Bigger Fish to Fry...

 (Very few old timers ever hit it big.)

I've known very few small-scale (i.e., non-commercial) gold prospectors and miners over the course of 35+ years who consistently "made wages." This includes myself. Even during the heyday of gold discoveries and rushes in the American West or Southwest (and Alaska and the Yukon too), only a few intrepid individuals hit it big and became wealthy men despite the fact they were working what was essentially virgin ground. That's a historical fact and not supposition on my part, by the way.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree?

So where am I leading you with this opening paragraph? It's a winding road I'm about to lead you on, so be patient with me and listen. Listen well. You see, we all hope to be rewarded for our prospecting and mining efforts, no matter how small or slight those efforts may seem. There's no doubt that being in the great outdoors and away from the maddening crowds is a huge plus that's part and parcel of our outdoor efforts. And even the most cynical of small-scale prospectors and miners (of which I am one) is a liar if he or she says that the sight of color in a gold pan doesn't get the old heart racing a bit. That particular thrill is integral to what we do and for most of us...well, it's enough. But those who hope to gain financially from their gold prospecting and mining efforts are barking up the wrong tree for the most part. This was true for the great majority of the old timers who made important precious metal discoveries in the United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico, and elsewhere in this wide, wide world. It also held true for those who followed the mining paths they blazed.

 (Even the smallest amount of color is a sight to see.)

Yes, you're right. It's all part of that dream thing again. The golden dream, to be specific. It's all about dreams. The dream of what COULD be, the dream of transforming oneself from a pauper to a man or woman of substance, the satisfying dream of beating Mother Nature at her own game and coming out on top, and the dream of going it alone, making it happen on your own, and being beholden to no one. These sorts of dreams are much more vital and potent than dreams that are dashed or never brought to fruition for the silliest of reasons. "I can't." "It's too hard." "I'm afraid." I've said it before and I'll say it again here and can't be a gold miner or prospector without being a dreamer. Even to the slightest degree. Moreover, you can't gain anything in this life by playing it safe. Sometimes you just have to follow your dreams the best way you know how and to hell with the rest.

In Good Company

There's little doubt that this country (the continental U.S., that is) has been thoroughly searched for significant deposits of gold, both placer and lode. Sometimes these discoveries were accidental and at other times they were intentional. Either way, after the initial rushes, miners set to work with a vengeance. They swung their picks, wielded their shovels, hefted wheelbarrows full of dirt and ore, blasted tunnels, diverted rivers, and cut wide swaths through gold-bearing hillsides using high-pressure hoses. They pried placer gold loose from bedrock cracks and crevices and they crushed mineralized rock into powder to get at the gold within. It was unrelenting hard work (and still is.) Unfortunately for the rest of us, much of what the old timers initially found and what they accomplished was lost to history because it was never properly documented. One thing that was documented fairly accurately though was the percentage of would-be Argonauts who actually supported themselves (or their families) through gold mining. There were very few who did...even back then. So we're all in very good company.

(Swinging picks during the Klondike Rush.)

Despite all this, many people still believe it's possible to make a living at small-scale gold mining in the American West and Southwest. This despite the fact that most placers and most lode gold mines in the Lower 48 have been worked at least twice (if not many more times than that). And after the little guys were pushed out of the diggings, the big gold companies and corporations came in with huge bankrolls and expensive machinery and wrested the remainder of the "marginal" gold away with huge bucket dredges and cyanide leaching ponds. Mining is big business these days but it's always been a hit-or-miss, boom-or-bust proposition of sorts. Like the ebb and flow of an ocean tide, it comes and goes, then returns and goes away again. What remains? The gold that was missed or left behind. And us. You see, we keep the dream alive. The little guy and gal. We're the ones who cling to the mining implements of the past and who understand the importance of what we do...not for money, but out of love and respect for tradition. Those commercial operations you see on reality TV aren't operating from this same standpoint, no matter how much they protest otherwise. Nor are the big mining concerns. For them it's strictly a business and businesses ALWAYS have bottom lines. Our bottom line, on the other hand, is the pure joy taken in what we love doing. If we get enough gold to pay for our gas and our gear we're as ecstatic as the most recent lottery winner. If we don't hit the big one, we still smile and say to ourselves, "Next time..."

More Lasting Gold...

So what's the pay off for all this hard work? This commitment to the past as well as the present? The pay off is what you make it. What you're willing and happy to accept. Every moment you draw a new breath you've hit the big one, do you realize that? And there's more gold and more abundance around you than was ever turned over in a spadeful of dirt or blasted from a granite wall. Use your eyes and listen with your heart and you'll be the richest man or woman around. Keep those dreams alive because without them you're just another lost soul. Miners need to dream and small-scale miners dream the best. Those commercial Joes and Janes can strut around on the boob tube all they want and count their gold in thousands of ounces. Good for them if that makes them happy (and the funny thing is, they don't seem all that happy do they?).

You and I, well...we have bigger fish to fry. And better, more lasting gold to get.

Know what I mean?

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2015

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. Hey JR, great post but with all due respect, I believe there exists a certain small scale "commercial" guy that is out there existing between the big boys and the highbanker guy that does it for all the reasons you just mentioned. I think of myself as a prime example. I have a backhoe, trommel operation that is pure hobby. I worked my butt off at my normal job to save up the $ to buy that stuff and now take great delight in going out to the claim for a week at a time and messing around washing rock. One of the most satisfying things is having friends come out to the claim to help and see some real gold. As it is just a hobby, if things are going poor and guys are not enjoying themselves, I'll shut it down for the day and we will all go fishing (and have a big fry after lol)! Its still a dream of mine that the next bucket will be the big one but if it isn't that is ok too.
    Thanks for everything you do on this site, it is a invaluable resource.

  2. I don't normally reply to comments because they are a way for the readers to present their views. You make a very good point here and I have to agree with you. It's not all "black and white" and room exists for a middle ground as you have rightly pointed out.

  3. JR, That last paragraph sums it all up perfectly. The only guarantee in life is that if you were born, you will die. The trick it to put as much time between the two as possible and make it enjoyable. I'm not wealthy, but I am rich. I have had a great life without too many regrets. I try to live each day with the thought that it could be the last one, so don't waste it.
    As for making a living small scale prospecting. Look at the old alone with a mule eating beans and jackrabbits and sleeping in a tent. You too can have that kind of wealth if you want it. Just not your new 2016 pickup truck, big screen TV, and million dollar house. Wealth is measured in many ways. Some with money and what money can buy, others value happiness,freedom and quality of life.......personally, I'm the second type.


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