This guide will cover several aspects of metal detecting for gold nuggets with a metal detector. The topics covered include: vlf versus pi metal detectors, where to start, what to look for, reading the ground, search patterns, coils, and recovering the target.
VLF vs PI Metal Detectors
So, you want to get started in nugget hunting with a metal detector. One of the most important factors that will affect your chances of finding those elusive gold nuggets is your choice of a metal detector. In choosing a metal detector for gold nugget hunting, you will want to get a metal detector designed specifically for gold. Though, a coin machine might pick up a larger nugget, which does happen from time to time, the majority of gold nuggets are too small for most coin machines to detect. If you are serious about finding gold nuggets, it is worth buying a gold machine, even a used one will do.
There are two types of metal detectors that nugget hunters use when prospecting: VLF and Pulse Induction. Each has its advantages and a combination of the two types is often helpful. VLF metal detectors are helpful in really trashy areas. They are capable of discriminating out much of the junk metal from the gold. They also tend to be more sensitive to the really small nuggets in the couple of grains in weight range. The down side is that VLF metal detectors are more susceptible to ground mineralization and require frequent ground balancing. Their depth is also greatly limited in highly mineralized soils.
Pulse induction metal detectors are known for their ability to cut through the mineralization and detect gold nuggets at great depths. Some of the high end PI metal detectors have detected gold nuggets at depths as great as four feet. They are, however, less sensitive to some of the really small gold pickers and are not very good at discriminating. In less trashy areas, or areas where the nuggets are deep, PI metal detectors are the way to go. As a mentioned before, owning both types is a great way to clean up a gold nugget patch.
Where to Start Metal Detecting for Gold Nuggets
If you are new to the nugget hunting hobby, I highly recommend that you start hunting in areas that are known to have produced gold in the past. This greatly increases the odds of finding a nugget and will result in less frustration. There are many clubs that own claims where you can search for nuggets and where the club will sometimes move the top layers of soil around to open access to the deeper nuggets. This is a great way to meet veterans and find the gold. When you arrive at a gold bearing area, look for signs that indicate that gold could be near.
Old diggings are a good sign that gold might be present. Often, you can see remnants of the tailings piles from larger operations and even from drywashers. Drywashers leave behind two tailings piles, course and fine. The fine tailings pile will usually be hard to locate, but the coarse tailings will look like a patch of small pebbles and gravel that look out of place. Keep in mind that the fine tailings will be close by. If the soil was moist when the earlier miners drywashed, then there is a chance that some gold nuggets could have passed over the riffles in a dirt clump. These piles are a good place to start.
What You Should Look For
You might also look for patches of mineralized soil that looks different than the surrounding soil. It might turn out to be the remains of a mineralized outcropping that has worn away and may have some gold. Addionally, quartz blow outs on the side of a hill can contain gold, especially if the quartz is dirty with lots of minerals. While, gold can be present in the white quartz, it is usually more common in dirty quartz. If you notice signs of possible gold, try looking for gullies and gulches that can concentrate the gold.
Also, search the slopes leading into the gullies as some of the larger nuggets may not have made it to the gut of the gully. When searching gullies that have a lot of mineralized bedrock, try sweeping the coil parallel to the streaks of mineralization instead of against it. This will help the metal detector, especially the VLF metal detectors to better cope with the mineralization.
Reading The Ground
Gold, being dense, will work its way down to bedrock. If you are using a VLF metal detector and the mineralized soil limits your detection depth on a quarter ounce nugget to 6 inches, then what are your chances of finding the nugget if it is resting on bedrock at a depth of 15 inches? In this instance, the depth of the soil would make the location a poor place to search with a VLF metal detector, but might be ok for some PI metal detectors. The point is that you should be aware of the soil depth in the area you are searching so that you can focus on more productive areas.
When using a VLF metal detector, look for areas where bedrock is exposed. The areas surround the protruding bedrock will likely be shallow. If using a PI metal detector, it might be worth digging a test hole to find out the depth. Pi metal detectors are capable of detecting down to bedrock at greater depths which is one of the reasons whey so many large nuggets have been found since the PIs came onto the market.
Monoloop coils will detect deeper than DD coils, but they have a harder time handling high mineralization and they require more overlapping of the sweeps since the field created under the coil is in a cone shape. DD coils handle the mineralization really well, but get a little less depth. Their field creates a hot strip down the center of the coil from front to back. This means that you will not have to overlap your sweeps as much. each coil has its place.
When searching a new area, it is not necessary to start out by gridding an area, unless you are certain it contains gold and has been worked before. It the area has not been hit well by other detectorists, you might try putting on a larger coil to cover more ground until you find a nugget. Once you find a nugget, it is time to search the area more closely as another nugget may be nearby. It might even be a patch.
It can be helpful to use the larger coils to pick out all of the larger signals in an area first. The reason for this is that 1) You want the bigger nuggets and 2) If you are going to return to the area, you might as well get the easy nuggets out rather than leaving them for someone else. You can then continue to work the area with different size coils to to work out as many nuggets as possible.
Recovering The Target
A small pick is helpful for breaking through some of the hard pack and caliche that can exist in desert environments. A drinking straw can be helpful for blowing off dirt from crevices when looking for a small nugget in bedrock. A screwdriver can help get the nugget out of a crack. I was also introduced to a simple, but useful tool by a friend of mine.
A small piece of plexiglass can be laid across the surface of a shallow creek, allowing you to see through the water. It makes locating nuggets in the water much easier. There is so much to learn when nugget hunting, much of which can only come with experience. Hopefully, this will give you a good start and help you find your first nugget. Happy hunting!
If you liked this article, you might be interested in reading my 51 Gold Nugget Hunting Metal Detector Tips article.