The next morning, the sun warms up the tent. Nick crawls out and looks around him at the meadow, the river, and the green swamp that has birch trees in it. The river is clear and smooth. Nick watches a mink cross the river and head into the swamp.
The river, which Nick finds comforting, is bordered by the dark, unpredictable swamp, which will cause Nick much anxiety. He takes in both of these aspects of nature—these are, perhaps, the “two hearts” of the Big Two-Hearted River.
Nick is very excited about heading over to the river to fish. He feels almost too impatient to eat breakfast, but he knows he must, so he builds a fire to make some coffee. While waiting for the water to boil, he catches some grasshoppers to use as fishing bait. The grasshoppers are cold with dew, and Nick knows they will not be able to hop until they are warmed by the sun. He upturns a log and finds hundreds of them under it. He manages to catch around 50 medium-sized brown grasshoppers, and he puts them in a bottle. By the time he is done catching them, they are beginning to get warm and start to hop and fly away.
Nick’s knowledge of the natural world is impressive, as demonstrated here by his familiarity with the habits of grasshoppers. This is why he loves being in this wilderness he knows so well—he is confident of his expertise (on fishing, setting up camp, and the wildlife around), and this knowledge gives him a feeling of control.
Nick goes to the river to wash his hands and is “excited to be near it.” By the time he gets back to his tent, the grasshoppers are warmed up and are jumping around. The ones in the bottle are also jumping, so Nick puts in a pine stick as a cork, making sure to leave enough of a gap so they can breathe. Nick rolls back the log under which he’d found lots of grasshoppers and knows he’ll be able to find “grasshoppers there every morning.”
Nick predicted that the grasshoppers would be impossible to catch once they warmed up, and he is proven right—he is indeed very knowledgeable in these matters. He knows he will be able to find more grasshoppers under the same log every day, which establishes that this environment is comfortingly predictable to him, and he is already establishing routines. Nick also comes across as a kind person when he makes sure the grasshoppers in the bottle can breathe. He is using them as bait, so it doesn’t really matter to him if they are living or dead, but he takes the trouble to ensure they aren’t suffering as long as they are alive.
Nick makes buckwheat pancakes for breakfast and eats them with apple butter. He packs an extra pancake in his pocket for his lunch, and also makes some onion sandwiches to take with him. After drinking his coffee, he tidies up the camp and thinks that it is “a good camp.” Next, Nick gets his fly rod ready, assembling the reel and line. It is a heavy rod, and Nick has had it for a long time. He fixes the leader and hook onto his rod, and then tests “the knot and the spring of the rod by pulling the line taut. It [is] a good feeling.”
The reader is reminded that Nick is very meticulous and takes pleasure in completing small tasks. His attention to detail suggests that it is important to him to ensure that order is maintained around him. He is thorough with every task at hand, whether he is making a breakfast he isn’t even keen on eating or getting his fly-fishing rod ready for the adventure he has been looking forward to all along. Given that Nick’s life in the military would certainly have been stressful and regimented beyond his control, these self-implemented routines likely comfort Nick and give him a sense of agency and stability.
Nick heads to the river, holding his fly rod, with the bottle full of crickets dangling from his neck on a strap. His landing net hangs from his belt, and a flour sack hangs from his shoulder. Nick feels “awkward and professionally happy.” When he steps into the water, it is “a rising cold shock.” The water is above his knees, and he can feel the powerful current.
Nick thinks he is completely prepared for fishing trout, with all his gear at hand. But when he enters the river, the cold water is a “shock,” suggesting that there are elements of nature—and perhaps of life in general—that will surprise even someone like Nick, who is obsessive in his planning. Regardless of one’s expectations and preparations, some things, Hemingway implies, will always be an unexpected “shock.”
Nick tries to get a grasshopper out of the bottle, but the first one escapes and is snapped up by a trout in the water. A second one also tries to escape, but Nick manages to catch him and thread the hook through its thorax and abdomen. The grasshopper takes “hold of the hook with his front feet, spitting tobacco juice on it.”
The description of the grasshopper dying on the fishhook is intentionally graphic, as Nick is likely hyper-aware of pain and death given his experiences in World War I. Nick pays close attention to the grasshopper’s suffering, and thinks of the insect as a “him,” not an “it.” Nick not only has a deep knowledge of the natural world and these creatures, but also seems to respect and care for them.
Nick drops the hook into the water and releases the line until it goes out of sight. He feels a tug and reels it in, but the trout he has caught is a small one. Nick dips his hand into the water to wet it before touching the trout to release it back into the water. The trout is stationary after reentering the water, and Nick touches it gently. The fish swims quickly away. “He’s all right,” Nick thinks. “He was only tired.”
Again, Nick is courteous to the creatures around him, whether they are insects or trout. He makes sure to wet his hand before he touches the small trout because he does not want to get it sick by touching it with a dry hand. Nick wants to check on it to make sure it is fine after he puts it back in the river and is relieved to find that it is, suggesting that his experiences as a soldier have made him more conscious of the suffering of other beings than the average civilian.
The reason Nick wet his hand before touching the fish is because he knows that if trout are touched with a dry hand, the delicate mucus that covers their scales will get disturbed, and this will lead to them getting a fungus attack. When he fished years before in rivers crowded with other fishermen, he had seen lots of dead trout covered in furry white fungus float up to the surface. Nick does not like to fish with others. Unless they are part of your group, “they spoiled it.”
While Nick has a deep knowledge of and reverence for the natural world, he recognizes that many other people don’t and prefers to avoid them. These details set Nick apart from other people, suggesting that he is kinder and more sensitive than most, which might be why he seems to be experiencing intense emotional suffering after the war.
Nick wades across the shallow stream to the deeper side, crossing over the logs that have dammed up the water. He knows he will find only smaller trout in the shallows, which he does not want. The deeper water is “smooth and dark,” and reaches his thighs “sharply and coldly.” On his left is the meadow, and on his right is the swamp.
Nick seems most comfortable in the shallow waters of the river, but he wants to catch bigger trout which favor the deeper water. As he wades deeper into the river, he grows increasingly aware of the presence of the swamp.
Nick puts another grasshopper on the hook, spits on him “for good luck,” and releases the line into the “fast, dark water.” Nick feels “a long tug” and then “a heavy, dangerous, steady pull.” The line rushes out, and he “[can]not check it.” He sees a huge trout leap out of the water by the logs. He lowers the rod to try to lessen the strain on the line, but it doesn’t work and the leader breaks. “His mouth dry, his heart down,” Nick reels in the slack line with shaky hands. He has never seen such a big trout before, and the “thrill” is “too much.” He feels a little sick and wants to sit down.
The big trout that Nick catches and loses demonstrates that nature, like the world at large, is not always as obedient and predictable as he would like it to be. The pull this fish exerts on the line is described as being “dangerous,” suggesting that this fish will be unmanageable despite Nick’s careful preparations—clearly, Nick cannot always be in control, and this disconcerts him. His disappointment at losing the fish further unnerves him, making him physically ill and weak. This seems like an overreaction, but given the emotional trauma Nick has likely been through, it’s understandable that even a minor unexpected event could cause him distress.
The leader has broken where the hook was tied to it, so Nick knows the hook is stuck in the trout’s jaw. He thinks of “the trout somewhere on the bottom, holding himself steady over the gravel, far down below the light, under the logs, with the hook in his jaw.” He thinks the trout would be angry: “Anything that size would be angry.”
When Nick thinks of the fish, he vividly imagines it under the water. He seems to feel guilty about the hook in its jaw, and nervous that it might be angry. The big trout seems powerful in these descriptions—definitely more powerful than Nick, who is feeling sick and cannot even stand. Thus, when Nick fails to exert his control over nature, he feels frustratingly powerless and this intimidates him.
Nick climbs out of the water, into the meadow, and sits on the logs. He does not want to “rush his sensations any.” He lights a cigarette and tosses the match into the water, where a tiny trout tries to get it. Nick laughs. He smokes his cigarette with the sun warm on his back and looks at the river, “shallow ahead entering the woods, curving into the woods, shallows, light glittering […]; slowly the feeling of disappointment left him.” He feels “all right now,” and ties a new hook onto the rod.
This episode further reveals the extent of Nick’s emotional trauma—a small setback is enough to trigger a massive reaction in him. He needs to leave the scene of the episode to try and calm down and give himself time to process his emotions. He observes unthreatening, benevolent nature—the light on the shallow water, a tiny trout—which comforts him.
Nick enters the water by the logs, where it is not too deep. The river cuts into the shore by an uprooted elm, and he casts his line there, between the weeds that grow in the current. He hooks a trout soon after and reels him in. The trout is a good size, and Nick slips it into the sack that hangs from his back. He fills the sack with water and keeps the end of it inside the stream, with the trout alive at the bottom.
Nick manages to catch a big trout. He makes sure that the fish he catches is comfortable, filling the sack with water and ensuring that it stays underwater so the trout can breathe. Nick’s erratic emotions do not distract him from his basic kindness.
Nick now has “one good trout” and doesn’t care about catching many more. The stream is shallow and wide, with trees on both banks. Nick knows there will be trout in the shadows cast by the trees on the water. The biggest ones will be closest to the bank. Nick walks along the stream, looking for deep pools close to the shore and finds one by a beech tree. He worries that his line will get caught in the branches of the tree but decides to try it anyway. He immediately hooks a big trout but struggles to reel it in against the current. He manages to get it into the net and puts it into the sack with the other trout.
Nick’s deep knowledge of fishing and the river are the highlight of this passage. He is successful in catching the second trout because he is so well-versed in their habits. Despite Nick’s trepidations, he doesn’t feel completely out of his element in the shallow waters of this stream, so he decides to give it a try anyway and succeeds in catching his second big trout. Although he is undoubtedly sensitive and dependent upon certainty and control, it’s clear that Nick is also able to be courageous and push past his discomfort when he wants to.
Nick wades over to sit on a hollow log, making sure to hang the sack in the stream so the two trout are in the water. He eats his sandwiches and drinks some water. Then he lights a cigarette and sits smoking and looking out at the river. “Ahead, the river narrow[s] and [goes] into a swamp,” which looks “solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together. […] It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that.”
Nick wishes he had brought something to read. He does not want to go into the swamp. He would not like to wade in the water “deepening up under his armpits; […] in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing [is] a tragic adventure. Nick [does] not want it.”
While looking at the swamp, Nick wishes for a book—perhaps to escape thinking about this mysterious area. While Nick hasn’t yet entered the swamp, he is imagining what it might feel like to go in there. The descriptions are sensory and physically uncomfortable: feeling the water “deepening up under his armpits” and seeing the “half light.” He uses a rather melodramatic word, “tragic,” to describe the fishing in the swamp. Perhaps the real tragedy he fears is that he will lose the control that is so important to him—this probably reminds him of his time at war when he had no control over his life or actions. In this sense, the swamp symbolizes the repressed traumas and emotions that Nick is too afraid to face in himself, for fear of losing his tenuous sense of stability. Nick fears that the water in the swamp is too deep, its trees are too close together, and it is too dark—it seems like a claustrophobic nightmare. Similarly, his own painful experiences seem too dark and deep in his mind to confront. Fishing in the swamp will be a test of his mental stability, and Nick is not convinced that he is up to the challenge.
Nick pulls out one of the trout from the sack and whacks it against a log to kill it. He does the same with the second. They are “fine trout.” He cleans them, “slitting them from the vent to the tip of the jaw.” Both the fish are males. Their insides are “clean and compact,” and Nick tosses them ashore for the minks to find.
Nick kills the two trout he caught in the most humane way recommended by seasoned fishermen. His knowledge of fish and fishing comes through in the easy manner in which he cleans them, and his competence and ease here is a stark contrast to the trepidation he feels about the swamp.
Nick washes the trout in the stream. They still have their color, and when he holds them under the water, they look like live fish. He rolls them up in the sack and puts them in the landing net. While heading back to camp, Nick looks back and notices that he can just about see the river through the trees. He thinks there are “plenty of days coming when he [can] fish the swamp.”
When Nick washes the trout in the stream, they look like they are alive—a trick of perception, of course, since they are in fact dead. As Nick heads back to camp, he turns for one last look at the river. His final thought in the story is an optimistic one, with Nick thinking that he has a lot of days to fish in the swamp. Though the thought of entering the swamp that day filled him with deep anxiety, he seems to think that in a few days, he will be ready for the challenge. Given that the swamp symbolizes Nick’s unresolved traumas, his optimism about fishing there implies that although he is too afraid to face his emotions now, he knows that one day he will be ready to do so.