A great river for gold panning, fishing and spectacular scenery
The popular methods of gold panning work best on small streams with lesser water flow rates. They don't always work well on the Columbia River when it is running high. This is due to the water denying access to the rich lower gravel bars. The same is true for other rivers in, or near, flood stage. With proper technique, however, you can still pan for gold at these times.
The river is also home to resident and migratory fish offering great angling experiences before or after your gold panning time. Consider using top quality fishing gear, however, as the water is very swift and some of the fish available are large. Inferior gear is not capable of landing fish in these conditions.
Obviously when the river is high, you have to respect the power of the river and stay well back from the raging current. The banks of the river are often very steep so if you fall in, you may have an extremely difficult time getting out. The richer gravel deposits are well hidden under the water. You need to go to the higher gravel bars and change tactics. These areas will not likely yield much. There is still gold to be had if you are lucky. You may have to work harder and smarter. It is very possible that the high river water will be very cold, too. Consider bringing waterproof gloves. Insulated gloves are also a good idea. These will allow you to pan with your hands in the water longer. A lot of the water comes from the melting snow in British Columbia and Eastern Washington. Obviously this water will be very cold so protect yourself.
Check out the banks of the river. You want to be on an inside curve. That's the side that slows the water down. Heavy material, such as gold, can be carried along by fast water, but it drops in slow water. The outside curve of the river has very fast, turbulent water. This will carry away gold. The inside curve has very peaceful, slower moving water. Any gold in this area will drop into the gravel. If you can't find an inside curve on the high bank of the river, keep looking. The outside curve is not likely to be productive for your gold panning efforts.
Search the banks looking for large boulders that are high and dry now but that have been totally immersed at some point in the past. Such rocks could be dry for 1, 2 or 10 years but are worth exploring. Any hidden gold will be there until found as it won't rust away, of course. A candidate rock will have a relatively gentle slope pointing up river with a steep drop at the top. It might look like a triangle in a very rough way.
Think about how water has traveled over your rock. It wells up at the bottom and then goes over the top and down the river. Any gold nuggets or flakes in suspension are traveling too. They may hit the base of the rock and lodge there. Or they may proceed up the slope of the rock only to drop in the cavity formed by the peak of the rock. Dig out gravel at the base of the leading slope of the rock and see what you get. Gold is heavy so keep digging down at this trial area. Move smaller rocks out of the way. Also make sure that you try the gold that might be deposited in the cavity on the immediate downstream side of the rock. Dig down as deeply as you can here as well. With the amount of rock and gravel in the river, you likely won't get too far with recreational tools. It should still be fun.
You may find that your efforts panning gold at high water won't yield like late season panning. Still, you should be able to get black sand first. This is magnetite which shows that your technique is good. When you get black sand, chances are that any gold in a pan full of gravel would be retained as well. If you are a little luckier, your pan will have small colors of gold. These will be like very tiny bits of confetti. You might even have panned larger gold flakes or gold nuggets from the banks. You should keep any black sand that you find for later analysis. It often has microscopic gold in it. Use a magnet to extract any magnetite, which is worthless. Discard this. The rest of the black sand might have some gold. When you collect a lot of this sand, you can consider ways to extract any fine gold that you might have in it.
Remember that a lot of water flows down the river at all times. There is always gold in this water and you can pan it. The techniques you need to use during high water are different than normal but they can be rewarding. With gold prices at $1200 per ounce and more, you don't need to find much to be successful. It's always fun to pan for gold and to show your riches to friends and family. Remember that good techniques that are successful when the Columbia River is high will often work well in the late summer as well. When you can collect gold at high water times, the effort at low water will be quite easy. You will then get deep into the river channel where the richer gravels can be found. Good luck getting gold.
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