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Panning for gold is a fun and potentially profitable activity and not that difficult a skill to master. Have patience, gold panning is like any learned skill, one gets better with practice.
Read the creek or stream bed and find a likely spot. One of the best places is behind boulders were eddies have formed. Fill your gold pan with gravel and/or sand. Pour water into your gold pan or dip it in the creek to fill.
Gently move your pan in a back and forth in a sideways motion. Gold is one of the heaviest elements and it will start to migrate to the bottom of your pan. After a few minutes of gentle motion, the materials in your pan with begin to stratify. The larger pebbles and rocks will be on the surface and the heavier materials, including any gold and black sand (magnetite), will move to the bottom of the pan.
Carefully look over the surface material in your pan and remove the larger rocks. You do not want to throw away any nuggets, so do this by looking at the material and removing the unwanted rocks by hand. Continue to gently agitate the material in your pan. If there are any clumps of clay, break them up, as clay can trap gold and carry it out of your pan.
In calm waters of the creek, slightly tilt your pan away from you and slowly allow the muddy water and any debris to slosh out of the pan. Continue to repeat this step by adding more water to the pan and keeping the materials in your pan stirred up until the water in the pan is fairly clear. Remember to always keep the bottom of the pan lower than the side that you are tilting so that the gold will remain in the bottom of the pan. An occasional sharp tap on the side of the pan will help the gold to work to the bottom.
When you have worked the materials down so that all that remains in your pan is fine sand, add a little water and gently swirl the materials with the pan slightly tilted. The gold will then be gathered along the edge of the bottom of your pan.
At this point if you can see any visible gold you are definitely in the right spot. You will have black sand in your pan. This remaining black sand is referred to as concentrates. Using tweezers, remove any flakes or tiny nuggets and deposit in a plastic vial. It is best not to use glass sample bottles when on the creek. If you happen to drop your container and it shatters, you have lost your gold.
The remainder of the material should be put in an unbreakable plastic container. Carefully rinse your gold pan out into your concentrate container. Once the materials have settled, you can pour off any excess water. Because the time we have to actually spend testing is always limited, most savvy prospectors take their concentrates home and pan them out later.
If you are testing multiple areas it is helpful to put the concentrates from each test in a separate container. Sealable heavy duty plastic freezer bags work well for this purpose. Make a sketch of the area or mark on a map the location of each test and mark your samples accordingly. This procedure will help you isolate the best area to work if you wish to set up a sluice box or high banker and run a lot of material.
Always remember to fill in your test holes. Before you leave the area make sure it is clean. Wishing you a great trip and may the bottom of your pan be golden.