Working High Water Conditions

High water conditions in wet placer areas are both a boon and a bane to small-scale gold miners. So I thought it might be beneficial if we took a look at some of the problems high water presents and, at the same time, examine a few solutions to that problem.

No Matter Where You Mine

After hearing from a few of my colleagues in the Northern California small-scale community, it's been made abundantly clear to me that the Motherlode Region's rivers, streams, and creeks are in full flow due to the very wet winter in California and the huge snow pack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that feeds those same gold-bearing water courses. In other words, the low-water conditions due to successive years of drought in the Sierras has flip-flopped and now the Motherlode's stream network is in full flow (or raging, if you prefer). Now I realize that many (or perhaps most) of you don't live, prospect, or mine in the Motherlode as I once did way back when. But no matter where you live or mine, the issues and principles governing high water conditions are directly applicable to you too. After all, high water is...well...high water no matter where that condition exists. And high water, as such, means you're going to have to take a different approach to your small-scale mining activities. You see, those areas that you were able to snipe, sluice, highbank, or dredge (where it's allowed, that is) last year or the year before may now be under deep, fast-flowing currents that prevent access, let alone placer mining. Even once-workable bench gravels may be out of reach too. So keep this train of thought in mind as we progress through this post.

A Blessing and a Curse

In the California Motherlode Region as well as many other parts of the American West, the best time for small-scale mining activities of all sorts (especially dredging when it was still viable in California) is during periods of low water flow. Historically speaking, under "normal" flow conditions, this usually occurs after the spring snow pack has melted and could be in mid-to-late July, August, or even the August-September time frame. There's a certain amount of variability here depending on where you live or mine, but suffice it to say that the "good" low water conditions usually come after the spring run off cycle. I know this was always true in California's Motherlode region having worked there for consecutive summers in the 1980s. In recent years Motherlode miners have had an "easy" (if anything in mining is truly "easy") time of it in terms of low water conditions due to years of drought. This is no longer the case there and I suspect it's not the case in many parts of the West. So what you did last year or the year before in those rivers, streams, and creeks may no longer be applicable to this current small-scale mining season. High water is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in the sense that much gold gets drawn into and mixed around in those water courses and a curse in the sense you won't find it easy to get at that gold. In fact in certain instances, you may not be able to get at it at all early in the season. Many (if not the majority) of those sections of bedrock, obstructions, sniping pools, etc., are no longer accessible.

 (Happy time.)

No Getting Around It

It's a bummer to be sure overall. High water forces you to work higher too, often along what I call "borderline" ground. In some instances borderline is too kind a may be shit out of luck in finding good gold in any appreciable amounts if water conditions are super high and raging. Again, there's a certain amount of variability here depending on where you are, stream configuration, and flow conditions and height. Some spots or areas are better than others in this regard, but "better" is not clearly definable for the most part. Of course, when water levels finally drop and currents begin to slow, everything gets back on track with the additional bonus of new gold having been swept in or mixed together with the old. This is the "happy time" for most small-scale guys and gals working wet placers. But you have to wait for the happy time...sometimes weeks or even a month or two. And if you're bound and determined to hit those river or small-stream placer areas during high water, you're going to have to think (and work) differently. And to reiterate're gonna have to work higher up those ravines, river banks, and flood fans. There just won't be any getting around that bailiwick to be sure.


Sure, in some areas there will be high crevices to work, some boulder and rock-strewn channels, or even benches. With the latter (if they do exist) it'll simply be a matter of setting up a highbanker and running material from dawn to dusk. Crevicing or sniping must be handled a different way though. You'll have less in terms of opportunity and you'll need to be more judicious in your crevice selection. One key tip I have for you in this regard is this:

Avoid areas where lots of light material has been brought in or deposited by high water. 

By light material I'm talking about branches, bushes, or driftwood that has been spread across an area or that has packed up in the same spot. Entrained among that wood swept along by high water you may also find plastic items or things like pieces of Styrofoam cups and the like. Light materials like this that have accumulated are a red flag of sorts. And that red flag is telling you that beneath all that light junk you're not likely to find decent amounts (if any) of that very heavy yellow you seek. Honestly, it's my opinion that trying to remove this light stuff and working underneath it is a fool's errand and a complete waste of your time. Sure, there'll always be someone who will claim they did just this and found a pile of nuggets underneath that driftwood and Styrofoam, but any claims like this should be viewed with a jaundiced eye if not "pooh-poohed" immediately.

(Forget about it.)

Anyway, here's another high water tip:

Scrunched up items like metal cans or buckets, car parts, and the like are much better signs in high water conditions.  

Now some of you may think I'm joking about the car part thing, but ask any small-scale miner who has worked larger gold-bearing rivers in California like the American, the Yuba, or the Klamath and they'll set you straight in a heartbeat. NEVER underestimate the strength and power of water rushing down a mountainous gradient. In high water conditions with raging flow some very large and very heavy metal items can be tumbled and smashed, and then left high and dry above flood flow. Been there and done that more times than one. So if you're working your way up (or along) the diminished banks of a stream or river and come across items like these packed tightly into rocks or even just sitting there, some sampling is in order, especially if there are tightly packed gravels around them or crevices adjoining them. In other words, if you're going to put the work in, do it in these contexts as opposed to the driftwood and plastic routine. You're more likely to find gold here than under wood piles.

Let's continue:

Keep a sharp eye out for any signs of iron oxidation higher up.

While this tip holds true in ALL water conditions, in high water times these sorts of flashing green lights can be a literal gold mine. Any crevices, areas around obstructions, or simple ground or gravel staining by rusting metals (rust = iron oxidation) such as nails, bolts, hinges, fused iron conglomerates or clumps, and so on should be sampled or dug out in each and every instances. And be mindful of the fact that when certain pieces of iron oxidize they can turn black and leave a blackish-looking "halo" around them. I can't tell you how many times  in 40 years I've found good gold packed in with oxidized iron pieces or parts. Sometimes the gold is actually fused to large conglomerations of rusty metal. It doesn't happen very often, but if you're working higher up during high water conditions and hit a spot or two like this, you best break out your digging tools and get at it hard. Your chances of scoring yellow have just gone up exponentially. Now you're not always going to see the iron oxidation showing itself, but if you decide to sample a spot based on other reasonable criteria and this stuff starts showing up, it's time for a happy dance seven or eight times out of ten.


Use your eyes and bring your mining experience to the forefront.

Working high water conditions is a tough job and often produces little in the way of gold, truth be told. So you need every advantage and every edge you've gained over the years (or if you're a newbie...will gain). Use your eyes to scan that high water area for any likely spots, avoiding anything that smells like wood, Styrofoam, or plastic. Bring all your years (or weeks or months!) of experience into play as well. Stabbing in the dark is NOT a good mining or prospecting method in low or high water conditions. In the latter set up, you're really going to have to work hard to discern what might be good and what isn't. So be patient, thorough, and sample only those spots or locations where you might have a chance. Alternately, you can just throw in the high water towel and bide your time until water levels drop and currents become manageable again.

Like the late character actor Strother Martin said in the film, Cool Hand Luke:

"I can be a nice guy or one mean sonuvabitch. It's aaaaallll up to you."

(c) Jim Rocha 2019

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