Snipers are "Cleaning Up" in California

 (My ear is always to the door.)

My ear is always to the door when it comes to small-scale gold prospecting and mining and my sources (friends and fellow miners, that is) in California's Motherlode Region say that they and others are literally "cleaning up" gold sniping. This fact follows hard on the heels of my recent tip about shallow water and underwater sniping. It goes without saying the extremely low water conditions in California have pretty much provided manna from heaven for snipers the past couple of years or so.

Gold snipers in California are using two main sniping methods:

1) Shallow water hunting with a snipe scope.

2) Wetsuit and snorkel underwater recovery.

I've used both of these methods in my checkered mining past and both can be highly productive as long as visible or shallow bedrock are available. I've also sniped gold without available bedrock behind larger stream obstructions but I'll tell you flat out that approach is much more demanding and less rewarding from a placer gold recovery standpoint. Since I just used the term "demanding" let me elaborate a bit about shallow and underwater gold sniping. Neither the snipe scope routine (primarily a shallow water approach) nor the underwater (shallow or deep) is easy. Like all things mining, both approaches require a certain amount of physical effort and stamina if you're committed to multiple hours of sniping per day. Sure, shoveling and running bucket loads of gold-bearing material is tough work too, but sniping is a different beast altogether. Just try stooping over staring down into the water through a snipe scope for a few hours and then let me know how easy it is to straighten yourself back up again. Or, alternately, turning into an over-sized prune after sliding yourself along bedrock underwater in very cold water for half a day. That said, gold sniping is fun. More fun than you'll ever have running material through a machine all day, if the truth be told. There's no feeling in the world like staring down a snipe tube or through a face mask underwater and seeing that pretty yellow metal sitting there waiting for you to pick it up or pry it from the grasp of a bedrock crevice. Put that image into your mind's eye and it'll bring a smile to your face. If it doesn't then small-scale gold mining just isn't your thing.

(Gold snipe scopes from

Comparing Apples to Oranges

As I've stated before, there are two primary ways you can get lots of placer gold. The first requires running large amounts of dirt through your dry washer, suction dredge, highbanker, sluice box, trommel, or any other piece of mining equipment meant for processing gold-bearing material for concentration and recovery. Just like some of the not-always-so-bright commercial mining boys on TV reality gold shows have shown you, once you have an idea of the gold values expected (or averaged out) per cubic yard, it's all about running pay dirt. The more dirt you run, the more gold you get. A very simple equation that's been in effect since time immemorial. On the other hand, snipers are looking for small pockets of gold on bedrock where the yellow metal has already been localized and concentrated by Ma Nature and the law of deposition physics. Now I can't name one gold sniper I know (or have known) who has pulled a 1,000 troy ounces in a season but by the same token these are individual small-scale miners who outgrew their fascination for Tonka trucks and big machinery long ago. It's like comparing apples and oranges...on the one hand you have commercial operations with hundreds of thousands or million of dollars in outlay and on the other hand you have you and I armed only with a wet suit or a snipe scope. I'll take the latter any day despite the smaller money take because I'm a small-scale guy who doesn't get excited at the thought of driving a rock truck all day, money be damned. You can call yourself a miner, but in're a truck driver (a noble pursuit in its own right, by the way). I just have no interest in commercial mining and never have because it's just another job and I already have one of those. I'll stick my neck out there further here and say that in commercial mining the true love of prospecting and mining takes a back seat to the money. Call me an idiot but that's how I feel about it. I just want to do my own thing and the commercial boys can do theirs, and never the twain shall meet.

 (No disrespect meant to anyone, but this just isn't my thing.)

Good Gold Can be Had

OK, all that said don't think for a minute good gold and lots of it can't be had by sniping for gold because it can. I knew an old timer back in the 1980s who ONLY sniped for placer gold using a home-made snipe scope in feeder streams in the southern part of the California Motherlode Region. This old salt had probably recovered at least $100,000 (and probably much more) in gold this way over multiple seasons. You heard right and I'm not one to BS you. And that was back when gold was running around $600.00 a troy ounce. He took the time to show me just part of his sniped gold recoveries and I nearly fainted dead away. I have never seen (firsthand, anyway) that much placer gold recovered by an individual in my life, all 67 years of it. If there ever was a "King of Gold Snipers" it was this cagey old timer with his battered, home-made snipe scope. To make things even more astonishing, this guy worked pretty much the same feeder stream year after productive year. So maybe some of these wags are right when they give you the "Seventy-five percent of the gold still remains to be found" pitch to join their prospecting club or sell you something. All I know is that old timer in the Southern Motherlode had his shit together and would have been a hell of a sniping mentor to me or anyone else. But, being smart and following the primary rule of keeping your mouth shut when you get a good gold thing going, he wasn't going to push your face in HIS gold. Anyway, good gold can be had sniping once you learn the ins and outs like this old coot had.

 (A small nugget wedged into an underwater crevice.)

So the boys and girls in California are getting their licks in when and where they can under California's low-water conditions. It makes my mouth water thinking about it and knowing I worked many of the same areas they're now working to good benefit. I used to look at some of those areas and imagine how good they'd be if the water levels ever dropped significantly. I'd actually fantasize about it. But that was then (when water levels were high or "normal") and now is now. Sigh. But lest you think the low-water pickings are easy in California be advised that there are few good areas open to the general public and those available are being hit pretty hard. I hear it can get ass-to-elbow with "crowds" in some spots. The word I'm getting is from claim owners or persons with access (paid or otherwise) to private claims and that's where I'd want to be right now...on private ground sniping like a S.O.B.

Anyway, it's something to think about isn't it? There's always a silver (gold?) lining, even to the dark cloud called drought.

Hang in there.

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

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. At first glance of your headline, I thought you meant snipers with rifles! Ha! That might clean up California.......
    Seriously, this looks like an enjoyable, if not profitable way to spend a hot summer day. I would like to give this a try, but in my area, the bedrock seems to be deep. I have found very little exposed bedrock anywhere I have gone, and only small patches. I have often thought though, while digging a hole in the creek bottom running my sluice, I would like to see the bottom before I quit for the day. A lot falls off your shovel, and if you manage to reach bedrock, it is very hard to clean the surface with a shovel. Impossible to clean the cracks. Even in knee deep water, you would not be able to clean the cracks without getting wet. I've made several sucker tubes, but never found them to be very helpful. This is worth a try for sure. I think I would use a magnifying lens on the end to better see the tiny stuff. I still have not made it out this year yet........dang it, summer will be over soon.


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