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Cash may be king but these days, some Americans are giving up their day jobs to pan for gold.

As gold prices move closer to $1,000 per ounce, modern-day prospectors like Fred Milton, who got rid of his printing business in New Richmond, Ohio, last September, are moving to California in search of the mother lode. 

“People say that it’s going to be tough,” says Milton. "But I’m going to make a claim and try to get rich.”

Prospecting for Gold v. the Golden Arches

Good luck. “It’s fun hunting for gold, and it’s fun finding it,” says Josh Holpkamp, an amateur prospector and member of the Temecula Valley Prospectors in Temecula, Calif. “But, if you’re in it for the money, you can make more working at McDonald’s (Stock Quote: MCD).”

In the three years he's panned for gold, Holpkamp's found between $10 and $20 worth at a time, but he hasn’t found enough to quit his day job as an ambulance worker.

Milton is unphased. He's already bought a $6,000 dredger that will help him sift through the layers of rock and mud lining the Yuba River. Until then, he’s got his savings, a camper and his dream. “I’m going to make it work,” he says.

Panning for gold doesn’t have to be a full-time job, but you can have some inexpensive fun (and probably make a few bucks in the process).

Here are a few places where you can find out what you need to become a modern-day prospector:

Where to Look for Gold

Look up places where gold has been found previously. According to the Bureau of Land Management, modern-day prospectors can set up claims in 19 states including Arizona, California and Colorado. However, federal lands, including national parks and wildlife refuges, are closed to prospectors. If you want to learn more about claims, your local BLM office is a good place to start. Recreational prospecting areas are another option, and you can find some online.

Prospecting clubs also often have claims. The Gold Prospectors Association of America is a national club with many local chapters. Online resources such as Gold Miner's Headquarters and Mini Gold also have local club listings.

How to Learn

Whether you’re interested in becoming a prospector for the day or for a lifetime, you’ll find plenty of people willing to teach you how to find gold. Some , such as the Mother Lode Goldhounds, Coarsegold Gold Prospectors and Gold Prospectors of Colorado offer classes for would-be gold panners.

What It Costs

New panners don’t need much beyond a gold pan to separate the gold from rocks and sediment, a sieve keep larger cobbles out of the pan and a sample vial to collect your gold, says Pat Keene, a sales manager for Keene Engineering. A basic kit with these items can cost you about $19.95. More advanced tools, such as a sluice or a dredger can be more expensive. Gold Fever Prospecting, and Black Cat Mining are good places to look for materials.

The Big Pay Off

Of course the real question is: How much can you make? Miner Chauncey Wright once discovered a 54-pound nugget in Sawmill Peak, Calif., which was valued at $10,690 when he pulled it out of the ground in 1859. But these days the average finds vary from $10 to $40. At least you can keep what you find, even if you’re on a prospecting club’s claim.

If you think you have made a find, you can do what many modern-day prospectors do and keep the gold as a souvenir, or you can sell it.

While there are plenty of cash-for-gold companies on the Internet, you may want to avoid potential scams by unloading it at sites such as eBay (Stock Quote: EBAY), or by consulting with the club you dig with about your options.

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