By Tom Massie
Panning for gold is easy. I have seen it for myself — someone who has never held a gold pan in their hands entering into the panning contest at a GPAA gold show. They watch a few people ahead of them to see how it’s done and when it’s their turn, they swish the pan around, drop the gold to the bottom, use the riffle traps in the pan and pick out the nuggets with a respectable time and even — once in awhile, when the competition is not to stiff — win!
For the most part, the vessels for use in gold panning and the methods of panning are unchanged over the years. The bevel-sided dish pan is the traditional utensil for panning for gold, but anything that will hold water and the dirt ’n gravel will do — such as a frying pan or a pie plate. But, if you expect to have good results from your efforts, the use of a professional pan, such as the GPAA’s Gold Catcher, is essential.
There’s nothing sophisticated about panning for gold. Just about anyone can do it. The technique, in it’s simple form, is merely placing dirt that contains gold in your pan, sinking it under the water, shaking it and swishing it around until the heavier gold sinks to the bottom, tilting it forward to use the traps and then picking the gold out.
The Gold Catcher pan, with its ribbed riffles is definitely an improvement over the old metal-style pans. The Gold Catcher has ridges along one side that trap gold as one pours off sediment and water.
The GPAA is working on a new version of the Gold Catcher. This pan will be smaller and specifically designed for finish work or cleanup work. The pan will be made of injection-molded plastic, light weight, but durable and inexpensive. A nice complement to the pan is a classifying screen. The purpose is to separate large and small gravel. Holes in the screen should be no less than quarter-inch and no more than one-inch. By screening material before panning it makes it easier for the small, but heavy particles of gold to displace the lighter aggregate. Other heavy metals that are typically found include pyrite, magnetite, chromite and garnet. These are typically referred to as black sand.
Pyrite, commonly called fool’s gold, has tricked a few novices when it comes to panning. On close examination, pyrite does not look like gold. Pyrite has a brassy color and is sometimes tarnished. Because it occurs in crystals, it changes shades as one holds the specimen and rotates it in the sun. Gold, on the other hand, is always colored gold. It does not change from shadow to sunlight. Gold is also very malleable; it will not shatter like pyrite. Through time and experience to distinguish fool’s gold from real gold becomes almost second nature.
With just a little practice, everyone can become proficient at panning. When starting out, it’s not a good idea to heap too much material in your pan. Start with about half a panful of material. The first thing to do is submerge your pan and material in water. Wash off any of the larger rocks and toss them out, break up any clay balls or grass roots. Then with a gentle, circular motion, make the gravel swirl around in the pan. This will cause the dust and clay to come to the top. Submerge the pan again and continue a circular motion, allowing the lighter material to float away. Keep the pan in a semi-liquid condition — not completely under the water and not out of the water. Tip the pan slightly away from you. Use the water motion to move the lighter material away from you and out of the pan. Make sure that your riffles are pointed away from you. From time to time, level the pan and re-stratify the material. By shaking it back and forth this will cause the lighter material to come to the top and the gold to sink to the bottom. Repeating this process will leave the heavier materials in your pan. This will usually be a black sand and gold concentrate.
Take your pan out of the water and pour off most of the water, leaving enough to cover the black sand by about half an inch. Shake everything to the front of the pan by tilting it forward. Then, tilt the pan towards you and start swirling the water again until the black sand is slowly removed, leaving only the gold. At this point, you can pick the gold out of the pan with your finger, a match head or tweezers, but a simpler method is using a snuffer bottle. By putting a squeeze on the bottle, it creates a suction and you’re able to suck up the gold and separate it from the black sand.
The plastic Gold Catcher pan makes it easy for using a magnet in the final process. Place the magnet on the underside of the pan and tilt the pan slightly while moving the magnet in a small, circular motion. This will separate the magnetic black sand from the gold. Be sure not to grab too much black sand at one time. Once in a while, gold can get trapped inside the black sand as it sticks to the magnet.
The pan has been and still is the basic piece of equipment used by the beginner or the pro. If you ask any old, seasoned prospector where the best place is to pan for gold, mostly likely they will tell you, ‘Gold is where you find it.’ After you’ve been prospecting for awhile, you will find no truer words were ever spoken.