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Sniping for Gold Nuggets—the Walk and the Talk

Jason Q Kincade sniping for gold in the Sierra Nevadas circa 1985

Author sniping for gold in the Sierra Nevadas circa 1985


California’s streams are the focus, however, the principles of sniping apply universally

It was the late 70s. I was a stranger in a big city, recently divorced, chained to a dull, monotonous job, and trapped in a lackluster, rewardless life. As fast as I collected my weekly pay, I squandered it in saloons, taverns, and strip clubs. I was spinning my wheels, going nowhere–and sick of it. A radical change was called for. The time and circumstances were ripe to give my childhood dream of becoming a full-time gold prospector a fair shot at fruition. It was now or never.

So with the onset of winter and little more in assets than my old Datsun station wagon, a few dollars in cash and my final paycheck, I quit my job as a welder in a Seattle shipyard, severed ties to the mainstream, and hit the road, free and unfettered, for California’s goldfields. Red-eyed and queazy after a two days long drinking spree, my head was throbbing like a smashed thumb. However, my great adventure had begun; hangover be damned–I was elated!

My objective was to live independently in the bush solely on proceeds from the sales of gold that I would find. As it turned out, with hard labor and a little luck, I thrived on the trickles and gobs of gold I wrested from earth, rock, and stream. It wasn’t always easy. Trickles were the norm. Gobs were uncommon–almost as rare as an honest politician. And throughout the following years, whether my gold pouch was hefty or light, through feast or famine, I relished the challenge, autonomy, and adventure of the life–every last minute of it.

After learning to pan well enough to feed myself, I tackled sluicing, then sniping. Later, I turned my hand to dredging, high-banking, dry washing, hardrock mining, and metal detecting. Looking back, those years spent chasing gold and living in the bush were the most rewarding and carefree of my life.

*Note: I am not a geologist or mining engineer or in any sense academically schooled in those fields. Years of personal experience and informal research were the inspiration and source for the following discourse.


Sniper Talk

Sniper Country

California’s Auriferous Streams—the Terrain, Flora, and Fauna

Bedrock–It’s Where the Gold Is

Gold Accumulation in California Streambeds—the Process

Basic Sniping Tools & Equipment

Sniper Talk

Following interminable months of cloudy skies, rain, ice, sleet, and snow, spring finally arrived on the historic Yuba River, where I was camped about a dozen miles below the quaint, gold-rush era village of Downieville, California.

One warm, sunny day, I was panning along the banks of the stream, finding a little gold here and there. Having had the river all to myself all season, I felt like the King of the river, and I was loving the peace and solitude. Suddenly, about as welcome as an enraged hornet trapped in my underwear, here comes this chubby dude with a round, oversized head. Packed tightly into a black neoprene wetsuit, he glided through the water toward me, snorting and spouting spray from his snorkel–looking like a miniature whale. Spotting me on the bank, he floated up to where I had my pan in the water, stood up, dripping, pulled off his snorkel and face mask, dropped the tools he was holding, wiped a string of snot from below his nose, struggled out of his gloves, smiled broadly, stuck out a meaty hand and announced with authority, “I’m Ed–but folks call me the Super Sniper.”

“Super Sniper? Whatcha mean,” I asked, warily.

It turned out to be my lucky day. Ed had powerful, affable energy about him (a winning vibe), and as I was soon to learn, he was an ardent, consummate talker, willing, and eager to tell all I could ever want to know about his most revered passion–sniping for gold.

So I Became a Gold Sniping Student

Over the next couple of weeks, I followed along each day as Ed sniped in the river and up its feeder creeks. I learned that sniping, simply put, is a method/art used worldwide by gold miners to home in on and recover concentrations of gold from caches (usually small), both in wet and dry environments.

I also learned that sniping can produce results quickly, with relative ease, little equipment, and, importantly, with a minimum of expense. It is a craft often favored by lone miners operating on shoestring budgets. Techniques have evolved to use (among other tools) gold pans, sluice boxes, wetsuits/hookah air, dredges, highbankers, drywashers, metal detectors, and on a larger scale, heavy equipment.

Nights, around Ed’s campfire, I listened with mounting interest to his tales of streams rich in gold. He claimed that once, during a stretch of 17 consecutive days, he sniped over an ounce of gold per day–said it became so routine it almost got boring. So, on the 18th day, for a change of pace, he gave sniping a rest, grabbed his rod & reel, and marched off to go fishing, instead.

That day as he ambled along the rocky, gravel-strewn banks above the stream, frequently pausing to cast for fish, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of gold and stopped to investigate. To his amazement, three jumbo nuggets gleamed at him from a rusty crevice in the rock, several feet above the river. He pried them loose and carried them back to camp along with a hefty string of trout. He shared the fish with his gold miner buddies. Of the gold, they got only a peek, a feel, and Ed’s telling of the tale served with a very generous helping of crow–not a pinch of modesty (Ed was a peacock!). The biggest nugget weighed approximately three ounces. Combined, all three exceeded five ounces. He showed me a newspaper article that told the tale, complete with photos of him holding the nuggets that he had caught while fishing.

After a week or so, Ed came to trust me enough to show me some of his best nuggets. Wow! What a jaw-dropping, awesome pile of gold. Many of his nuggets weighed over an ounce, one weighed five. That was all the convincing I needed. I decided to put aside my gold pan and sluice box and become a sniper like Ed–at least give it my best shot.

Thanks to Ed, I had been well-schooled in the principles and techniques of sniping; now it was up to me to put them to practice. I sold gold that I had mined from the river and bought a wetsuit, tools, books listing California’s gold-bearing streams and estimated production stats, and a set of pertinent Topo maps. Ed marked the maps to highlight remote streams in the backcountry that had paid him well and in his opinion still carried plenty of gold. Then I packed my camping outfit, newly purchased sniping gear, and a two week’s supply of food into my jalopy, waved goodbye to the miners I had come to know on the river, beat it for the backcountry, made camp, jumped into the water–and did a quarter ounce the first day.

After I faded into the backcountry to snipe, I lost track of Ed. He was a retired Navy man and passed middle age then; today, he’d have to be 100 years old or close to it. I don’t know the ending to his story–but it almost certainly has come to an end by now. I will always be grateful to him and remember him fondly for his high, positive energy, sniping expertise, warm hospitality, loud, contagious laugh, eagerness to help others, and his steadfast enthusiasm for life.

With much work and time in the bush, I became a fair sniper–developed the requisite nose for gold and learned to spot gold catches in streambeds, remove overburden, if any, recover the gold, if any, and quickly move on to the next auspicious looking spot–of which there seemed to be no end.

Unlike Ed, I didn’t have a second source of income, so just to cover expenses and keep my dream alive, I sold my gold almost as soon as I found it–every last pennyweight. However, like Ed, one of my discoveries, a multi-ounce quartz/gold specimen, did appear in print.

During the Great Depression Era (1929–1939), swarms of unemployed men, some with families, turned to gold-bearing streams such as those found in California’s Mother Lode districts to snipe for gold in order to survive. Most only made from pennies to a dollar or two a day, but, for many, it was enough to enable them to transcend the cruelest of the years.

One man and wife team of Depression-Era snipers was Jesse and Dorothy Coffey. Accompanied by their fiery little dog (can’t recall its name), they made a living sniping for gold and had the time and adventure of their lives doing it. During four of the Depression’s leanest years, they camped and sniped alongside creeks and rivers in California’s Mother Lode districts. Thankfully, they bequeathed to us an account of their adventures in the form of a biography as told to and written by George Hoeper. The work is titled: Bacon & Beans from a Gold Pan. It is a true, homespun, inspirational rendering of their camping and mining adventures in 1930s California. I discovered the book in the 70s–enjoyed it so much, I’ve reread it on multiple occasions.

Over the course of my gold chasing career, I met adventurous, independent-minded miners that were camping in the backcountry—doing their best to scrape together enough gold to make a living. A small percentage did–most didn’t.

One hardened prospector I met made his living as a sniper–just panning for gold (extremely rare!).  His odyssey stuck in my mind; recently I was moved to blog about him in a post I titled: He Made His Living With a Gold Pan.

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Sniper Country

We Americans have free and open access to vast areas of public, gold-bearing lands, lands that are open to mineral exploration, lands that can be claimed and worked—mostly in the Western United States and Alaska–plenty of it prime sniping country. We can file a claim if we wish, however, we are not required to file in order to snipe or prospect for minerals–including gold–on open (unclaimed) land, using hand tools.

It is every prospector’s (sniper’s) responsibility to know the legal status of all properties he intends to prospect or work. Mineral rights of others must, by law, be respected. However, far too many prospectors and speculators have been overeager to plant claim posts into the ground, often on top of existing, valid claims. Seldom have they been so eager to remove them when they should have. As a result, our backcountry hills are plastered silly with invalid claim posts, claim notices, and illegitimate warning signs. Just spotting them in such abundance can be bewildering and downright discouraging–especially to the first time prospector. Many greenhorns, so confronted, throw up their arms and slink back to their homes like whipped puppies. They shouldn’t, because a significant percentage of those apparent mineral claims have either expired long ago or were never properly (legally) filed in the first place. It is wise, therefore, to research property/mineral status prior to heading into the field so as not to be bluffed away by invalid claims, infringe on valid ones, or violate private property rights.

The Bureau of Land Management ‘s Legacy Rehost System (LR2000) is possibly the best resource for viewing mineral status records of lands under the BLM’s control–excluding Alaska. The system provides an online, searchable database of public reports pertaining to BLM land and mineral use authorizations, conveyances, mining claims, withdrawals, and classifications. The service is multifaceted and free. To get the most out of it requires reading and following the instructions found in the website’s online tutorials. Once so informed, and with practice, the system becomes a snap to use and damn handy. Even though it’s not known to be always 100% infallible, I relied on it as a good enough tool for prospecting purposes. However, before going to the trouble and expense of filing a claim, I recommend a thorough, multi-agency investigation to confirm mineral status.

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Typical Mother Lode Country Canyon--Hardcore Sniper's Delight!

Typical Mother Lode Country Canyon–Hardcore Sniper’s Delight!

California’s Auriferous Streams—the Terrain, Flora, and Fauna

There are many gold-bearing creeks and rivers in California’s Mother Lode country that are open to recreational mining and are easy to access. Miners can park their vehicles beside the stream, grab their gear, and within minutes be testing their luck on the banks and in the waters–where permitted.

Despite decades of heavy traffic, those popular, roadside streams still produce some gold every season, and on rare occasions, little bonanzas that were missed by the old-timers are still being discovered. For many recreational miners, that’s enough to keep them happy and coming back year after year. However, for a realistic shot at a respectable payday, the odds and common sense favor isolated, auriferous streams in the backcountry that have a history of gold production, but have seldom, if at all, been prospected or mined in recent times.

The best chance to find such a stream is at the bottom of remote, backcountry canyons that are not even a consideration to the average amateur gold prospector–no matter how hale and hardy. The canyons are, in the main, isolated, steep, deep, narrow, often not accessible over established trails and, to descend or ascend, not exactly a walk in the park. Canyon ridgetops are usually blanketed with tall–nearly impenetrable manzanita thickets. Streambeds, up to a half-mile below, are only 30 or 40 feet wide in places, expanding to as much as a hundred or more in others. Among the trees sprouting from the streambanks or the canyon walls may be alder, cedar, cottonwood, dogwood, fir, madrone, maple, oak, sycamore, pine, and willow.

In spring, water lily stalks shoot up from gnarly, underwater root systems plugged into cracks in the bedrock of placid ponds and gentle eddies. They sprout giant, polished, dark green elephant-ear leaves and drape them mere inches above the water.

Lush fern colonies choke the shaded, untrampled boggy places.

Pugnacious blackberry thickets and poison oak bushes thrive and compete with an abundance of other plants, shrubs, bushes, and trees for the limited inhabitable space along the winding banks of the streams.

Huge swarms of ladybugs arrive, cluster and mate in huge, dynamic masses. On bushes hosting aphid colonies (food for the next generation), they lay their tiny eggs.

Pesky, bloodsucking mosquitoes hatch by the millions, hunt, and feast on warm-blooded critters.

Colossal squadrons of no-see-ums (gnats) buzz ears and faces and, attracted to moisture, crash into eyes sockets where they stick and squirm.

Warily, deer come to sip from streams; hungry water snakes lurk in pools to ambush trout; rattlers and other snake species stalk prey on rocky sandbars and canyon walls; grey squirrels skitter about in trees; their cousins, the scruffy browns, scramble over rocky floors; blue jays screech and scold from treetops.

From December to May, California newts (salamanders) gather in abundance in clear, cold pools–mate, deposit slimy clusters of eggs, and return to their underground homes dug into streambanks, gravel bars, and canyon walls, until next year’s call to action.

Giant, brown trout patrol deep pools beneath frothy waterfalls. They dart about like hungry sharks and feast on insects flushing through the current from upstream.

The scene is dynamic, vibrant, and teeming with life–yet, paradoxically, to the obtuse, quiet, and exceedingly dull.

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Bedrock–It’s Where the Gold Is

Placer Gold

Because the richest concentrations of placer gold in streams are usually found lying on or near bedrock, it is essential for a sniper to, without a moment’s ambiguity, be able to identify bedrock.

Bedrock is the upper crust or solid foundation of rock that supports the earth’s surface. The vast majority of bedrock is covered and concealed under an unconsolidated layer of broken rock and soil (regolith)–the surface upon which most of us walk, work and live.

Exposed bedrock (outcrops) are commonly encountered on mountain tops, steep slopes, and in canyons cut by erosion. Bedrock can also be observed in stone quarries, on rocky coastlines, along stream banks, and on exposed stream bottoms or beneath their loads of sands and gravels (overburden).

In valleys, bedrock is rarely exposed as a surface we can see and walk on. It is most often covered by a layer of broken rock and soil extending from inches to hundreds of meters or more in-depth. When the material covers a mineral deposit of commercial value or potential value, it is referred to by miners and prospectors as overburden.

So, simplified: Bedrock, the surface upon which the highest concentrations of placer gold are commonly found, is the earth’s solid upper crust, often concealed beneath loose deposits of unconsolidated surface materials.

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Gold Accumulation in California Streambeds—the Process

In California’s Mother Lode country, the preponderance of gold in streams was acquired from ancient, dead and buried, auriferous river channels that were breached and plundered of significant quantities of gold by present-day drainage systems, such as the one described below.

The typical gold-bearing stream in California’s Mother Lode country flows through a canyon at some point, certainly in its higher elevations, above the valleys. There the stream’s channel drops in elevation 30 feet per mile on average–ideal for the capture and accumulation of gold along its craggy course.

Over eons, the erosion process has carved an enormous volume of rock from the canyon (countless cubic yards). The process has lowered the stream’s channel and deepened and widened the canyon.

Materials eroded from the canyon’s walls and streambed in geologically recent times, together with those robbed from ancient channels and introduced upstream by merging ones, are distributed unevenly and irregularly upon the stream’s banks and throughout its bed. Natural forces are pushing the prodigious, seemingly stagnant aggregate mass along an epic journey to the sea, a timeless, unfathomable journey to our eye, but a journey certain–nevertheless.

Periodic spurts of violent flooding are a major, accelerating component of the erosion and aggregate purging process; floods are also critical to the classification and consolidation of heavy minerals, including gold, into layer or enrichment zones throughout the aggregate mass in the stream’s channel. When a mineral, gold, for example, is caught up and swept along in a current, its specific gravity (analogous to density) is a key factor influencing when and where it will eventually fall out and settle in the channel.

Discounting the rare occurrence of platinum in paying quantities, gold has the highest specific gravity of any constituent of consequence to us that is found among the materials that constitute the aggregate load of streambeds. Gold, having a specific gravity (if pure) of 19.3 is 19.3 times as heavy as an equal volume of water. For example, if a specified volume of water weighs eight pounds, the same volume of gold will weigh a stunning 154.4 pounds (19.3×8). In contrast, the specific gravity of quartz is approximately 2.7. Therefore, sticking with our simple formula, if a specified container of water weighs eight pounds, the identical volume of quartz will weigh 21.6 pounds (2.7×8).

It is easy then to understand why gold, because of its high density, will separate from lighter, lower density materials that are stirred up and transported downstream during a flood, and when forces allow, gold will descend and settle on or near bedrock ahead of lighter materials. As a general rule, placer gold will be found in its highest concentrations in close proximity to bedrock.

Consider the near certainty that if size, shape, and stream conditions are equal between two objects being moved along in a current, the object with the highest density will settle out first. The foregone hypothesis suggests that at the bottom end of a long run of swift current, at the point where the stream channel widens, the current slows, and stream aggregate begins to drop from the flow, gold, with its extremely high-density advantage over almost all other materials in the stream, will drop out and settle first.

Conditions that slow the current and favor the deposition of gold include sudden widening of the streambed, the inside path of the stream around bends and turns, and the downstream side of boulders and other large, stationary objects, including bedrock anomalies.

Fractured, irregular bedrock and cracks and crevices trap gold, too, there to be safe from eviction–except in the most cataclysmic of events.

Also, consider that streams narrow and steepen in some stretches, water speeds accelerate and bedrock is kept swept clean or near clean of overburden in spots. Consequently, some prime gold catches, such as cracks and crevices, are completely exposed. Sniper’s delight!

All of the above-mentioned conditions when observed should be investigated as possible gold catches.

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Basic Sniping Tools & Equipment

Wetsuit and accouterments (optional but highly recommended): used to shield bare skin from abrasion and to keep body temperature from plunging while sniping in cold waters

Shovel head: (no handle): used underwater for scooping overburden.

Rock pick: used to hammer and break up compacted/cemented gravels

Gad bar: used on objects to pry them up, apart, or loose.

Crevice tool (scratcher): used to scrape, loosen and dislodge tightly packed gravel from bedrock crevices. It’s a simple implement, my favorite was about ¼ inch square and 18 or so inches long. Some snipers prefer a long screwdriver, use both, or make, modify, or repurpose other tools or objects for the job (It’s all about personal preference).

Suction gun (Sniping gun): used for sucking up and temporarily storing fine gold and small nuggets. Nowadays, there are a wide variety of commercial options available, including bulb and bottle snuffers. Again, it’s all about personal preference.

I modified an automotive grease gun for use as my suction tool. In my opinion, it was (maybe still is) superior to commercial models on the market. It is almost indestructible and can be forced deep into narrow, hard to get to crevices, without damage to the tool. It has excellent suction and plenty of expulsion power for jetting water into tight spots, such as tiny holes and narrow crevices, to force out the contents, so as to be accessible and retrieved.

All listed tools are available from brick and mortar and online diving and mining supply stores—homemade sniping gun and shovelhead excepted.

Those are the basics. Depending on conditions, objectives, and personal preferences, the choice of tools among snipers vary greatly. For example, in addition to the bare essentials, some snipers carry an array of chisels and scratchers as well as a come-along and shop hammer. Some use hookah air systems in order to get to the deeper gold. One sniper I knew sometimes lugged a Porta Power to remote locations to force open stubborn crevices in high paying stretches of streams.


Related Posts:

Sometimes a Man Must Run Against the Tide If He Means to Be His Own Captain

Sniping for Placer Gold (Hardcore)

He Made His Living With a Gold Pan

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