Gold Sniping: How to Find Gold Nuggets Underwater

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Written By Alex

Gold sniping is the spiritual opposite of gold mining. Instead of focusing on bigger machines moving more dirt, the prospector find gold one piece at a time, like a marksman. And it works.

“Sniping is my favorite way to find gold because, for one, it’s kind of easy.”

PioneerPauly, How To Snipe For Gold! (Underwater Mining) – Youtube

Sniping means looking for gold nuggets underwater

Sniping is like the more laid back younger brother of gold dredging, and the more fun twin brother of crevicing.

They both involve looking for gold underwater, but instead of using a bunch of motorized systems like surface-supplied air and suction pumps to sluice a lot of material like in gold dredging – when you’re sniping you’re usually wearing a simple mask and snorkel and searching for gold nuggets in cracks in the bedrock in rivers and creeks.

There are tons of benefits to gold sniping.

It’s a peaceful alternative to gold dredging, metal detecting, and other motorized forms of gold recovery because there are no loud motors or beeping sounds.

gold sniping in creeks


You can find real, valuable nuggets and get more gold than you can with a gold pan. It’s also fairly cheap to get started, and you can snipe in lots of places that don’t allow motorized forms of gold recovery. And you can easily access certain areas that might be difficult or impossible with a suction dredge or a highbanker since you only need a few light hand tools.

However, you can only snipe for gold in certain rivers and, like any underwater activity, it can be dangerous if you aren’t careful!

How to choose a sniping spot

finding gold in rivers

“I’m trying to find any accumulation of material that looks like it hasn’t moved in a long time. The closer we can get to the bottom the better our chances are of recovering something nice. It’s amazing how deep metal can hide itself.”

PioneerPauly, How To Snipe For Gold! (Underwater Mining) – Youtube

There are three main elements to consider when choosing a spot to snipe for gold: the gold, the type of ground, and the water.

First and foremost, if you want to successfully snipe gold you need to go to a river or stream that has gold deposits you can find. We talk all about why that is important in our Ultimate Gold Prospecting Guide, so I’m not going to rehash it here.

Bedrock, bedrock, bedrock

The second key to successful sniping is the ground. You need to find a river or a stream with exposed bedrock.

I repeat, the key to successful sniping is EXPOSED BEDROCK.

bedrock with gold

This is incredibly important.

Because gold is heavy it tends to settle or drop as deep as it can go. For those of us who dredge for gold in the Bering Sea that means it tends to drop to the bottom of any layer of loose gravel and sit on a layer of dense clay. When I’m working an area with my dredge nozzle I see the most gold sitting on top of that clay layer under the other gravels and sands.

It’s the same for gold sniping. Gold will drop through river gravels and settle down in the cracks in the bedrock where it can’t drop any further.

That means an important consideration in gold sniping is whether the bedrock is under a lot of gravel or just a little gravel.

When you snipe for gold you dig and fan rocks and gravels with your hands and feet.

As an experiment, go in your backyard and dig a hole with your hands. How far can you comfortably and quickly dig down? 3 inches maybe? The river water helps some, but you don’t want to have to dig much further than a few inches if you want to cover a lot of ground.

river with gold


You’ll want to work an area that has a lot of exposed bedrock where gravel and rock accumulates only shallowly in deep crevices and cracks. That way you can search those cracks without needing a suction dredge or some kind of motorized assistance to get to the gold.

Is a river safe enough to snipe?

The other important consideration is whether a river is safe enough to snipe for gold.

Because gold sniping involves getting in the water, it’s an inherently riskier form of gold prospecting than panning or crevicing.

If a river has Class V rapids it doesn’t matter if there is exposed bedrock and a ton of gold. You can’t snipe for gold there because it would be way too difficult and dangerous.

I’m not an expert on sniping or swimming in rivers, but if you can’t easily hold your body in a stable position while you work without being swept away or turned over, then it’s not a good place to snipe.

rough water in river


Remember that rivers change throughout the year. If it’s peak snowmelt season or immediately after a storm the river will likely be higher and stronger. If it’s late in the summer or there’s been a drought in the area it’s likely a river will be much lower and less powerful.

Mountain runoff rivers and streams are often very cold, especially in northern climates. Besides a good wetsuit, which we’ll discuss later, you need to consider your conditions when you get out of the water. You’ll be wet and likely quite cold after a good gold sniping session. Are you close to your vehicle? Is it easy to make a fire? Plan to warm up quickly after exiting the water, or risk hypothermia.

Reading a river for gold you can snipe

“This spot is an example of a real good, almost ideal, sniping area.”

Gary from Two Toes Adventures, Sniping for gold – here are the basics (Youtube)

Gary from the Youtube channel Two Toes adventures gives us a good rundown of a sniping spot in Northern California in his video “Sniping for gold – here are the basics.” I used screenshots from the video to teach us how to look for good snipe-able areas and I highly recommend you follow him if you want to learn some more.

The more “ideal attributes” a spot has for finding gold the better your odds of finding the shiny stuff. But remember, nothing is guaranteed.

Bering Sea Paydirt Paydirt

Prospect for gold at home!

Buy real gold paydirt and gold-by-the-gram straight from the Bering Sea.

We know where it’s from, because we sucked it up the nozzle ourselves.

The professionals have an expression “gold is where you find it.” That means it can settle in surprising places. So remember to take some time and check around the area, as long as it’s safe to do so. The paystreak might surprise you.

The first feature that make’s Gary’s spot ideal for sniping is that it’s on the inside bend of a river. You can’t see the river, but Gary says the main river turns beyond those large boulders. We’ve talked before about why it’s important to prospect the inside bend of rivers and creeks because of gold’s “racing line.”

The next ideal feature is the large boulders that slow the flow of the water. Gary says the main bend of the river is raging too fast to snipe there.

Plus, in our experience dredging for gold, slowing the water helps catch the gold. We have a rubber flap at the top of our sluice box that slows the water out of our jet and flare that helps gold recovery.

These boulders act the same way as our rubber flap, and the multiple descending crevices below it act as a natural sluice box that would likely catch gold as it travels that way.

Finally, there are several good continuous crevices to search for gold below the large boulder patch. The two on the left are ideal because they don’t have white water, and are possible to search.

The crevice on the right with the red “x” – even though it doesn’t look dangerous – simply has too much white water to see the gold unless you want to spend the time to move large boulders and either redirect or slow the flow.

This doesn’t cover every single element that might increase your chances of finding gold, but it should give you a lot to think about in terms of combining spots where you’re likely to find gold with spots that have the ideal safety and visibility conditions for gold sniping.

Gold Sniping Technique

PioneerPauly gives us a great front row view of a pro gold sniper at work starting at 1:01 of this video.

When you’re underwater you’re looking for any accumulation of material that seems like it doesn’t move much. The presence of heavy materials like black sands or lead, or plant growth could be good indicators of long-settled heavy minerals.

PioneerPauly shows us how he moves boulders and larger rocks, scrapes out cracks, and fans lighter material away with his hand to reveal the gold that’s settled deep in the crevices of the bedrock.

The goal is to get as deep into cracks as you can, because gold as the heaviest mineral around usually settles deeper than the other rocks and minerals around it.

Honestly, describing the technique in words is like trying to describe how to pan for gold. Just watch the video above for a few minutes and you’ll learn more than I can teach in writing 10,000 words!

Tools Needed for Gold Sniping

“You want to be able to carry all your [gold sniping] gear in one hand.”

Gary from Two Toes Adventures, Sniping for gold – here are the basics (Youtube)

Gold sniping is one of the simplest types of gold prospecting and doesn’t require much equipment, but you’ll absolutely need a few specialty items if you want to be safe and effective.

Packing light is one of the biggest benefits of sniping because you can access areas that other gold prospectors or recreational miners can’t reach. If you have to lug a four-inch dredge to your prospecting spot you’re limited by distance and terrain. But because most of your gold sniping equipment can fit in a backpack you can go further.

We’ll break down equipment by what’s “necessary” and what’s optional.

Before we do that, one last note on equipment. Everything that’s light in the river wants to float away. So if it’s made of plastic it needs to be in a bag, secured to your body, or weighed down with something heavier.

securing your scuba gear


Wetsuit, snorkel, mask, gloves, booties

A wetsuit, snorkel and mask are non-negotiable for any serious gold sniper. Mountain run-off streams and rivers are very cold even in warm climates, and a wetsuit will keep you warm.

We use a 7/8mm wetsuit to dive in the Bering Sea, and while you probably won’t need one that heavy, you don’t want one much lighter. In a lot of cases a 3-5mm wetsuit is going to be too cold. It seems that most of the pros recommend a 6.5-7mm wetsuit. It may not be quite necessary in the heat of high noon, but when the sun is off of you you’re going to get cold if you go much lighter than that.

Snorkel, mask, gloves and booties are also important. Don’t skimp on the gloves and booties as it’s often your extremities that get cold first in cold water. There are a lot of different ones you can use.

Aqualung makes some good 7mm booties and there are some fairly cheap 5mm gloves available on Amazon.

gold sniping scuba boots
scuba gloves for gold sniping

There are a million snorkel/mask combos on Amazon. ScubaPro is a brand I trust for quality, but you could go cheaper if you wanted.

snorkle to snipe for gold


Sniping is pretty rough on your neoprene since you’re scraping rocks all day. In the Bering Sea we have the same problem.

We use fast cure 5200, a marine adhesive sealant, to reinforce the parts of our wetsuit that take the most damage, which are the knees and crotch in our business. It works really well to protect the wetsuit, but it may also render your wetsuit unusable for other tasks.

If you’re using it just for gold siping highly recommend reinforcing the parts of your wetsuit that take a lot of wear and tear in the river to make it last longer.

You also may be able to save some money on dive gloves by getting cheaper gloves (those reinforced with kevlar can be twice as expensive) and using 5200 to reinforce the parts that get the most wear and tear. But I haven’t tried it so it will take some experimentation.

Important note on using 5200 on your wetsuit: 5200 DOES NOT STRETCH. So if you apply it to your wetsuit when nothing is in it then you are going to be constricting the stretchiness of that area when you put it on. We will roll a towel up and jam it in the leg of the wetsuit to simulate the stretch of a diver’s leg if we’re reinforcing the knees, for example, before applying the 5200. Let it dry with the towel in there.

Rock pick & pry bar

These two tools are your essentials for gold sniping.

Like most forms of prospecting, gold sniping involves a lot of moving rocks. You can’t get very far just using your hands if a rock is stuck down. The pry bar gives you good leverage on the rocks and the rock pick can help you dig rocks up and pry them out.

These tools are especially effective when used together. Many use the rock pick to hit the pry bar like a chisel and free or break rocks.

Estwing is the gold standard for these tools. You can buy a combo set for less than $100 that’s by far the most reviewed, most used, and highest rated on Amazon. Unlike some of these other tools, it’s not really worth shopping around for alternatives.

prybar gold sniping


Gold snuffer bottle

Don’t go sniping without a snuffer bottle! It’s funny the gold will be sitting right in front of your eyes on a rock and it’s amazing how difficult small gold flakes and pieces are to pick up without this little bottle. Try picking up one with your fingers if you want to have a bad day.

I’ve never found a GREAT snuffer bottle. They all range from bad to OK in my experience. They’re cheaply made and perform differently in different temperatures and slight variations in manufacturing. The Garrett Gold Guzzler is what we use to clean gold up in Nome. It works fine enough.

snuffer bottle for gold sniping

Remember to weigh your snuffer bottle down with a rock on the inside so it doesn’t float away! It’s also helpful to strap it to your body somehow.

I wouldn’t put it on a necklace or a rope around your neck as “every dangle is a tangle” underwater and the last thing you want is it to get it caught on a rock and not be able to lift your head above water. I’ve seen guys get creative with a chest or an arm mount that they can slide the bottle into when not using it.

Another tip is to paint it a vibrant color. It helps to spot it floating away, but even if it doesn’t float way you can find yourself looking for it constantly as you’re working. There aren’t many natural bright reds, yellows, and pinks underwater so it’s easy to spot if you use one of those colors.

Crevice tool (optional)

It’s handy to have some kind of tool to clean crevices out with when you have heavy minerals that are hard to fan away. I don’t think this is absolutely necessary as rock pick and fanning will do most of what you want, but sometimes you need something longer and thinner to get into certain cracks in the bedrock.

ASR Outdoor makes a good cheap set of 6 of these. You’ll probably use them a lot and burn through them fairly quickly, so it’s great to have multiples.

You can get crevicing tools that are over a foot long. I can’t say if you’ll need those in your area or not – a lot of it depends on what the bedrock is like and how you like to work.

tools for getting gold in rocks


Locking tweezers (optional)

These are perfect for grabbing “pickers.” Pieces of gold that are too big for the snuffer bottle but too small to be called a “nugget.” They look big enough to grab with your fingers, but when you realize that everything looks bigger underwater and that it’s impossible to grab tiny things with 5mm dive gloves on you’ll probably want to whip these bad boys out.

It’s also helpful to pick up things like coins, bullets, and other heavy metal objects you can find that get stuck in cracks.

It’s one of the only products on Amazon marketed to fishermen and surgeons alike. Here’s a good set you can buy with Amazon Prime that ranges from a short 5.5″ to a huge 24″ size.

locking tweezers gold sniping

Conclusion

I hope you learned a lot about gold sniping today!

PioneerPauly, Two Toes and Tassie Boys Prospecting are my favorite Youtubers who share their sniping adventures. I recommend checking their videos out as they have already published hours of their techniques online.

If you’re new to gold prospecting then check out our Ultimate Guide to Gold Prospecting!

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