Searching for gold in Michigan’s rivers

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Soaring gold prices are driving prospectors to Michigan rivers. Photo: Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Wetland specialists in Michigan are getting schooled in an obscure and unlikely area — gold prospecting.

With prices reaching all time highs – approaching $1,900 this summer – Michigan has seen a boost in ambitious hobbyists searching for gold.

And while a seemingly innocuous and maybe silly way to spend free time, the uptick in prospecting has caught the attention of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Scouring rivers and creeks for a few flakes can disrupt fish spawning and sediment flow.

Long-associated with the west coast, gold prospectors are everywhere, said Warren Bennett, president of the Michigan Chapter of Gold Prospectors Association of America.  His members are a diehard group.

“We’ve had an increase in membership this year,” Bennett said.  “We saw even more of an increase when the gold first started going up a couple years ago.”

Pan, sluice and dredge

While not a hotspot for the precious metal, the Great Lakes region has “glacial gold.”

“Gold here originated in Canada,” said Mike Williams, geologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.   “As the glaciers moved, every thing was ground up to small flakes.

“As channels developed through melting, the material congregated, and that’s where you see gold.”

Panning for gold. Photo: Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Hobbyists mostly pan, sluice or dredge for gold.  Panning, the most common and cheapest way to get started, is simply sifting through sediment with a pan.  Sluicing involves placing a box in the water to collect passing sediment. Gold settles in the ridges of the box.

Dredging involves vacuuming sediment from river and creek bottoms, drawing it to the surface where the gold can be collected.

This was all news to those who regulate the state’s natural resources.

“I knew nothing about it,” said Todd Losee, wetland specialist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Losee was recently invited by a local prospecting group to witness a dredging for gold operation.

“Our biggest concern is the disruption to the bottom of the rivers,” Losee said.  “They typically dredge in gravel bottom areas and these are fish spawning areas.  It could certainly harm eggs, or just scare off young fish.”

Most hobbyists pan and sluice, according to Bennett, but there are some areas in Michigan where members dredge.

“We have a couple places we are allowed to use them, we’ve gotten permits through the county or state,” Bennett said.  “But as a general rule, they’re not widely accepted.”

Jim Terbush, a gold prospector from just outside of Saginaw, is candid about his preference to dredge.   He said he hasn’t had any problems from state regulators while using the dredge in rivers.

“It’s a gray area here in Michigan” Terbush said, referring to the permitting process.

Permits for gold seekers

Michigan isn’t the only state with optimistic gold hunters.  Most Great Lakes states allow panning, sluicing and other non-motorized ways of prospecting on state land without a permit, with considerations for fish spawning season.

In Illinois, all prospecting is forbidden on state land.

Ohio doesn’t regulate hobby prospecting.  While there’s some gold in the northwestern part of the state, “on a really good day working sun up to sun down, someone might pay for the gas to get to site,” said Williams of the Ohio Department of Natural Resource.

Sluicing in Michigan can only be done with a permit and during July and August.  There are parameters set for the size of the sluice box – 52 inches long, 12 inches wide and 6.5 inches deep.  Prospectors must identify a 300-foot area where they will be sluicing.  There are no regulations for panning.

Suction dredges vaccuum up sediment to the surface. Photo:

To dredge, prospectors have to apply for a permit, much as they would have to for something like a boat slip, Losee said.  Mechanical dredging is not allowed on state land.

The state agency is working with prospectors to mitigate any disruption to rivers or creeks.

“We opened up prospecting on state land recently but there’s a number of sensitive areas where they can’t,” said Chad Fizzell, a state wetland GIS specialist.  “If there are endangered species, natural rivers … those are places they’re not allowed.”

It’s not a “huge thing on our radar,” said Losee, but the department is trying to understand the methods.

“These are people who are out enjoying our waters and we have to balance that with environmental impacts,” Losee said.  “We feel the permit structure we have in place is adequate.”

If dredging becomes more popular, the department may modify the permitting, Losee said.

But it’s not like anyone is getting rich.

To Bennett, prospecting is just like many other hobbies in Michigan — a reason to be outside with friends.

“My wife and I started years ago, and met great people and grew from there,” he said.  “Now I have four kids and they get so excited to go.  It’s like any hobby, you just get into it.”

23 thoughts on “Searching for gold in Michigan’s rivers

  1. It’s interesting that everything was ground up into small flakes because of glaciers, especially since I didn’t know glaciers could contain gold. I’ve been thinking of prospecting as a hobby, so it’s good to know these things. What’s the easiest way to find gold?

  2. I live on springfed water in west michigan and I just had an interesting run-in with the DNR(Does Not Respect…Landowners). Had an officer come to the house to secure permission to lay poison for lamprey eel… Which have not been witnessed in the area for almost 30 years. This poisoning has already killed off the wildlife and fauna. What was a haven for fishing with ferns and watercrest everywhere is now barren and lifeless. When I wouldnt give them permission, he said” Thats okay… I’ll go upstream from you and get you anyway”. No regard for conservationism whatsoever.

  3. My name is Tuli Tapuaiga from ILLinoi,I always want to experience to gold pan when I have a spare time,I’m a hard worker but I’m looking foward someday someone will nock my door and take me to any places to start gold pan for the 1st time

  4. Ive found flour gold out by the lakes just poking around. What most legislators dont understand is that while large “commercial dredging” is destructive; the prospector dredges smaller by comparison actually attract fish dredgers are not eating up the riverbank they are in the deeper water actually moving sediment around – far from eggs even during spawning. the released minerals are returned to the river and actually aid in fish development and retention.

  5. My family used to go out and pan when I was a young boy 30 yrs ago, I remember very little. I’ve just recently bought a few starter tools for panning, with the hopes of getting out and trying my hand. After reading all the regulations on where, when, how, and how much I’m allowed, to pan,I’m not sure I’ll even try….I’m already fed up with buying permits and liscenses, and I’m only 34 yrs old. Between snomobile trail permit, Dirtbike ORV&trail, Base liscence, Combo Deer, Fish, Turkey, it gets to become expensive year after year, and the prices keep going up and up…It’s a real shame. If the DNR was so worried about the environment, maybe they should look into what is being sprayed on 90% of farmland in Michigan,pure poison…..sickening….always been about money, always will be..I also like the idea of boycotting permits/liscences, then they’d be all ears!!!

  6. If we the people don’t take this country back we can all kiss our freedom goodbye. I guess we have to hit them where it hurts, in their pocket. Everyone needs to stop buying fishing and hunting licenses for at least one year. Then see if congress comes to their aid when they are on unemployment.
    We also like to pan gold and have panned in many other states. We
    would like to in our own state but it sounds like more of a hassle. I don’t want to give the state any more money than they deserve.
    PS: Who’s land is it any ways since they are suppose to work for us. Beware the old saying : Come to Michigan on vacation and leave on probation.

  7. I personally find it hard to believe,that any one would not take a large nuggett becausee it weighed too much.I would rather here all of you,as well as myself,rally together,raise heck,teach the idiots that create these ridiculouse laws,the proper,fair and real laws that should be in place.some one needs to document facts,reserch geological impact,comparison to other states,and show them how stupid,ridiculouse,unfair,unedgucated,and wrong they realy are.Any one can whine about these issues.How about doing something,if nothing else,start a petition,and try to change it.

  8. whats not to like about finding gold? and as far as the state of michigan is concerned, what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Besides they can kiss where the sun don’t shine.

  9. I found Flower Gold which is so hard to capature,but did find a spot in the lower Western Michigan and found (3) 1/4″ placer nuggets and a 6.2 gram nugget. Most is coming from gravel pits after splitting/sizing gravel. I know of a pit where they are collecting gold in the was water. I smelt it for them and split the black sand. There is more Gold in the Lower than people know. In creeks the hard clay acts as bed rock holding gold. Because of the finds I go to where they are drilling for Oil & Gas and check the cores or water being pumped down and pushing up sediments. Our family goes to areas that are permitted and drilling. This information is easy to get from the DEQ for they have to report the day drilling starts. When you find Magnatite/Black sand you will find the gold I found out. I take a strong magnet and hand held under water metal detector. I found a white quartz rock on our land and my wife brought it to me. WOW (Silver, Gleana, Gold, & Pyrite. I crushed it to 60 mesh and smelted this 3″ rock. Results assayed where 20 grams of silver, 30 grams of Gold, 100 grams of Iron, and 66 grams of Copper. Since I have been working our land picking up Exposed Rock which contained the same metals. Found (3) Diamonds, and Garnet/Cuprite 3.3 ct’s. I’m looking for a partner and we set in a old Valcanic Funnel and Highly Mineralized and High Quartz area and many Fossils. With small equipment and a weeks worth of work recovering conentrates using a hand shovel we recovered 3.3 Troy Oz. of gold and 8.1 oz. silver. Some of my nuggets are on display in Holland,Michigan. In the area we have and land that’s private some miles away from Holland has more gold than was thought. I was told by a old friend that there is a lot of gold in 20 mile radius because he gave me a map that his father and him put together during the depression and looked for it because of tales of Gold bearing land in West Michigan. THEY and there famliy and no kids nor family to pass it down to gave it to me. The Gold was sold in Canada because Americans at the time were not able to have it. This no HOAX. I retired this year and used his map. I won’t release the amount I found and looking for a serious investor for I don’t have the money to mine our land and others who know they have gold on there property in this Glacier Drop zone and natural vein I found. SO anyone interested in investing money and time and will give 50% of the finds email me I’m to old to work by hand after working these area’s and have permission from land owners which the split will come from me. I’m very serious about this. Heavy Equipment large sliuce machine is needed on my land. Estmates are 1 0z. gold per 5 tons of sand gravels not including the silver. Five/Five Gallon pails at 85lbs each gave me 10 grams of gold in a 20′ diameter serface area. Serious personnel ONLY.

  10. I have been panning in lower michigan for about ten years now and still have not gotten a half once of gold altogether. If there is spots were you can get a half once in a year I shure would like to know were they are. And as for scaring little fish maybe the dnr should go pan in a creek for awhile and see just how many little fish get scared, in my experience the sifting of the gravel gets little bugs out from under the stones and the fish if anything have a feeding frenzy. Many times I have seen creek chubs and minnows two feet or less fromm me in a school loving life. Another point I wopul;d like to make is that the gold is not in the silt or the clay of the river or creek it is in the rocks and gravel. I think the DNR should follow me around for a day and see what they are legislating.
    Futhermore I would love to have a small suction dredge to be able to proscpect in Michigan. When the state heres the word dredge they think of a huge barge with an ecxavator on it moving hundreds of yds per hour

  11. This DNR is so out of touch and out of control. That is why my family doesn’t vacation here anymore. I mean they said that did not know anything about prospecting when writing these rules… and finding more than a few flakes is really hard but in the next breath they limit you to 1/2 an ounce a year! Oh thank you your Majesty, for allowing us peasants to disturb your pristine environment. I for one would flip them the bird if I ever found a spot that yielded up more than a half ounce.And to charge a 50.00 fee… (PER YEAR mind you) for the privilege of using a small unpowered sluicebox for two months out of the year!!!!!! What a joke. You are right Don, a swimmer or two disturb the bottom of a stream as much as a gold panner or hand sluicer. And if you have ever seen the scars power boats and tubers and skiers do to the bottom it just tells me that the dnr is out to do one thing, fill the state coffers. I am waiting for the Morel,bird watching, and air breathing permits to be forthcoming.

  12. I’m in the Upper Peninsula and I completely agree with Jean. Will the “law of the land” ban swimming because it stirs up sediment? Or ban fishing because a lure or worm tossed into the water might scare away the little fishes? We have old mines and factories that are polluting our streams and lakes. PCB’s, mercury, dioxins, and a trillion other harmful contaminants are damaging our natural resources. Big business has big money. Fines don’t matter in some cases when there’s a profit. I don’t know if it’s true or not that we can only have 1/2 ounce. But I shot an email to Todd Losee asking him about that and some other things regarding this subject. By the way, the article here speaks of permits. Go to the DEQ website and click in “Permits”. If you can find a permit for the common citizen please let me know. All I saw were permit requests for dredging rivers and lakes, and mines. Nothing for the average prospector. If we hit the Mother Lode though, well, that Mining Permit might just come in handy ;) :).

  13. I am just sorry that they manage something that they know very little about I have watched are DNR go form managers of are resources to it’s all about the money, they want to make all they can but give nothing back, it.s just a shame.

  14. Well…the Great State of Michigan continues in being as non-progressive as always. With all of the restricting laws, regulations it is a wonder that we are allowed to even use Gold Pans instead of our hands. I found it pointedly clear that the restrictions on State Lands limit the possession of fine gold to 1/2 ounce per person, per year. In other words, the State of Michigan maintains its greedy hold on the lives of it’s inhabitants as firm as ever. No wonder that many of us go to other states to enjoy prospecting. With us goes business that is needed here. It is a fact that most will not find more than a few flakes for their efforts. However…if most would be honest, it is the thought of striking it rich in the back of peeps minds that adds excitement to the activity. Our grand state continues in it’s time-honored tradition of removing all hope for the majority of its citizens. Time to pack up, and move to lands of greater riches and freedom.

  15. Pingback: Soaring gold prices drive prospectors to Michigan streams / Michigan River News

  16. I also like panning and feel it is a great oppotunity for family time and neeting new frieds.We have shared the joy with our grandchildren while panning we have seen crabs, turtles,and fish,ect. in their enviroments and we DONOT disturb them because we teach our children and grandchildren that is their home and they may have a families too.
    Panning, sluicing is no different than swimming, wading, conoeing or any other hobbies done in or on the rivers.This is just my opinion. Long time panner

  17. As the “wife” in the above story, lol I can tell you that I don’t know very many prospectors that don’t leave the area that the “worked cleaner and neater than it was when we got there. I always have my kids walk around the eitier area that we were camping in with trash bags before we leave and gather all trash and such. If you like the outdoors this is a wonderful way to spend time in it.

  18. Hmmmm . . . .Maybe they could tie this back into river clean-up. For instance, search for gold in the Flint River . . .and while you are at, fill this trash bag. I like it!

    DNR brings you “Gold Prospecting and River Clean-up”

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