting terrain with no prior history of gold production (obviously). Likewise, for coins and jewelry, popular beaches are frequently more productive than parks, schools, fairgrounds, and churchyards.

Thankfully, whenever in a temporary slump, there are scads of true tales documenting fabulous finds to keep us practitioners optimistic and motivated. To illustrate:

My prospecting partner at the time, Bruce, and I were camping and nugget shooting deep in the Mojave Desert throughout the winter of ’94 and into the spring of ’95. I was having a good season digging beautiful nuggets out of dry washes and plucking others off hillsides beneath quartz outcrops. On the surface at the top of one hill, I stumbled upon a small patch of rough gold in a matrix of rotten quartz; the smattering of specimen nuggets was scattered around in a confined area just a few feet square; the handsome buggers, plainly visible to my eye, were sparkling in the sunlight.

Inches beneath that patch, from a weathered vein, I dug up a shallow, juicy little pocket of the gold/quartz specimens. I could hardly believe my luck because not 30 feet away was an 18-foot-deep exploration shaft that had been sunk by the old-timers on the same promising quartz outcrop that had given up my patch and pocket. I don’t know how the old-timers could ever have missed them. But to be fair, I, while passing through, detector slung over my shoulder, had walked over it a couple of times myself, without spotting the gold just twinkling on the surface.


Each morning that season, on foot, Bruce and I headed out from camp in different directions to earn our gold. One evening Bruce arrived back at camp visibly excited and with an incredible tale to tell. Hiking back toward the end of the day, less than a quarter of a mile from camp, he had run into a greenhorn metal detecting. The man told Bruce that he was on vacation from his job as a custodian for a school district in Oregon; he and his wife were visiting friends in Palm Desert. Hearing there was gold in the area, he bought a brand-new metal detector and was here breaking it in.

After he and Bruce talked for a while, the man warmed up, offered Bruce a soda, pulled out some awesome gold, showed him where he had dug it, and told him the story of how he had found it.

He explained that about a week before, with just a little instruction from the salesman on how to operate his brand new detector and basic directions to an old mining district an hour or so distant, he blasted out to try his luck where gold had been first discovered in the 1880s. With his truck in 4-wheel drive, he drove for miles off-road into the desert. Serendipitously he stopped not far from our camp on a rutty roadside about halfway up the slope of what was to prove to be a munificent hillside.

Getting out of his truck with the detector and instruction manual in hand, he attempted to ground-balance his machine as the salesman had instructed him, but over the spot he had chosen the detector wouldn’t shut up and smooth out. It did quiet down, though, when swung a short distance to the side. Being the first time he had ever used a detector, he was confused and didn’t know what to think. Was the machine defective? Was he doing something wrong? Or was all that screaming actually a target? He decided to dig it to find out. And, you guessed it, he hit a sweet pocket of buttery gold!

Six or eight inches below the surface, in an area about the size and shape of a football, he dug out over 100 ounces of gold/quartz specimen nuggets—heavy on the gold. If my recollection serves me correctly, it was 119 ounces in total. Of all the improbable luck!!

The fortuitous stiff said he had been back several times to be sure he had got all of the gold that was getable. With his vacation now almost over, this was his last opportunity to clean up any leftover gold. He was heading back to his job in Oregon the next day, still a greenhorn, but a greenhorn with a pile of gold and one helluva story to tell. With an easy, genuine smile, he wished Bruce good luck and, doubting he’d ever return, told Bruce that he was welcome to any gold that he had missed.

Bruce and I did clean up some nice nuggets that he had overlooked, mostly on the slope below his pocket. Of course, we didn’t recover anything to rival his take, not even close. That guy’s story just goes to show ya, you never know what your next targets gonna be—and even a raw greenhorn can strike it big right under the noses of skilled, hardened sourdoughs.

Before the Oregonian arrived, Bruce and I separately had walked over that pocket while out prospecting without ever sweeping it with our detectors or suspecting it to be there. Yet we had weeks of prospecting time left in the area; maybe we would have found it if he hadn’t beat us to it. That’s life though; no hard feelings; good for him! Besides, I knew in my gut that there were similar pockets out there, bigger ones too—just beckoning.

So, what’s the conclusion? Does metal detecting pay? That depends on your criteria. If you base your question strictly on the total time invested in metal detecting versus an hourly wage, such as the national average of $30, then metal detecting, in almost every case will fall far short of your expectations; if your goal is to supplement your income, rather than to get a hobby, consider a side job. However, if you’re not pressed for additional income and are seeking the benefits of our hobby, such as enhanced mental and physical well being as a result of regularly forsaking the couch in favor of exercise and exhilaration in the great outdoors, and the resulting weight loss (if needed), stress reduction, rewarding friendships formed with others in the metal detecting community, and the enduring thrill of the treasure hunt and capture, you will, once initiated, likely agree with most of us in our community that beyond income generated, metal detecting pays big dividends.

And, as previously stated, the conclusion for me is, yes, metal detecting pays. But, as I said, it’s subjective. So if you’re on the fence, the only definitive way to settle the question for yourself is to give it an honest try. You’ll soon have your answer. It doesn’t cost much to get started and if you find you don’t like it, sell your gear and get most of your money back.

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Thanks & good luck!


Me and best buddy, Yubalee. The photo was taken in 2006 while filling in as a ranch hand in Nevada’s Rees River valley.

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JQK