The Longest Yard
By: Eric Magnuson
Last year my good friend Brandon “Dr. Tones” Neice and I made it out for a half-day hunt. Brandon and I first met in 2009 after being hired at the same fire department— he as a full-time firefighter/paramedic, and I as a paid-on-call firefighter/EMT. He learned that I was an avid detectorist, and he had just purchased a new detector. Being the same age, with the same interests, we soon became fast friends and hunting partners.
That half-day hunt turned into a detecting adventure to remember. Prior to our hunt I had spent the previous six months logging core on a mineral exploration project, and even though I made it back home a few days each month I rarely had the time or energy to do much detecting. After finishing the project I rewarded myself (with my wife’s blessing) and upgraded to the new Minelab CTX 3030. Now I was eager to put my new toy to work.
Our first stop was an old home off a small state highway that winds through Southwest Idaho. The property looked promising: a two-story home built in 1903, with large maple trees lining the yard. Brandon quickly popped a shallow “V” nickel at between two old maples on the southern edge of the property— a great start! Next we each found a relatively modern Wheat cent at almost 9''. The rest of the yard yielded only modern clad 6-8'' deep. Disgusted, Brandon mumbled, “Want to try that house a few blocks down?”
“Yeah, let’s roll,” I replied.
As we pulled along the curb, this home didn’t look nearly as impressive. Built in the late 1920s, it could be considered only relatively old even for our region, but the large yard and short grass were a welcome sight. A small walkway divided the front yard into two sections, the larger of which made up about 75% of the front yard. Our unofficial rule is that whoever finds the property and gets permission has first choice on where to hunt. Knowing this, Brandon smartly pointed to the large section. “I’ll take this side,” he said, smiling. We started swinging opposite each other on each side of the small concrete walk, and within five minutes we had popped some modern coins and a few shallow Wheat cents.
Shallow Wheats are always a good sign. Depending on the type of soil, coins in some areas sink much quicker than in others. In fact, average coin depth depends on many factors, including landscaping (laying sod on top of existing topsoil), soil type, as mentioned, and even climate. In addition, decomposing grass can slowly add to the height of ground level. As a result, even a target that doesn’t actively “sink” can be buried over time. The good news is that finding older coins at a relatively shallow depth often means their even older cousins will also be shallow and easier to find.
We didn’t have to wait long for the first silver coin to appear. Within ten minutes we had each dug a silver Roosevelt dime along the front walk. More silver popped out only 2' away, this time a Mercury dime. Two minutes later, Brandon excitedly dug another Mercury dime. This was getting good! The first 30 minutes produced over eight silver dimes and a dozen Wheats.
“This yard is unbelievable,” I said.
“I know, right?” Brandon replied.
Equally pleasing was the lack of modern clads. Almost every coin was from the first half of the 20th century. This is the benefit of hunting at homes of the elderly who’ve been lifelong owners. Detecting at homes with young children often means that old coins and relics will be covered by a layer of modern coins, pop tabs, and trash that must be carefully sorted. Properties like the one we were working are a rare and welcome surprise.
As usual, it didn’t take long for competition to brew. Brandon had started the habit of texting me photos of the great finds he’d been making while I was working on a drilling project outside Missoula, Montana. It seemed friendly at first, but over time I got the feeling that his messages had morphed into “humblebrag”— intended to remind me of what I was missing. Now that I was back, he had to see if I had lost my touch. Each silver coin dug was accompanied by good-natured ribbing and an updated score. “Team Digler 4-3 lead!” I exclaimed.
His sports announcer reply came only a minute later: “Team Tones has tied it up!”
Within the hour I had finished my section. “Hunt over there and stay out of my area,” he joked, pointing to the farthest corner of the yard. With a smirk I made my way to the corner and resumed the hunt. After five short feet I got a screaming signal at 5'', checked the target ID display, and saw a promising, rock-solid reading. Cutting a plug revealed a gleaming Washington silver quarter.
“Big silver!” I yelled.
“No way!” he retorted.
Less than three minutes later I heard the telltale sound of multiple targets. This time two Mercury dimes smiled back at me from the bottom of the hole.
“I can’t believe I sent you over there!” laughed Brandon.
The sun was getting low, and we decided to call it a night, returning the next day to finish the yard and determine a winner. Brandon was obviously starting to feel the pressure; he began to swing faster as his focus intensified. The score was starting to get out of hand and so was my confidence. Unfortunately, within the first 30 minutes he narrowed the gap with a barrage of silver Mercury and Roosevelt dimes. We continued to alternate Wheats and silver until the yard was finished. Confident that we had covered every last inch of the property, we retreated to the shade of the porch to total our finds. Final silver score? Eric, 10; Brandon, 9— an impressive tally and a new personal record for both of us! Between us, we had uncovered 19 silver coins and 75 Wheat cents in one yard.
Returning home from our great yard, we passed an old dilapidated farmhouse. I stopped by the home next door to see if the neighbors knew anything about it. Luckily, the neighbor also turned out to be the owner, and he kindly gave us permission to hunt the property. I wandered my way over to a row of trees that border the original driveway and dug an antique lever lock, c. 1898. Except for a small scrape from my shovel, it looked to be in fantastic condition. If only it had been attached to a chest! A short while later Brandon dug a beautiful 1898 Barber dime. Before we could even get started hunting the yard, the sun again dropped behind the Idaho Mountains. What a way to end the day... cleaning out one spot, only to find another with great potential on the way home!
We’ve hunted dozens of yards that looked fantastic but yielded little. At first glance, this 1920s home didn’t look like anything special, but it rewarded us with one of the best days imaginable. It helps that we try to stick to certain criteria when evaluating which properties to hunt. These aren’t set in stone, however, and we often just follow our gut; but having guidelines helps us focus on the best properties available. Our general criteria change depending on the type of detecting we’re doing: ghost towns, mining camps, residential yards, street tear-outs, etc. For example, the long days of summer provide a few extra hours of light each weekday evening— enough time to hunt older homes in the local area.
In these situations we’re content to look for silver— any silver. Quarters and dimes minted prior to 1965 contain 90% silver, but there are other silver coins out there, too: 1942-1945 nickels (35% silver) and 1965-1970 Kennedy half dollars (40% silver). We specifically target homes built prior to 1940, but even those built in the ’40s offer ample opportunities to find Standing Liberty and silver Washington quarters, Mercury dimes, and Wheat cents. This is what works for us in our region. Your own criteria will differ depending on your preferences and local history.
can be relatively few and far between. You’ll get the most out of this hobby if you love it for its intrinsic value. A good friend reiterated this principle to me years ago. While fishing I began to complain about the slow day we were having. I was frustrated. He sarcastically reminded me, “Magnuson, there’s a reason they call it ‘fishing’ and not ‘catching.’” I’m sure he saw it on a T-shirt somewhere... but he made his point.
Detecting isn’t about checking off boxes on a to-do list of finds. It’s about fresh air, family, and friends. If you focus too much on finds, it will quickly feel like work, and you’ll lose sight of all the other great things that this hobby provides. Keep your focus on what’s great about it, and you’ll breeze through the tough weekends. Inevitably, time and experience will reward you with great finds!
BRANDON “Dr. Tones” NEICE and ERIC “Dirt Digler” MAGNUSON are the creators of the “Dirt Fishin’ America” channel on YouTube and www.dirtfishingamerica.com To view a video of the hunt recounted in this article, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8uOJYH5KOM
The author welcomes questions, comments, and suggestions at email@example.com