We all remember the day we found our first big nugget. Big is a relative term, with each of us defining it differently, depending on what our big nugget was or will be.
The biggest chunk of gold found by someone I know personally was a 25lb quartz and gold boulder which yielded about 2 lbs of gold. It was found in an old hydraulic pit, but that would be a story all by itself.
I know another guy who is good at metal detecting. When you ask him about good days he talks in terms of pounds of gold, not nuggets. Then there is the story of the guy who found 150 ounces in a single crack near Downieville. In perspective a one ounce nugget isn't so big, but it's big to me.
One summer I'd packed my 5" down canyon a fair ways which made my walk about double each day, but I wanted to check out a straight stretch of river, mainly because it ran east-west and I could get some sun on my back. I'd been recovering about an ounce of week on this claim, and I thought I could do better if I moved down river deeper into the canyon. I spent the morning packing equipment down, then put the dredge together.
My one ounce a week came primarily from fine gold with an occasional nugget, but most of the nuggets were on quartz. It seemed you could end up with an ounce of fines, or hardly any fines and an ounce of nuggets, you just never knew before hand what it would be.
Every river in the Motherlode is different and it takes a while to get to know the river, and even the section of the river. This river ran a lot of hydraulic tailings and had a very well defined layer running a few feet above the bedrock. There was also a lot of overburden and some really big boulders. As this layer was typically only fine gold I would punch right through this and head for bedrock.
That was harder than it sounds. From the top looking down it seemed to be mainly large cobbles. Once you got past the cobbles there was a layer of boulders. Coming at a boulder from the top down is a really hard way to tackle it, but there was no way to punch any other hole. So I'd go down a few feet, hit a boulder, go to the left or right, get an opening only to find it stacked on another boulder. Each time I did this I was certain I'd get around the boulder and hit bedrock, but I never did.
Most of the stretch I'd moved to was pretty well boulder packed. I'd get stuck, pick up and move a few yards and start heading down again. By the time I'd hit bedrock I had about one square foot of dredgeable area and no way to move sideways. So up and out again.
A few days of this and I found myself at the end of the day sitting on the bank and wondering why I was doing so lousy. The constant moving only to find yourself boulder packed once again was getting a little tiring. On the way down I'd run into enough one pennyweight nuggets to keep me interested, but I should have been doing better. Running a 5" you can move a lot of material during the day, and since I was mainly just clearing overburden I didn't check the box unless I was moving, or quitting. At the end of everyday there would be a few nuggets sitting in the box, but I'd shifted around so much I had no idea where they were coming from, I never saw them while I was moving the material which was primarily just overburden.
I decided to pick up and move again. This meant disassembling the dredge and packing all the parts even further down the canyon. The banks were just more boulders, the type you have to crawl over which makes it tought to carry a 8hp engine by yourself, but the sluice was no day at the park either. I moved another hundred yards and put the dredge back together. This section of the river ran east-west so I knew at least the next day I would have some good sun on me for the whole day. The north-south stretches in the deep canyon would only get about 4 hours. I would time my breaks based on the sun. I would try to do my first run before the sun came over the easter ridge. I would do two runs then break for lunch with the sun shining on the creek, then I would do one more run after the sun slipped behind the western ridge.
The next day I was dredging in the sunshine all day which was a welcome change. In June the mountain rivers still run really cold with snow melt and having the sun on your back helps make it bearable. I'd put the dredge in on a nice 100 yard straight stretch where a lot of overburden had dropped out. The water depth to the overburden was about 4 foot which made it a nice depth to put a regulator in and work lying down.
With the sun shining on the river it was a nice day to work. Just the sound of the engine running overhead as I took apart the cobbles and started working my way down again. I finally got a hole punched to bedrock so I now knew the overburden depth in this section was about 4'. Ahead of me were some smaller boulders, the type you can deadlift and roll out of the hole. I'd rolled a couple of them out of the way and used the hose to move the smaller cobbles when I ran into another one which was probably a hundred pounds or so.
Taking my time I cut enough material from below it where I was able to get under it and lift. After a few tries I got it to move, then with a big pry bar I got it to roll. With a few more lifts I had it out of the hole. I leaned back against the back of the hole and took the regulator out of my mouth to catch my breath for a few minutes while the smoke cleared.
After a while I put the regulator back in and grabbed the nozzle and started clearing the overburden which was below the boulder, not paying a lot of attention because I still had a couple of feet to bedrock. The glint of sunshine off a piece of metal caught my eye and I pulled the nozzle back enough to just suck in the smoke. I looked down and saw what I thought to be just a shiny piece of foil. I put the nozzle aside out of the hole and took another look. I didn't think it was a nugget, it was too high in the overburden to be a nugget. I reached down and pulled it out and there in my hand was a one ounce gold nugget on quartz.
I didn't scream Eureka, or even get excited, I pulled off my mask and looked at it.I thought it can't be gold, I'm too high in the overbuden and gold shouldn't be there. I flipped it around in my hand and there was no doubt I was looking at a big nugget which had enough quartz with it it was floating in the tailings layer.
I finally realized where all those little quartz nuggets were coming from, they were all riding the tailings layer. The same layer I was just punching through day after day hoping to get to bedrock.
From that day forward I quit trying to reach bedrock and just began working the tailings layer. My gold recovery almost tripled and I got a lot of nice nuggets out of that layer, but I never found another one like that first big nugget. The interesting thing about that nugget is it was a fresh break off a much bigger piece. If I had to guess, the piece I got was about 1/3 of what the total nugget would be, and as far as I know it's somewhere in that tailing layer.