In Part I, a train drops Nick off at the station in the town of Seney, Michigan, and then curves around one of the burned hills and disappears. Nick sits on his pack and bedding and looks around him. Seney has been burned to the ground and there is no sign of the familiar landmarks Nick is used to seeing—the 13 saloons, the hotel, and the scattered houses on the hillside are all gone. Nick walks over to the river, which is still there, the way he remembers it. He watches the trout in the river, which seem unmoving despite the rapid current around them.
Nick is happy as he walks back to pick up his pack, thinking that although Seney is destroyed, the country can’t all be burned in the fire. He adjusts the heavy pack on his back and takes the road that leads into the wilderness by the river, climbing the hill that separates the railroad tracks from the plain dotted with pine trees. Nick struggles uphill—his pack is very heavy, the day is hot. Yet he is happy because he feels he has left behind many of his needs, including the need to think.
A black grasshopper crawls up Nick’s sock while he takes a cigarette break, and he realizes he has seen some of these creatures around as he hiked. He examines it carefully and sees that it is just an ordinary grasshopper that has turned black from living in a burned, ash-ridden environment. Even though it has been a year since the fire, the insect is still black, and Nick wonders how long it will stay that way. He speaks to it, telling it to fly away.
He walks on and comes to the fire line, past which the land seems alive again, with ferns underfoot and islands of pine trees on the plain. Nick is very tired and could turn toward the river to set up camp at any point, but he wants to see how far he can go in a day. He takes a nap under some pine trees and wakes up when it is close to sunset. He begins to make his way to the river, which is about a mile away. When he reaches it, he sees the trout jumping out of the water to catch insects, and it looks to him like it is raining.
Nick meticulously sets up camp between two pines, and is pleased with the end result. He feels a comforting sense of accomplishment, and also feels safe. He then realizes he is famished and warms up some canned food for dinner. He enjoys it tremendously when it is ready. While making coffee, he thinks about his friend Hopkins, whom he knew some time ago, and with whom he used to argue about the best way to make coffee. Hopkins was well-liked and rich. He went away when a telegram came for him, and Nick never saw him again. Nick thinks that the end to Hopkins’s story is bitter just like the coffee. He feels his mind starting to work again, but knows that his exhaustion will put a stop to his thoughts. The night is quiet, and so is the swamp. He goes into his tent and falls asleep.
Part II begins the next morning, when Nick is woken up by the sun warming up the tent. He crawls out and looks around him at the meadow, the river, and the swamp with its many trees. Nick is too excited to eat breakfast, but knows that he must. While the water for his coffee is warming on the fire, he catches brown grasshoppers to use as bait for fishing. He knows they will not hop away in the cold morning dew, but that they will be very hard to catch once the sun warms them. He puts them in a jar and corks it with pine bark, making sure to leave an air passage so they can breathe. When he goes to wash his hands in the river, he is excited to be close to it. After making and eating his breakfast of buckwheat flapjacks, he packs some onion sandwiches for lunch and then tidies up his camp.
Nick then assembles his old fly rod that he’s had for many years, and heads to the stream with it and his other paraphernalia: the jar of grasshoppers hanging from his neck, his landing net hooked to his belt, and an old flour sack strapped to his shoulders. He feels prepared and happy. When he steps into the water, it is very cold. The first trout he catches is too small. Nick wets his hand before he releases it back into the water because he knows that trout can get a fatal fungal infection if touched with a dry hand.
Nick moves into deeper water because he wants to catch bigger trout. This time, he feels a pull on the line and struggles to reel it in—he sees that he has hooked a huge trout when it leaps out of the water. It is the biggest one Nick has ever seen, but it breaks the line and escapes. Nick feels shaky and a little sick with disappointment. He climbs out of the water and smokes a cigarette, watching the river until he feels all right again.
He enters the water where it is not too deep, and fishes by an upturned elm. He lands a big trout this time and reels it in successfully. He puts the fish in the flour sack with the bottom of the sack dangling in the water so the fish can stay alive. It is getting hot, and Nick moves downstream. He puts a grasshopper on the hook and sends the bait into a hollow log on the stream, and immediately feels a bite. He sees the trout shaking its head to try and get the hook out, and he pulls it in with some effort. He puts this fish in the sack too.
Nick sits on the hollow log and eats his lunch. He watches the river where it narrows and heads into the swamp. There are many trees in the swamp with low-growing branches, and it looks impenetrable. Nick does not feel like going into the darkness of the swamp. The water would be deep enough to reach his armpits, and it would be impossible to successfully catch trout there. He does not want to go further down the river today.
Nick breaks the necks of the fish he has caught by whacking them on the log. He then cleans them and discards the innards on the shore for the minks to find. He washes the fish in the river, and then heads ashore to his camp. He turns and looks back at the river and thinks that he has “plenty of days coming” to fish in the swamp.