By Steve Herschbach
Despite all the noise about pulse induction (PI) metal detectors these days I firmly believe that in the United States most beginning and many professional nugget hunters are often better served with a good mid-frequency VLF. For beginners I think it is more important to master the real skills involved in prospecting before investing a ton of money in a metal detector. If you can't find gold with a $700 detector there is little point in investing thousands of dollars in a detector that still probably will not find the person any gold.
Perhaps a PI is required in most of Australia but I have seen very few places in the United States where a good VLF will not work very well or at least well enough. Certainly in Alaska that is the case, where low mineral ground and smallish gold is the norm. Even locations where large gold lurks are so loaded with iron junk a PI detector has a hard go of it. It is nearly impossible to convince die-hard PI users to accept this until they experience it for themselves.
One of the best detectorists I know has found hundreds of ounces of gold including two nuggets each weighing over a pound, all with a White's MXT. He also has a Minelab GPX 5000 and is very good with it. This last summer we hunted a lot together in junk infested tailing piles. I tended to use my GPX 5000 and he tended to use his MXT. We ran neck and neck for finds, and he detected less and dug way less junk than I. When all the shallow stuff is gone a PI shows its value with extra depth. But in target rich environments, especially ones filled with junk, a good VLF is a worthy choice.
Let's set the VLF versus PI thing aside though and accept for the purposes of this article that VLF detectors are still a good choice for many people in the United States. I know for a fact I could own nothing but a VLF and do very well indeed. So what VLF to own?
Two detectors stand out in their high operating frequency as dedicated nugget detectors, the Fisher Gold Bug 2 and White's GMT. I could make a great argument for why either of these detectors will eke out gold where other detectors fail and do it consistently enough that a skilled operator would be wise to own either one. However, I think overall a better case can be made that if a person had to own just one VLF detector, a mid-frequency model would be a better choice. There is much more versatility offered plus a better balance of performance on all ground types and all gold sizes than the hot high frequency models.
The contenders from the "Big Five" brands? The Fisher Gold Bug Pro (also sold as Teknetics G2), Garrett AT Gold, Minelab X-Terra 705 Gold, Tesoro Lobo SuperTRAQ, and White's MXT. All available for around $700 more or less. This is the choice I personally faced, and the decision took several years of use to settle. What follows is purely personal but I will explain why I ended up where I did.
Fisher Gold Bug Pro, Garrett AT Gold, Minelab X-Terra 705 Gold, Tesoro Lobo, White's MXT
First up, the White's MXT. Simply a superb detector, and one that has found me pounds of gold. Yet I am just going to go ahead and blow White's off at this point! Why? The weight. I am sorry White's, but at 4.3 pounds the MXT is the heaviest detector in this slug-fest. I love what the detector does, but I am no longer willing to forgive detectors with poor ergonomic factors, weight being the most obvious. In the 21st century, the day and age of the iPhone, poor ergonomics is not acceptable. The MXT needs to lose a pound, plain and simple. So I sold my MXT after one particularly arm wearing day.
Now the Tesoro Lobo SuperTRAQ is a great beginners detector in that it is very easy to operate, but it also gets put aside. The detector is locked in ground tracking at all times while in all metal nugget mode. This is great for beginners but I personally find it unacceptable. I almost never use ground tracking systems as they mess with the signals from weak targets. If there was a locked or fixed mode it would be fine. Worse yet, the alternative discriminate mode has a factory pre-set ground balance. Sorry, fail. Just my opinion, but the Lobo is way overdue for an update after 16 years on the market.
Garrett is to be commended for finally producing a waterproof detector that does not penalize the owner by weighing a ton and removing all the features. The AT Gold is a miracle in being waterproof and yet fully featured, with even the speaker being waterproof. And only three pounds with batteries! This detector is so wonderful I really do feel bad about taking a pass on it here also. Why? Sadly, the waterproof design also means special o-ring connectors for the coils and headphones. If you do not need the detector to be waterproof they are delicate connectors that collect dirt and require quite a bit of care to not mess up. The coil connection in particular is in a maddening location making it almost impossible to connect coils with bare fingers alone. A special adapter must be purchased if you want to have a choice in headphones. If you want waterproof the AT Gold is an obvious choice but I do not need waterproof for most of my nugget detecting.
So down to two models, the Fisher Gold Bug Pro and Minelab X-Terra 705 Gold. Both under the magic 3 pound mark! Both with extremely powerful all metal modes. So powerful that in all metal mode these detectors give the PI units a run for depth in most ground on most gold in the US. This was tough for me as the X-Terra has a far richer feature set than the Gold Bug Pro and for many all around users would be the better choice. But I looked at both from strictly a nugget hunting perspective where those extra features are extraneous to the task at hand. It came down to this. In all metal mode the Gold Bug Pro is simultaneously and separately running in discriminate mode. The audio response is pure all metal, but you also get the probable target id, when possible, displayed on the screen. Very deep targets will have no target id, which is why we are using all metal prospect mode in the first place.
The X-Terra 705 you can run in Prospect Mode or Discriminate Mode, but not both at once. This one thing leads to more efficient detecting with all the information you need on screen at once. The Gold Bug Pro gives you the target id, ground phase, and magnetic susceptibility reading all on screen at once while in all metal mode.
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That is how I settled on the Fisher Gold Bug Pro as my all around do everything nugget hunting model. It is not a coincidence it is also the lightest of the bunch at only 2.5 lbs with battery and 5” round DD coil and 2.7 lbs with the 5” x 10” DD coil. It is a basic unit that gets the job done, and that appeals to me. Plus, it does just fine for coins, relics, and jewelry if I wish. if I could improve only one thing it would be to swap the position of the target id and phase readout on the meter.
I have to wrap this up by pointing out that these are all fine detectors. I can actually find gold about as well with all of them. The engineers have mid-frequency all metal detectors figured out, and in all metal mode these models are practically equivalent. Small nuances that help one model in certain ground cost it in another and it all evens out. So from a straight up all metal nugget hunting perspective I think a person can use any one of these detectors and be just fine. What differences there are show up far more when comparing discrimination features which are of little use to the nugget hunter.
With that said, the final lesson in this article is that it is all the other factors a person should be looking at when making a choice. For me it was just lightweight basic operation. But if waterproof is important, the AT Gold is a no-brainer. The Lobo is very forgiving for beginners simply because it is locked in ground tracking mode. The MXT is a superior all-arounder, and the X-Terra has various tone schemes and notch discrimination features common on top-end detectors. You can make the case for any of them depending on your own particular needs and desires in a detector, and know you will be well served for basic all metal nugget hunting capability. We are lucky to have so many fine choices, all at very affordable prices.