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Highland Lakes Metal Detecting Club unearths treasure, trash and history

Highland Lakes Metal Detecting Club

Searching for treasure while testing software updates to their metal detectors at the Kingsland Slab are Highland Lakes Metal Detecting Club members David Montgomery (left) and Gary Goolsby, both of Kingsland, Gary Bunyard of Llano, Tom Ashworth of Burnet, and Earl Theiss of Kingsland. Staff photo by David Bean

Tom Ashworth of Burnet has collected 96 solid silver Spanish coins from 1535, one worth $9,000. Gary Bunyard of Llano found a 1978 gaming token from the Cayman Islands about 2 inches under the Llano County Courthouse lawn. Gary Goolsby of Kingsland is still looking for his ultimate goal — a gold coin — but his wife unearthed a gold ring worth $800. Earl Theiss of Kingsland has storage sheds full of large and small historic finds from pioneer homesteads and mining sites. Some of his collection can be seen at the new Llano County Historical Mining Exhibit behind the Llano Visitor Center in the old railyard.

From beer cans and tabs to ancient coins, these members of the Highland Lakes Metal Detecting Club collect it all, clearing away trash and polishing treasure. When they find jewelry, smartphones, or keys, they attempt to locate the owner. Currently, the group is looking for the person who lost a charm bracelet that Bunyard found on a recent monthly hunt. Some of the charms have photos of family members and engraved dates. (If you think the bracelet is yours, email Bunyard at

“That bracelet is important to someone,” Ashworth said. “It makes us happy when we are able to return something like that.”

Ashworth operates, a business that shares web space with Tom Ashworth’s Prospectors Cache at, the first-ever gold mining site on the internet, he said. A retired U.S. Navy diver, Ashworth often dons his scuba gear and underwater metal detector in search of lost rings. 

“When I find a lost ring for someone, I usually find 10 other rings down there as well,” he said. “I spend a lot of my time underwater.”

Rivers favored by tubers cough up class rings, coins, and beer cans. Once a year, Ashworth participates in a river cleanup in Comal County, diving for trash and treasure. 

“One year, I filled up a 5-gallon bucket full of coins,” he said of the annual cleanup. “Last time I was down there, we filled up 12 trash bags with beer cans in two days.” 

He’s not the only one in the group who dives or who has gone a little overboard buying top-notch treasure-hunting equipment. All four members recently brought a sampling of their metal detectors and a selection of their finds to the Kingsland Branch Library for this reporter to inspect. The Highland Lakes Metal Detecting Club meets at 10 a.m. on the first Saturday of the month at the library, 125 W. Polk St. 

The equipment ranges in price from $100 to $5,000 based on performance, which is measured by how deeply below the surface the electromagnetic waves can reach and how often and quickly the device cycles through the types of materials it can detect. One brand transmits all fields at once, while another runs through about 40 different electromagnetic waves one after another, which takes a bit longer. Small LCD screens indicate the depth and type of metal detected.

“You want to buy something you can make your money back on,” Ashworth said. “You spend $1,600 on a metal detector, one gold ring will pay for that. You get a $100 metal detector, you might not find that ring.” 

Highland Lakes Detecting Club finds
Some of the treasures found by members of the Highland Lakes Detecting Club. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Metal detectors look a lot like weed eaters with 12-inch round search coils instead of 4-inch trimmer heads. They are strapped around the upper and lower arm to keep them steady. Headphones are necessary for the hunter to hear the audio signals that indicate a find. Good headphones are especially important for gold prospectors since the sound from a gold find sends a weak signal that is hard to hear without the right equipment.  

Spare batteries and chargers are carried in backpacks, while hand shovels, picks, and pinpointers are stowed in tool belts strapped around their waists. Pinpointers are mini-handheld metal detectors that use beeps and vibrations to home in on a more precise location. 

“The metal detector will get you only so far,” Bunyard said. “The pinpointer will narrow it down to where your find actually is.” 

He carries two, along with a reusable trash pouch also strapped to his waist. 

Leaving a search area exactly as they found it is an important tenant of the Metal Detector’s Code of Ethics.They cover any holes they dig as well as pick up any trash they find.

“Our unofficial motto is, ‘Trash or treasure, if you dig it, you take it,’” Theiss said. “We leave the ground cleaner than it was when we got there.” 

They also fill in their holes. Knee pads and trowels are other useful tools to bring along.

Bunyard is the newest treasure hunter in the group. He joined in 2019 after attending a treasure show in Llano followed by a club meeting at the library. He likes to search parks and parking lots, especially after big events like the Llano Earth Art Festival and the Llano River Chuck Wagon Cook-off. He mostly finds coins and lost jewelry. After rodeos, he uncovers a lot of sparkly (and worthless) tack decorations that have fallen off during parades and barrel racing, but coins are the big get.

They all collect and clean their coins, looking for rare pieces. They post their finds on the club’s Facebook page @highlandlakesmetaldetectingclub and its website, 

Whether it’s gold nuggets or buffalo nickels, treasure is not the only driving factor behind a hunter’s quest. Theiss has been digging up history since the mid-1990s.

“We go out where everything’s overgrown and it doesn’t look like anything’s ever been there,” Theiss said. “You can lay out a whole homestead with a metal detector.” 

Which is how you find the treasure. According to Theiss, during the Great Depression, when people didn’t trust banks, they buried any money they had, usually near fence posts. Once a treasure hunter determines the layout of the buildings on an old homestead, they can narrow down the area most likely to yield a find. 

“The wives wanted to be able to see the location from the kitchen,” said Theiss, who has his own website at “The husbands wanted to be able to see it from the outhouse.” 

Has he ever found one of these buried treasures? 

“No. But if I did, I wouldn’t tell you,” he said. (This reporter took that for a “yes.”)

Goolsby and wifeBetty prospect on the beach, one of the best places to find jewelry, he said. They are planning a summer vacation in Georgia at the Loud Mine, a Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association adventure. The Loud Mine was part of the second-biggest gold rush in the nation, beginning in 1829. The mine played out by 1840, just before an even bigger gold rush in 1849 in California. 

According to Ashworth, the Llano area is as good a place as any to search for gold, although he has prospected in 49 of the 50 United States. 

The Llano River is a favorite site for treasure hunters, whether panning for gold or wielding metal detectors. Legal spots to search without a permit on the river are along the banks in the city of Llano and the Kingsland Slab. 

According to legend, Spanish explorers found a vein of silver near the San Saba River, one that Jim Bowie tried and failed to uncover in 1831. While these treasure hunters dream of making a similar big find, they are sticking a bit closer to the surface. 

“My first big find was a silver ring,” Bunyard said. “And that was in my backyard.” 

Metal Detector’s Code of Ethics

Here are some of the most important of 13 items in the code:

  • Respect the rights and property of others.
  • Do not detect without the landowner’s permission.
  • Never destroy historical or archaeological structures.
  • Leave land and vegetation as it was.
  • Remove and properly dispose of all litter when you leave.
  • Always cover your holes!