Running a dredge isn't complicated. Getting your own mining claim isn't complicated. Consistently producing paying amounts of gold is hard, and it's a profession. Like all professions it takes skill and knowledge.
I started dredging in the late 1980s with an old triple box 5". Working alone that thing was a bear to move. Every time I moved I had to break it into parts and tote the parts over huge slippery boulders, but the sluice was the worst. Try hauling a triple sluice by yourself sometime, you'll see what I mean. It's an ungainly, heavy and awkward thing, clearly not designed for a person working alone.
My first dredge was patched together with duct tape to keep the pontoons from sinking. Some duct tape and some silicon and you keep those things floating for years. The high pressure hose was actually a low pressure hose, but that took me a few seasons to figure out. I knew something was amiss when I'd be 15' feet under water and the hose would blow off and the dredge would be on the surface running around like a jet ski. Using the right hose seemed to fix it.
Above, the old Keene triple sluice. The dredge I started out with
The old triple box was like an old car. I spent more time working on it than running gravel. If there were engineering drawings for that thing the engineers are still laughing. Nothing was easy to work on. You'd spend a couple hours just replacing the compressor belt which required you to have a gear puller, various sized allen head wrenches which had to be cut down to fit between the bracket and the engine, but putting the allen head screws back in was even more fun. You needed to have a good supply of them.
That dredge taught me to really dislike Briggs and Stratton. After screwing around with the old engine for too many hours I hopped online and bought two 8hp Briggs and Strattons. One to run, and I kept one in the truck for when the first one broke down. It was an awful lot easier to just pull the engine off than try to keep fixing it in the middle of the river. Up the hill I'd go with one, down the hill with the other. It actually worked out pretty good.
After a thief stole the 5" off my claim I discovered Honda engines and never looked back. They were a lot more expensive but they started on the first pull, were quiet and never broke down. I only needed one Honda. I just threw the old Briggs away figuring no one would buy a used Briggs and Stratton.
The replacement for the triple, a brand new 4" with Honda engine
The same day I found the 5" missing I drove up to Redding to see Chip Hess who owns the Miner's Cache. I bought a brand new Proline 4".
Most folks believe the bigger the dredge the better, but if you're working alone the rule is the biggest dredge you can manage. For me that became the 4". I'm sure I still had a lot of years left in me where I could use a 5", but if you're dredging alone it becomes an awful lot of work. With the amount of gold you recover dredging it doesn't make a lot of sense to have a partner, unless he's going to double your gold take, which isn't likely.
With the new reliability of the 4" I found I could move more material, move more often and end the day feeling pretty good. I was getting more gold working the same material. It's not just about the manufacturer's rating of material possibly moved, it's about how much you can move with the dredge. The rated capacities are great if you're dredging pea gravel in only 2' of clear water. It doesn't happen. Boulders get in the way, rocks go up sideways and jam and you have to move the dredge just about every day unless you can just pull up the hose and float it.
The first lesson I learned was you have to be able to manage your equipment. I can manage a 5" but I can't move it as far or as fast as a 4". With a 5" I'll tend to drop it in the water at the nearest convenient spot, which is where everyone else before me dropped their dredge. A 4" opens up a lot more territory for me. If your dredge is too much work for you to move it yourself, then it's too much dredge for you.
If I'm going in to check out a new claim I take my backpack dredge. More often than not I find the claim isn't worth keeping so why tote in a lot of equipment just to find that out. Some call a 4" a sampling dredge, which I guess it could be, but I'm not going to pack it into the deep canyons just to sample. I'll pack in my little dredge. If it shows good gold then comes the 4". A 4" is still a lot of work, and a lot of trips up and down the hill.
Most claims look like this, now throw 80lbs on your back. Lighter is better.
I've seen a lot of abandoned dredges over the years of all sorts. I've never seen many which would run, but I've found some on my claims where I could scavenge a few parts like the foot valve or an air compressor. For some reason the sluice boxes are always pretty screwed up. I found a sluice made out of iron plates one time, I couldn't lift it, it's probably still there.
I've picked up claims and spent months trying to find a way in. One claim I spent two summers trying to find a way in. It turned out there was no easy way in, and with a dredge on your back it really became a nightmare. I don't have that claim anymore. It's far easier to get equipment into a canyon than out of a canyon. Take the little dredge first.
If you're new to dredging, or you want to try dredging think about where you're going to dredge. If you're going to be on a big river or club claim then maybe getting a big dredge and moving the most material makes sense. If you're going to be prospecting then something you can easily get in makes sense. A lot of times two dredges makes sense.
Just another day of breaking her down and moving.
There is no shortage of open areas. It only seems like everything is all claimed up. Whenever I've been ready to move I've never had a problem picking up another claim. They're everywhere. You're not going to find a lot of vacant space on the big rivers like the Yuba, but once you get off the well-hammered path you'll find plenty of areas to work.
There's a lot of books out there, and a lot of advice, but gold doesn't read books and advice comes cheap. Gold isn't always where they say it should be, and it's sometimes pretty thick where they say it shouldn't be. Keep in mind the placer deposits we're mining are the result of the tertiary rivers. The current elevation of the rivers wasn't always where it is. They worked their way down into the canyons and as they gnawed away at the bedrock they left some high benches and a lot of the ravines and gulches have gold which other dredgers walk right by.
I've hit some obvious places that could have had a neon sign saying "Gold Here" and done pretty good. I've checked some areas that were picture perfect and done lousy. I've followed paystreaks which just petered out for now obvious reason and I've hit beautiful bedrock which didn't hold a lick of gold.
All you need to become a dredger is persistence and patience. When you throw your first dredge in the water and pull the starter rope it's unlikely you'll end the day with much in the sluice. That's OK. Don't think you're going to hit it out of the park. The stories about crevices filled with gold are just that - stories. Someone, somewhere found a crevice filled with gold and had a pretty good day - back in the 80's. Today you have to work at. You have to punch holes, evaluate the sluice and move on. You'll hit it. Gold runs spotty, especially after sixty years of dredging the rivers. When you do hit the pack, you'll know it.
When the hydrualic mines were running they dumped so much tailings into the ravines the gold could be anywhere in the canyons. It couldn't follow the rules, it dropped the first convenient place so when you're on a river fed by hydraulic tailings don't overlook the places it shouldn't be.
There are experts on dredging, there are those who make a living off it, and then there are those who'd like to make a living off of it. It takes time and experience and good ground. Once you start dredging you won't stop. You'll be part of a community of folks who keep the dream alive.
Over the years I can proudly say I've lost less money than General Motors. I've hopped from claim to claim; packed into some remote areas; had some really good days and some really lousy days. My objective always remains the same; I'm on the hunt.
It's the hunt which keeps pushing you. Someday I'll hit it, then the next day I'll return for more. There will never be so much gold I just hang up the dredge hoses. If you're just starting, don't worry about what others say; what the books say, or even what your sluice box says. Just start the engine, put the regulator in your mouth and go for it. That's all there is to dredging, pull the rope and go.