Fool's gold, the mineral pyrite, has a metallic luster and gray or black streaks, and feels heavy for its size, although real gold is denser. Panning for gold and knowing how to separate it from fool's gold takes practice and an ability to work quickly with a prospector's pan. The pans are available at hardware, rock and hobby stores, or where metal detectors are sold.
Dredge up rock, water and silt into your prospector's pan.
Swirl the water around in the pan roughly and quickly. This allows the gold to separate from other sediment.
Watch the real gold flecks and black sand sink quickly to the bottom of the pan. If the flecks don't sink quickly, they are probably fool's gold.
Pour off the muddy water and other sedimentation that does not sink rapidly. If you are prospecting in a creek, repeat this step 10 times or more.
Remove any rocks from the pan with your hands. If the rocks are caked with mud, clean them thoroughly to avoid discarding a gold nugget.
Tilt the pan so that all sediment is within an inch of the rim. Shake the pan continuously to allow the dense, heavy, gold to sink to the bottom. Do this carefully to keep the gravel in the pan. The gold sinks to the deepest part of the pan.
Tip the pan forward to allow the excess water and floating sediment to pour out.
Move the pan toward you and then away to remove the lighter sand, dirt and other particles from the pan.
Repeat the method, adding water to the pan each time. Moving the pan from side to side and then back and forth separates the top layer of the debris, leaving the gold in the deeper section of the pan.
Surround the remaining gravel and dirt with approximately an inch of water.
Rotate the prospector's pan in a circular motion until the sediment is at the bottom of the pan and nearest you.
Remove any gold nuggets from the bottom of the pan.
Look at the shape of the nugget. Real gold has no angles. Pyrite looks like crystals.
Repeat the shaking of the pan and the back and forth motions that wash away sediment until nothing is left in the pan except gold nuggets and flakes.
Pick out the flecks of gold with tweezers and attempt to break them. Real gold is malleable. Fool's gold is brittle and cracks, breaks or shatters easily.
Test the gold specks and flakes with a magnet. Real gold is not attracted, but fool's gold is.
Remove the fool's gold from the magnet and discard it.