Metal detecting in rivers and streams is a whole new ballgame compared to dirt fishing on land. In my experience, you find a completely different set of treasures. There are fewer coins, but much more jewelry and dropped objects, like knives, fishing gear, and nautical hardware.

If you’re really lucky, you might even find the discarded engagement ring from an angry fiancée! Actually, when people swim or wade in the water, rings come loose and slip off, and jewelry gets dislodged more easily.

By the way, we need a metal detecting term for water activities. You can’t call it dirt-fishing or coin shooting. Any ideas?

Why Metal Detect in Rivers or Streams – Goals

In most cases, you don’t really need to strictly define your goals. You can just go down to the river and find a good spot, and wade in. (Pun intended.) A good place to start is at a sandy beach, or where boats, rafts and kayaks are launched or land, Figure 1.

Boat and Bathing Areas for Metal Detecting
Boat and Bathing Areas for Metal Detecting

Figure 1. Boat landings and bathing areas are a good place to start detecting.

On the other hand, if you have specific things you want to find, there may be different ways to approach the challenge. Some suggestions follow.

Metal Detecting in Rivers for Coins and Jewelry:

  • Search under bridges and overpasses.
  • Scan the water and sand below vista points and lovers’ leaps.
  • Search popular beaches.

Pro Tip: Shallow water and a sand bar beneath a pedestrian bridge is a great place to detect for coins. Read more about Metal Detecting at a Beach in this article: Metal Detecting at Myrtle Beach

Metal Detecting Streams for Historic Relics:

  • Find places along rivers where there were shallow water crossings.
  • Find intersections of shallow rivers with known pioneer trails.
  • Use history books and old maps to discover these places.

Metal Detecting in a River for Gold and Silver:

  • Look for areas along the river where there are outcroppings of gold-bearing quartz rock, or known silver deposits.
  • Search just below and somewhat down-stream of such rocks.
  • Detect in the sand dunes at bends in the river.
  • Search in the sand dunes that appear where the river changes from a narrow passage to a wider stream.

What Kind of Metal Detecting Equipment is Needed for Rivers and Streams

Detecting in water environments definitely takes some special equipment.

Most detector coils are waterproof, but it’s wise to check the seal for cracks or worn-away insulation. Any breaches in the seal can ruin your coil. Many special purpose detectors have a submersible control box too, but be sure to check your user manual.

Peripheral River Metal Detecting Equipment

Suggested add-ons to your toolbox:

  • Waterproof pin-pointer.
  • Long-handled sand scoop.
  • Small spade shovel for rocky bottoms.
  • Prospector hammer, if you are searching for gold or silver ore.

If your looking for a COMPLETE GUIDE to Metal Detecting digging tools read this guide: Metal Detecting Digging Tools Selecting the BEST

Are Clothes Important Metal Detecting?

Look into wading shoes or rubber boots. There are a whole slew of footwear products for shallow wading, from neoprene socks to quick-drying sneakers. Examples.

You may need fisherman’s waders for deeper water, Figure 3. Some folks even buy wet suits for deep or cold water detecting. This of course is a much more dedicated dive into the sport, and is not right for everyone.

Metal Detecting with Waders in High Water
Metal Detecting with Waders in High Water

Figure 3. Water higher than knee deep is going to require waders and fishing gear.

Suggested Metal Detecting Items to Have

  • Windbreaker jacket for breezy conditions.
  • Appropriate dress for climate and season.
  • Bug spray.
  • Spare dry socks

How to be SAFE Metal Detecting in a River

Water can be dangerous. Quick moving and frigid water is particularly hazardous. See news story.

A 100-mile per hour wind can knock a man over. Water, however is 784 times more dense than air. Water carrying dirt and mud along with it is even heavier. That means that water moving at a walking pace, 2 to 3 miles per hour. is enough to throw you off balance. Don’t take risks, especially if you are detecting alone.

Safety suggestions:

  • Don’t wade deeper than your ankles in swift flowing water or in surf with waves.
  • Venture out with at least one other friend.
  • Wear waterproof boots or waders and thermal socks in cold water.
  • Wear a life jacket.
  • Beware of slippery mud.

Pro Tip: Remember too that rivers and streams can hide fishing hooks and sharp objects.

Other Methods of Metal Detecting in Rivers

There are several variations on river detecting.

One is to use a row boat, kayak, or canoe to sit in while hanging your detector over the side. This will allow you to access small islands, midstream sand bars, and hard to reach spots along the river.

Another variation is the use of powerful magnets. This is called magnet fishing. You tie a powerful magnet to a rope and dip it in the water. Technically, this does not use metal detecting equipment, but it’s good for “fishing” magnetic objects from a boat, from a pier or from a bridge. For more on magnet fishing see Example 1, and Example 2.

Caution: Twice I’ve lost the magnets when rocks, trees, and snags entangle the rope, and you cannot retrieve the magnet.

Finally, always use this rule: Common sense, good judgment, reasonable action.

Do Some Research BEFORE Metal Detecting in a Stream

As I mentioned above (II. Goals), a little research can provide a lot of help in picking a river site.

Use a map application to study the rivers and streams near you. The best places to hunt are near sand banks which are formed by fast moving water.

Look for rivers in narrow canyons that fan out onto a wider, flatter landscape. This is where all the fast moving debris picked up by the swift water will be deposited in the shallows or in a sand bank.

I’m a strong believer in the “treasure is where you find it” mantra. That said, without any mental conflict, I also believe it pays off to know some of the science of river flow.

Figure 4 illustrates a typical mid-stream sand bar with the darker shaded areas representing the higher shear velocity of water, which can be translated into the speed of the water flow. Coins and metals, especially gold are relatively heavy. It takes a lot to move them. When they are on the move, the first slowdown in the current will deposit them into the stream bed.

Where to find GOLD Metal Detecting in a River
Where to find GOLD Metal Detecting in a River

Figure 4. Water velocity around a mid-stream sand bar. Image adapted from article: Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 10, Issue F4, Dec. 2005, “The fluid dynamics of river dunes.”

In this figure there are two places that are best for coin searching. These are 1) the gray areas just to the south and west of the tip of the sand bar, and 2) the gray area near the south-east end. The lighter debris will be deposited in the light areas just to the south of the island.

Figure 5 shows the same prime spots for the down-stream side of underwater sand dunes. These are the best locations to find heavy objects released by the flowing water.

Look on line, too, for news stories of bridges or piers that collapsed or were washed away and not rebuilt. Lots of people drop things off piers and bridges, sometimes by accident, sometimes to discard, sometimes just to make a splash.

Research trails used by the early settlers and see where they crossed the river in shallow areas. Look for open spaces along rivers where travelers might want to rest or camp.

Finding Treasure in a River or Stream Metal Detecting
Finding Treasure in a River or Stream Metal Detecting

Figure 5. Dynamics of underwater sand dunes. Image adapted from article: Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 10, Issue F4, Dec. 2005, “The fluid dynamics of river dunes.”

Feel the Love of River and Stream Metal Detecting

Now, if you will, allow me to take a diversion for a minute to say how thoroughly charming metal detecting can be. This is not just for the finds, but also for the many related fields of study that grow seamlessly into your hobby.

You think you are studying metal detecting and rivers, and soon you’re off into hydrodynamics, physics, weather, geology, and history, to name just a few of the many sciences and skills that can help you in your detecting.

Don’t fight this tendency. Instead learn and appreciate how everything is connected. Who knows? Maybe your next adventure will include rock collecting or hiking. It’s all good!

Find Good Rivers to Metal Detect

Do you have a river near you? Isn’t it a main attraction? People love to congregate around rivers and river beaches.

Rivers have the advantage of carrying a lot of water, and therefore a lot man-made objects along the way. Just be careful of the hazards of fast moving water. (See III. C. Safety concerns, above.)

You CAN hunt in mud, too, but it’s a lot messier and slippery than the sandy parts of the river. It might be better to stick to the clean banks and dunes.

The best places to hunt:

  • The deep hollows carved out of the riverbed at the upstream end of a sandbank.
  • The trailing, downstream end of the sandbank. This is where the most recent deposits will be found.
  • The sudden drop-off of underwater riverbed dunes. This is where turbulent water will release its cargo.
  • The first shallows that appear downstream from a narrow passage or canyon.
  • At sharp turns in the river.
  • At beaches, swimming holes, and parks along the river.
  • Search for areas where bedrock is exposed under the water. Look in the cracks.

Recent studies of river flow suggest the best places to hunt for depth and for deposition of coins and debris. For more on river dynamics, see this study.

Figure 4 shows the deepest gullies to search around sand dunes, and Figure 5 shows the best areas to search in submerged dunes for recent deposits. Again, see the above study for more detail than you could ever use. (Wink!)

Best times to hunt:

  • Shortly after a large storm or surge in river flow.
  • During dry spells where more of the riverbed is exposed.
  • At times when water is cut off or diverted for construction or emergencies.

Sand bars are formed by the deposit of dirt from fast-moving waters at places where the flow slows down, Figure 6. The deepest part of the dune will have the oldest deposits. If there is a small dune made up of sand that you can dig into, this should provide some odd treasures. Be sure you are not breaking any local laws by digging in the river.

Metal Detecting at River Bend
Metal Detecting at River Bend

Figure 6. A good place to start your quest is where a narrow, fast moving section of the river ends in a broad, shallow fan, where the water deposits all its cargo onto the riverbed.

Again, the best places to search are the deep gullies near the upstream end of the sand dune and the sharp drop-off at the down-stream end of underwater dunes. There are also debris collecting areas on the downstream side of large boulders.

What Kinds of Streams are BEST for Metal Detecting?

I find that smaller streams are a great choice for metal detecting. My experience is the little streams are more common, less dangerous, and just as generous in giving up little treasures. Always choose places where people interact with the river.

The best places and times to hunt are about the same as for rivers. Streams generally have more areas of ankle deep water, which is easier to navigate and dig.

A. Starting tips (for both rivers and streams)

  • Prepare yourself with knowledge of the area, from historic research and maps.
  • Bring a small bag or container for your finds.
  • Carry a cell phone.
  • Leave in your car spare gloves, shoes, socks, and pants.
  • Have an effective bug spray,
  • Compass or GPS, and local map.

Finally, do the world a favor. When you come across some junk, dump it in your garbage bag. I see this same error over and over again. A detectorist finds a pull tab and throws it right back into the environment. Probably another thousand dirt fishers will come along and repeat the same error.

In the same vein of service, you’ll find lots of children and curious adults asking about your hobby. Be a good ambassador for the sport and take a minute to explain how it works and how much fun it is.

There are several good articles designed to help you prepare for water detecting. Example 1. Example 2.

B. Follow-up Tips

When you get out of the water, here are some suggestions to make you ventures more successful.

  • If you’ve been in salty or dirty water, rinse off all your equipment. This prevents rust and sticky zippers, not to mention extending the life of your gear.
  • Keep a log of what you’ve found and where.
  • Make note of things you’ve learned for your next trip out.
  • Dump your garbage bag in the trash.

Should You Metal Detect in a River or Stream?

Streams and rivers provide an interesting variation on land-based detecting. It’s relatively easy, especially for small streams and creeks. The finds that you discover are often qualitatively different. There are generally more relics to be found – my personal experience – but plenty of coins and jewelry too.

You may have to add to your collection of tools, such as water sneakers and sand scoops, but these are useful in other aspects of your life too.

Remember the cautions discussed – Be Safe! Fast water can be dangerous, your safety is way more important than any treasure.

Good videos on river detecting:

  1. River crossings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwS6S4I1g9g.
  2. Gold hunting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyYjFDAwor4.
  3. Jewelry detecting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WQc4mG6_Pc.
  4. Ocean detecting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5vg_Yi42Ok.
  5. Relic hunting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5hi4_zLEIM.
  6. Tips for beginners: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iy27Rceovfw.
  7. Tourist spots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6rbDOkwUxA.
  8. Deep and cold water tips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvG67PVdODc.
Vince Migliore_Author Metal Detecting Book

Vince Migliore is a writer and researcher. He has written numerous magazine articles on metal detecting and three books. His latest book is “The Art and Science of Metal Detecting,” available in paperback at Amazon.