Before you begin: The State of Florida requires that you apply for a permit before hunting for fossils on land owned or leased by the State. Please download the permit application (PDF) and follow the instructions to apply.
Fossils are created when organic material becomes trapped in a soft substance that hardens over time. A fossil can be anything that indicates that ancient life once existed in an area. Fossil Hunting is the collection of fossils by digging and sifting gravel from shallow river bottoms. Officially, The Peace River Canoe Trail begins at Fort Meade and ends 67 miles later, at State Road 70, just west of Arcadia. Fossil Hunting on The Peace River is a popular past time. Fossil collecting trips can be fun for all. If you go to any boat ramp on the upper to middle Peace River, you will see fossil hunters exploring Florida's ancient past hidden in the beds of the river. The best way to find fossils is to rent a canoe and work your way down the river. In a canoe or kayak, you can access hard to reach fossil spots to find and identify a variety of fossil material. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the kinds of fossils you are likely to find in The Peace River. You can find all types of fossils including shark teeth, mammoth teeth, camel teeth, dolphin teeth and mastodon teeth. If it once roamed or swam over Florida, you might find a fossilized piece of history. The only fossils you will not find in The Peace River are dinosaur fossils.
When: The best time to fossil hunt is in the springtime when the water levels are lower. March, April and May are usually the times of year for lower water levels. The water needs to be at least 12" below normal for the best fossil hunting. Keep an eye on the Peace River Water Level. Anytime the water level of the river drops it is a good time to fossil hunt. Sunny days are preferred because you can see the bottom of the river better. However, it is not necessary for it to be sunny if you are sifting. Sunny days are best for snorkeling and diving as the water clarity needs to be good. The higher the water level, then the less the clarity.
Where: Fossils can be found anywhere on The Peace River. The favorite stretches are Wachula south to Zolfo and Gardner south to Brownville. On the shorter runs, you will have more time to hunt for fossils and spend less time canoeing. You can also leave from our dock at Canoe Safari and paddle upstream, then back when you are done. Lots of people go to the public boat ramps but that means there are lots of people. In canoes or kayaks you can get to areas other than ramps that haven't been picked over. You are looking for eroded banks and gravelly areas at the river's edge and on the bottom. Do not dig into the bank as that is private property. Most fossils are found on the bottom and at the edge of the water because they have washed and rolled down out of the bank. Take your paddle, shovel, or a metal rod and probe the bottom occasionally. You're listening/feeling for a "crunch" under the sand layer. That will be the sound of a gravel layer. Darker colored (not tan sand) areas on the bottom are usually gravel spots. On bends where there is a high bank or under overhanging trees (be careful, gators like under the trees) are also good spots to look. Rocky areas are another indication of a possible fossil spot.
How: To find the fossils, you have to get in the water and get your feet wet. Plan on getting wet all over as fossils are not just sitting on the edge of the water. You need a shovel or trowel and a sifter. View this list of suggested fossil hunting tools. For beginners, macaroni or spaghetti strainers are good, for the more serious, "screens" are recommended. The screens are wooden frames with hardware cloth attached. You can buy them from different suppliers, rent them from Canoe Safari or build your own. Most are about 18-24" square made with 1x2's and 1/8" to 1/4" hardware cloth. Bring a shovel or trowel to scoop up the gravel. Long handled shovels will get you into deeper spots. Canoe Safari does not rent shovels so you have to bring your own. Scoop up some gravel, you can even just use your hands, and dump it into the sifter. Shake the sifter in the water to wash the mud and sand away and start poking through what's left in the sifter. The method is similar to panning for gold but you're panning for "black" gold. Go to Tampa Bay Fossil Club to see helpful equipment.
More information: Visit our fossil hunting links page for more resources.
Do you have questions about Fossil Hunting on the Peace River? Email Canoe Safari (Georgia recommends the Gardner to Brownville run for fossil hunting!)