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It’s Monday, 5:00 a.m. at Mission Beach. Russ Gish and his son Lance have already been here an hour, sweeping the sand with a contraption that looks like a skinny, upright vacuum cleaner with a coil at the end. They’re treasure hunters, looking for things — metal things to be exact — that were left the day before, or even a few years ago. If they’re lucky, they’ll find some coins, maybe some cheap jewelry. If they’re really lucky, if some beachgoer was flagrantly careless or stone drunk, perhaps the haul might be a platinum ring or a Rolex watch. Can you say “finders keepers”?

When I pull into the parking lot just south of the roller coaster, Russ greets me with a serious look on his face. A self-described “ex-Navy man,” he claims 6’4” but appears shorter. I notice that he’s wearing low-cut, black neoprene boots. I ask, “Are you trying to make a fashion statement?” “No,” he replies. “We wear these diver’s boots to protect us from fishing hooks and other sharp objects; they also keep our feet warm when the water’s cold.” Without much fanfare, he opens the back of his SUV and hands me a Fisher “Quick Silver” metal detector, a dual-frequency model with an eight-inch coil.

He also gives me a long-handled metal scoop and a pair of headphones. We walk onto the beach and proceed straight to the wet sand, where Russ hopes to demonstrate why anyone (much less a 70-plus fellow with arthritis) would want to leave the house at three in the morning to walk back and forth on a dark, deserted beach.

Strangely, I’m happy to be here at this hour, standing about a half mile north of the jetty. Perhaps it’s the balmy air or the warmer-than-expected water, maybe it’s the gentle wavelets or the faint light to the east, but damn if this isn’t relaxing. Even the sand looks pristine, at least to my untrained eyes. Russ isn’t here for the ambience, though; he’s all business, a stern but well-meaning instructor in this art and science.

“Start over there, where the sand is shiny.” For wet-sand hunting, Russ recommends the area of the beach kept perpetually wet by the tide, so that’s where I go. I imitate Russ, who ambles along, passing his coil in an arc an inch above the sand. Back and forth, back and forth — there’s a precision, a consistency, so ingrained that it seems mechanical; by contrast, my sweeps seem forced and halting. “Keep the coil parallel to the ground,” he admonishes, and “Remember, if your detector can only go about a foot down, and you’re sweeping the coil five inches above the sand, you’ve reduced your range to seven inches.” Still, within seconds, my headphones squawk with a tone that sounds like an amalgam of a siren and a wailing infant, and I jump. “Oh, I forgot to tell you,” says Russ. “I’m a little hard of hearing, so you’ll want to turn the volume down.”

My detector continues to sense something every few feet, but as it happens, I’ve jostled the control knobs; I’m not sitting on a gold mine — these are just false alarms. I call Russ over, and somewhat annoyed, he fixes the settings. I resume my sweeping, but the headphones are now silent for what seems like eternity. Finally, I get a signal and Russ shows me how to position the scoop to dig a well-placed hole. I sift the sand that holds my bounty — an aluminum pull-top from a soft-drink can.

A while later, Russ shows me a silver ring with a black inlay that he’s just pulled from the sand. (Before I arrived, he’d dug up an eight-carat-gold band and another ring that looked like white gold with three crappy amethysts.) We meet up with Lance, who’s been blanked. Along with a couple of pennies and nickels, that’s the morning’s catch — possibly worth enough to pay for the gas burned in the round trip between the beach and Russ’s house in El Cajon. It’s now 6:30 or so, and for me, the predawn magic of the beach has evaporated in the sunlight, which reveals the trash strewn about the seawall and the losers scurrying around the foul cinder-block restrooms. Russ says, “I’d hoped you’d find something good so it would spark your interest in the hobby. It’s not as easy as it looks, is it?”

Whether the hunt is a well-financed quest for long-sunken doubloons off the Florida coast or a solitary man looking for old quarters in a local field, one can only describe treasure hunters as obsessive. Members of a small (and at times, secretive) fraternity, they can be found swapping bounty stories online, posting photos of old coins, artifacts, and gold nuggets uncovered by their “guns.” In San Diego, as in other parts of the country, most are hobbyists, but rather serious ones; the equipment is expensive and the time commitment can be formidable. It all boils down to separating the treasure from the trash.

Among the metal-detecting cognoscenti, there are three generally recognized types of hobbyist searchers: “coinshooters,” “prospectors,” and “relic/artifact hunters.” Although there is some overlap (driven locally by seasonal considerations), most treasure hunters eventually sort themselves into a niche within this already arcane avocation. (The high-profile shipwreck divers and cache-seekers — those looking for large quantities of old gold or silver — are in a different league.)

In coastal San Diego, many treasure hunters, such as Russ Gish, can be classified as coinshooters, folks who comb the beaches not only for coins, but jewelry and watches as well. In the far-inland reaches, gold prospectors scour the desert and mountain backcountry for nuggets and the occasional coin. And although San Diego has neither Civil War battlefields nor Colonial stomping grounds (the sites most popular among devotees in the Midwest and East), the county has its share of relic and artifact hunters, those who look to unearth bits and pieces of history. They haunt both rural and urban sites, whether long-abandoned mining camps in the Cuyamacas or old homes being demolished in Golden Hill. Whatever their specialty, treasure hunters have a distinct argot, a passel of terms that describe not only the lucre but the tools it takes to find it.

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