The Art and Science of Finding Gold Nuggets (Part 1)

(Those elusive nuggets...)

It should come as no great surprise to anyone that those elusive nuggets are what most small-scale placer gold miners dream about the most. Whether you fully realize it or not, there is an art and a science to finding placer gold nuggets and I'm here to elaborate on that particular subject.

I'm speaking from over three and half decades of experience when I tell you that those barely visible microdots of flour gold and tiny flakes in your pan will only sustain your gold fever for a limited time...unless you're pulling those items by the ounce, that is. In fact, you could say that finding nuggets is the small-scale mining equivalent of receiving an Emmy Award or a hitting a walk-off home run in Major League Baseball. All in all, a very satisfying and highly rewarding (if relatively rare) event.

The more savvy and experienced among you already know that there's both an art and a science to finding and recovering gold nuggets, regardless of the approach you take in doing so. Many newbies or greenhorns, on the other hand, tend to believe that nuggets grow on trees or alternately, that they show up in your gold pan or sluice box simply by chance. Not true...never was this way in most instances and never will be. So listen up:

POINT 1: Gold is extremely dense and heavy.

Yep, you're right. Here we go again. I wish I had a dollar every time I've written this statement or spoken it aloud trying to school up an aspiring gold miner. Yet this simple fact can be very deceptive (more so for some rather than others). If you understand the significance of gold's weight and density as it relates to deposition physics, then why on God's green earth would anyone spend their valuable prospecting and mining time searching for nuggets close to the surface in a stream or wash unless bedrock was exposed?

 (Nuggets don't come easy...just ask any New 49er.)

Getting the heart of the matter here you novices and newbies? What is heavy sinks or is gradually moved downward by stream hydraulics until its path is blocked and it can move no farther. Nuggets, even small ones, are heavier than their fine gold or flat flake counterparts, even though they're often found together in bedrock cracks and crevices. But I can pretty much guarantee that you won't be finding many (if any) nuggets along with those fines and flakes you're skimming from the topmost gravels in that stream or wash. The bigger and heavier the nugget the greater the likelihood of it being down deep. If you want to find gold nuggets (or more of them), remember this simple but extremely important fact and limit your searching and sampling efforts to those contexts that bear out this very basic bit of science.

Want Nuggets?

Are there exceptions to the above rule? To a minor extent, yes. In dry or desert placers or gold areas where only limited or intermittent water flows occur, gold deposition physics can take a hiatus of sorts. Nuggets can be found at all levels including very close to the surface. That said, the bulk of those nuggets and the larger ones will still be found on or closer to bedrock or false bedrocks like clay or caliche layers. Even in areas with little or no water flow, those nuggets will still be heading downward...albeit at a much slower pace than their waterborne brethren.

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So, if you're out on that stream or wash just to have a little fun and maybe find a bit of color or a flake or's all good. On the other hand, if you're on that stream or wash dead set on finding nuggets you're going to immediately apply POINT 1 to your endeavors and in a thoroughly pervasive manner.

Want nuggets do you? Look deeper then.

Best of luck out there.

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2014

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. JR, since the bigger nuggets are so heavy, would they tend to be more towards the center of the stream? Even though they are heavier than the flakes they have more surface area for the water to push against, so it makes me wonder. The scientist's say this area was once a big lake, with a lot of sediment. I think the bedrock is very deep here. No place I have tried, have I found bedrock. Looking at the surrounding mountains, I can not see any evidence of a shoreline, so I don't know where the lake started or ended. Most of the gold I have found has been higher up the mountain, but bedrock still is unreachable with hip boots, and dredgeing is out. My gold mining partner went to chest waders, but you are still too limited in what you can do with hand tools,and he has not hit bedrock either. Any Ideas?? Thanks again, as always, you have given me something to think about..... Gary

  2. The question about whether larger nuggets would trend toward the stream center is interesting, but I tend to think not. Why? Have found larger nuggets down deep close to stream sides in the past. I think a lot of it has to do with where that gold enters the stream, flooding, etc. Sounds like you guys are not going to get to bedrock on that stream. Any other possibilities in that area? Best, J.R.

    1. JR, Over the last few years we have tried at least a dozen places, probably more. There are only two that have had enough to go back to, and really, it still is no bonanza! I guess I'll just keep looking and hoping for more.Today is sunny and warm, sure itching to get up the mountain. Need the snow to melt first though. Thank you for your time and advice. Gary

  3. Just keep at 'er Gary...your day will come. J.R.


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