Beep Marks The Spot

Sharing secrets with Tampa Bay's sand sleuths.

click to enlarge WADE IN THE WATER: Les Hornyak has been scouring Tampa Bay's waters since 1989. "Once you get into water hunting, you really get the gold fever," he says. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
WADE IN THE WATER: Les Hornyak has been scouring Tampa Bay's waters since 1989. "Once you get into water hunting, you really get the gold fever," he says.

On a Monday night, tucked into a small meeting room at the back of Largo's Bill Jackson Inc. outdoors store, 30 or so senior citizens mill about two long tables covered in coins, jewelry and metallic knickknacks. The men and women eat cake and coffee while sharing stories about the booty on the tables, all of it rescued from area beaches by a keen ear tuned to the frequencies of a metal detector.

It's a slow night for the Suncoast Research and Recovery Club — a group of self-described "treasure hunters" who meet once a month to share stories and show off their finds. Most of the enthusiasts who show up for the monthly meetings own multiple metal detectors. They take their gadgets with them on Caribbean vacations. Their eyes shine when talking about that one diamond ring or gold necklace they found on a recent outing.

Usually the meetings feature guest speakers, but with half the 100 members already fled to cooler locales, club president Wally Swartz, 70, proposes an open meeting of tips and tricks on the metal-detecting trade. It soon turns into a senior version of "Show and Tell." Old coins eaten and turned black by salt water, metal charms, gold rings, flashy silver earrings, toy cars — all are possible fodder for discussion. But the prize that gets the most attention is a small pipe, its steel stem adorned with psychedelic flowers: a marijuana pipe. Everyone takes turns smelling the bowl.

At the end of the meeting, Swartz hands out prizes for the best treasure on the display table, which has been separated into categories like "clad coins" and "special finds." Les Hornyak, who found the marijuana pipe, wins most of the categories.

Conversations with treasure hunters have one feature in common: No one wants to divulge information about where an item was found.

Swartz explains why.

"Treasure hunting is not like golfing," he says. "At the club meeting, we're all friends. But when it comes time to go out, you have just a few close friends."

So it's a rare privilege when prize-winner Hornyak, a 66-year-old retired air conditioning repairman, invites me to accompany him on a morning expedition to Fort De Soto.

The day is cloudless and sunny when Hornyak and I wade out into the shallow waters off North Beach. Except for Hornyak's lone hunting buddy, Ken McCluskey, and a couple pelicans, we are the only ones out on the beach.

"I was asked by someone once how to do this," Hornyak says. "And I said you need your equipment, your lucky shirt and to get your lucky butt out in the water."

Besides his lucky 2004 high school reunion shirt, Hornyak wears Grey Ghost headphones connected to his most expensive metal detector (one of six he owns). In his other hand, he holds a long water scoop with a stainless steel tip and light aluminum body.

Almost immediately after he enters waist-deep water, the metal detector lets off a loud high-toned buzzing sound, like an angry bee.

This high tone, Hornyak explains, denotes silver jewelry or a penny.

Low tones can mean a nickel — or gold.

"When you get that low sound, your heart starts beating," he says.

Hornyak shoves his water scoop into the spot and works it down four inches. His upper body struggles and he pulls out a hunk of silty sand. It drains through holes in the scoop and reveals Hornyak's first catch of the day: a soda can's pull-tab.

"The enemy," he grumbles.

This is how Hornyak will spend the next six hours: wading in a grid-like fashion, listening for the high-toned buzzing and scooping up his finds.

"This gives you a lot of peace," he says. "It's very relaxing."

He compares treasure hunting with his former hobby, fishing.

"It's the same because you have to have a lot of patience," he says. "When you get a sound, it's like a little nibble and you never know what's going to be at the end."

This thrill keeps Hornyak at the beaches every other day. And persistence keeps his pockets full.

Hornyak estimates he has found over 500 gold rings among the pull-tabs and beer cans in Tampa Bay. His best find is wrapped around his neck: an 18-carat gold chain valued at $2,500.

click to enlarge PENNY PINCHER: On average, Hornyak finds 50 or 60 coins before he comes across a valuable ring. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
PENNY PINCHER: On average, Hornyak finds 50 or 60 coins before he comes across a valuable ring.

But he insists most treasure hunters are in it for the sport, not the bling.

"Most of the people in this hobby are not selfish," he says. "We don't do it for monetary reasons."

Members of the Suncoast Research and Recovery Club put a lot of emphasis on the "recovery" part of their name. Some hunters' sole purpose is to search beaches looking for lost jewelry and return it to the owners. Hornyak is no different. He has found and returned numerous class rings, inscribed wedding bands and diamond earrings, using newspaper classifieds and the Internet to track down the owners.

"In Louisiana [where he used to live], I found a wedding band an old fellow had lost 60 years prior," Hornyak boasts. "To me, that is the best. It gives you a tremendous feeling to return something that really meant something."

But for every valuable ring or necklace, Hornyak finds pounds and pounds of "junk."

Toy trucks. Spoons. Batteries. Retainers. Discarded anchors. A broken sword. Gold teeth. Once, he even dug up a horseshoe crab that somehow triggered the detector.

Two hours into the hunt, and Hornyak has only amassed about a dollar in coins. As the morning drags on, six more hunters spread out along the beach. He reckons other groups combed the beach clean right after the weekend.

Hornyak balks as I try to coax him into giving me the best locations for treasure hunting. Last time he told a fellow metal-seeker about a location — a few years ago when he found 17 rings at Coquina Key — dozens of people showed up the next day.

"You might tell your close friends that hunt with you," he says. "But if you find a hole, then you don't broadcast it."

But after a while he relents. Since he searches for jewelry, public beaches are the best bet, he says, especially the popular ones in Clearwater and Indian Shores. The shoreline off Courtney Campbell Causeway and Central Florida's natural springs are also on his hot list.

I wade back to shore for a moment to roll up my jeans, but as soon as I hit the sand, Hornyak waves his hands wildly in the air. I wade back over to him and he opens his hand. It's a gold ring.

This is a good sign, he tells me. His birthday is next week and this time last year, he found a man's ring with 14 diamonds in it.

"It was just my lucky day," he says.

After putting the ring in his waist pouch, he lowers his head toward the water again. A few feet away, he stops at a patch of sand, listens and shakes his head.

"Sounds like a Bud Light," he says, and moves on.

There are 11 hours of sunlight left and Hornyak is just getting started.

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