‘Rattlesnake’ Randy keeps panning

By Leslie Silverman


In the late 1800s people flocked from all over to the Black Hills to pan for gold.

The Homestake Gold Mine in Lead was the largest and deepest gold mine in North America until its closure in 2002.

“Rattlesnake” Randy, a panner for over 20 years, works at one of the few operational mines still in existence in the Hills.

“You’re going back in time just like the old days,” said Nelson of the tours he leads. “We go out there with buckets of dirt. I give you a run down of how to run a sluice box how to set it up. I give you a run down of what they did back there in the 1800s.”

Nelson has panned all over the county.

“I started out in California and when I started out I just got hooked on it and I been doing it ever since,” said Nelson. “I went and took lessons from a panner” in a place similar to the one he works at now.

Nelson is currently a panner at the Big Thunder Gold Mine in Keystone. Nelson loves everything about his job and pans year- round.

“Being outdoors, it’s good exercise, if I find a little gold that’s a bonus,” he said. “I get to meet people from all around the world and just have fun with them.”

Randy got his nickname from the hat he wears  thathe made himself.

“I got all the rattles all the way around,” he said. “A few even come from Keystone.”

There’s still plenty of gold to be found in the Hills, he said.

“When they (old miners) hit that solid bedrock it was too much work to break that stuff apart,” he said. “So they just kept moving on. They just ran all the gravel. But they only recovered about 60 percent of what they ran. The good stuff is down in that bedrock.”

The gold most find nowadays will likely be in flake form.

“If you move dirt you’ll probably find some gold,” he said. “The Black Hills aren’t known for nuggets. They say 98 percent of the gold here would fall through your window screen. Nuggets are rare.”

Some people do get lucky, said Nelson.

“One guy a couple years ago pulled a $400 nugget out,” he said.

While Nelson loves his work, he admits it’s not a way to get rich.

“If you go out to get rich you’re going to be disappointed a lot,” he said. “But if you do it as a hobby then it’s fun every time. You can’t lose.”

The colorful character jokes that, “you know how to make a million dollars gold panning? Start with two million.”


  1. Rattlesnake Randy has been a great friend to my wife and I over the years and has been a great mentor to me. He had made me realize that if you have an appreciation for the outdoors (in this case the Black Hills) then you will have a blast every time and the gold is just a bonus.

    Thank you for writing this article. Now after reading this, I think I might go outside and pan some promising dirt that I’ve had for awhile now. After all, it’s a balmy 24 degrees out now. My wife thinks I’m crazy but I have Randy to thank for it 😜.