Randy Garrett first began searching for gold in his backyard, at age 6 or 7. Though he returned to the house empty-handed, that didn't deter him from trying again -- and again and again. Garrett, CEO of the construction firm Mainline Contracting, has taken nearly 200 prospecting trips, often to rivers near his company's headquarters in Durham, North Carolina. To find a promising spot, he looks for areas with a history of gold mining and consults with other prospectors. Then he heads to a stream and fills a pan with mud and sifts through it. If more than a few specks of gold turn up, he gathers up to 20 cubic yards of the mud and loads it into a trommel -- a chute that separates gold-bearing deposits from the rest of the dirt. That leaves him with about 2.5 gallons of concentrate, from which he extracts the gold later at home. Before he bought the trommel, four years ago, he usually found only tiny traces. Now, he can sift through so much mud that each day of prospecting yields about an ounce of gold.

Total lifetime haul: 50 to 60 ounces

Tough competition: The Gold Prospectors Association of America has more than 25,000 members.

Not for profit: Gold has recently been worth more than $900 an ounce, but Garrett has never sold any of his. In fact, he occasionally buys nuggets and flakes to add to his collection.

A nugget's beauty: "Nuggets are like art. Sometimes they look like animals; sometimes you see a face in them. And that's all natural, found in the ground just as it is."

How far he has traveled for treasure: Garrett has prospected in Alaska and Australia.

Dream vacation: A prospecting tour to the southern tip of South America