Logo - Link to Home Page

Short Story Classics




Ernest Hemingway


Big Two-Hearted River: Part II

by Ernest Hemingway


In the morning the sun was up and the tent was starting to get hot. Nick   crawled out under the mosquito netting stretched across the mouth of the   tent, to look at the morning. The grass was wet on his hands as he came out.   The sun was just up over the hill. There was the meadow, the river and the   swamp. There were birch trees in the green of the swamp on the other side of   the river.      

The river was clear and smoothly fast in the early morning. Down about two   hundred yards were three logs all the way across the stream. They made the   water smooth and deep above them. As Nick watched, a mink crossed the   river on the logs and went into the swamp. Nick was excited. He was excited   by the early morning and the river. He was really too hurried to eat breakfast,   but he knew he must. He built a little fire and put on the coffee pot.      

While the water was heating in the pot he took an empty bottle and went   down over the edge of the high ground to the meadow. The meadow was wet   with dew and Nick wanted to catch grasshoppers for bait before the sun dried   the grass. He found plenty of good grasshoppers. They were at the base of the   grass stems.  Sometimes they clung to a grass stems. They were cold and wet   with the dew, and could not jump until the sun warmed them. Nick picked   them up, taking only the medium-sized brown ones, and put them into the   bottle. He turned over a log and just under the shelter of the edge were   several hundred hoppers. It was a grasshopper lodging house. Nick put about   fifty of the medium browns into the bottle. While he was picking up the   hoppers the others warmed in the sun and commenced to hop away. They   flew when they hopped. At first they made one flight and stayed stiff when   they landed, as though they were dead.      

Nick knew that by the time he was through with breakfast they would be as   lively as ever. Without dew in the grass it would take him all day to catch a   bottle full of good grasshoppers and he would have to crush many of them,   slamming at them with his hat. He washed his hands at the stream. He was   excited to be near it. Then he walked up to the tent. The hoppers were   already jumping stiffly in the grass. In the bottle, warmed by the sun, they   were jumping in a mass. Nick put in a pine stick as a cork. It plugged the   mouth of the bottle enough, so the hoppers could not get out and left plenty of   air passage.      

He had rolled the log back and knew he could get grasshoppers there every morning.      

Nick laid the bottle full of jumping grasshoppers against a pine trunk. Rapidly   he mixed some buckwheat flour with water and stirred it smooth, one cup of   flour, one cup of water. He put a handful of coffee in the pot and dipped a   lump of grease out of a can and slid it sputtering across the hot skillet. The   smoking skillet he poured smoothly the buckwheat batter. It spread like lava,   the grease spitting sharply. Around the edges the buckwheat cake began to   firm, then brown, then crisp. The surface was bubbling slowly to porousness.   Nick pushed under the browned under surface with a fresh pine chip. He   shook the skillet sideways and the cake was loose on the surface. I won't try   and flop it, he thought. He slid the chip of clean wood all the way under the   cake, and flopped it over onto its face. It sputtered in the pan.      

When it was cooked Nick regreased the skillet. He used all the batter. It made   another big flapjack and one smaller one.      

Nick ate a big flapjack and a smaller one, covered with apple butter. He put   apple butter on the third cake, folded it over twice, wrapped it in oiled paper  and put it in his shirt pocket. He put the apple butter jar back in the pack and   cut bread for two sandwiches.      

In the pack he found a big onion. He sliced it in two and peeled the silky   outer skin. Then he cut one half into slices and made onion sandwiches. He   wrapped them in oiled paper and buttoned them in the other pocket of his   khaki shirt. He turned the skillet upside down on the grill, drank the coffee,   sweetened and yellow brown with the condensed milk in it, and tidied up the   camp. It was a good camp.      

Nick took his fly rod out of the leather rod-case, jointed it, and shoved the   rod-case back into the tent. He put on the reel and threaded the line through   the guides. He had to hold it from hand to hand, as he threaded it, or it would   slip back through its own weight. It was a heavy, double tapered fly line.   Nick had paid eight dollars for it a long time ago. It was made heavy to lift   back in the air and come forward flat and heavy and straight to make it   possible to cast a fly which has no weight. Nick opened the aluminum leader   box. The leaders were coiled between the damp flannel pads. Nick had wet   the pads at the water cooler on the train up to St. Ignace. In the damp pads   the gut leaders had softened and Nick unrolled one and tied it by a loop at the   end to the heavy fly line. He fastened a hook on the end of the leader. It was a   small hook; very thin and springy.       

Nick took it from his hook book, sitting with the rod across his lap. He tested   the knot and the spring of the rod by pulling the line taut. It was a good   feeling. He was careful not to let the hook bite into his finger.      

He started down to the stream, holding his rod, the bottle of grasshoppers   hung from his neck by a thong tied in half hitches around the neck of the   bottle. His landing net hung by a hook from his belt. Over his shoulder was a   long flour sack tied at each corner into an ear. The cord went over his   shoulder. The sack slapped against his legs.      

Nick felt awkward and professionally happy with all his equipment hanging:   from him. The grasshopper bottle swung against his chest. In his shirt the   breast pockets bulged against him with the lunch and the fly book.      

He stepped into the stream. It was a shock. His trousers clung tight to his legs.   His shoes felt the gravel. The water was a rising cold shock.      

Rushing, the current sucked against his legs. Where he stepped in, the water   was over his knees. He waded with the current. The gravel slipt under his   shoes. He looked down at the swirl of water below each leg and tipped up the   bottle to get a grasshopper.      The first grasshopper gave a jump in the neck of the bottle and went out into   the water. He was sucked under in the whirl by Nick's right leg and came to   the surface a little way down stream. He floated rapidly, kicking. In a quick   circle, breaking the smooth surface of the water, he disappeared. A trout had   taken him.      

Another hopper poked his face out of the bottle. His antennas wavered.  He   was getting his front legs out of the bottle to jump. Nick took him by the   head and held him while he threaded the slim hook under his chin, down   through his thorax and into the last segments of his abdomen. The   grasshopper took hold of the hook with his front feet, spitting tobacco juice   on it. Nick dropped him into the water.      

Holding the rod in his right hand he let out line against the pull of the   grasshopper in the current. He stripped off line from the reel with his left hand   and let it run free. He could see the hopper in the little waves of the current. It   went out of sight.      

There was a tug on the line. Nick pulled against the taut line. It was his first   strike. Holding the now living rod across the current, he hauled in the line   with his left hand. The rod bent in jerks, the trout pulling against the   current. Nick knew it was a small one. He lifted the rod straight up in the air.   It bowed with the pull.      

He saw the trout in the water jerking with his head and body against the   shifting tangent of the line in the stream.      

Nick took the line in his left hand and pulled the trout, thumping tiredly   against the current, to the surface. His back was mottled the clear, water-over-   gravel color, his side flashing in the sun. The rod under his right arm, Nick   stooped, dipping his right hand into the current. He held the trout, never still,   with his moist right hand, while he unhooked the barb from his mouth, then   dropped him back into the stream.      

He hung unsteadily in the current, then settled to the bottom beside a stone.   Nick reached down his hand to touch him, his arm to the elbow under water.   The trout was steady in the moving stream resting on the gravel, beside a   stone. As Nick's fingers touched him, touched his smooth, cool, underwater   feeling, he was gone, gone in a shadow across the bottom of the stream.      

He's all right, Nick thought. He was only tired.      

He had wet his hand before he touched the trout, so he would not disturb the   delicate mucus that covered him.  If a trout was touched with a dry hand, a white fungus attacked the unprotected spot. Years before when he had fished crowded streams, with fly fishermen ahead of him and behind  him, Nick had again and again come on dead trout furry with white fungus, drilled against a rock, or floating belly up in some pool. Nick did not like to fish with other men on the river. Unless they were of your party, they spoiled it.      

He wallowed down the steam, above his knees in the current, through the fifty   yards of shallow water above the pile of logs that crossed the stream. He did   not rebait his hook and held it in his hand as he waded. He was certain he   could catch small trout in the shallows, but he did not want them. There   would be no big trout in the shallows this time of day.      

Now the water deepened up his thighs sharply and coldly. Ahead was the   smooth dammed-back flood of water above the logs. The water was smooth   and dark; on the left, the lower edge of the meadow; on the right the swamp.      Nick leaned back against the current and took a hopper from the bottle. He   threaded the hopper on the hook and spat on him for good luck. Then he   pulled several yards of line from the reel and tossed the hopper out ahead   onto the fast, dark water. It floated down towards the logs, then the weight of   the line pulled the bait under the surface Nick held the rod in his right hand,   letting the line run out through his fingers.      

There was a long tug. Nick struck and the rod came alive and dangerous,   bent double, the line tightening, coming out of water, tightening, all in a   heavy, dangerous, steady pull. Nick felt the moment when the leader would   break if the strain increased and let the line go.      

The reel ratcheted into a mechanical shriek as the line went out in a rush. Too   fast. Nick could not check it, the line rushing out, the reel note rising as the line ran out.      With the core of the reel showing, his heart feeling stopped with the   excitement, leaning back against the current that mounted icily his thighs,   Nick thumbed the reel hard with his left hand. It was awkward getting his   thumb inside the fly reel frame.      

As he put on pressure the line tightened into sudden hardness and beyond the   logs a huge trout went high out of water. As he jumped, Nick lowered the tip   of the rod. But he felt, as he dropped the tip to ease the strain, the moment when the strain was too great; the hardness too tight. Of course, the leader had broken. There was no mistaking the feeling when all spring left the line and it became dry and hard. Then it went slack. 

His mouth dry, his heart down, Nick reeled in. He had never seen so big a trout.  There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped. He looked as broad as a salmon. 

Nick's hand was shaky. He reeled in slowly. The thrill had been too muchl. He felt, vaguely, a little sick, as though it would be better to sit down.  

The leader had broken where the hook was tied to it. Nick took it in his hand. He thought of the trout somewhere on the bottom, holding himself steadyover the gravel, far down below the light, under the logs, with the hook in his   jaw. Nick knew the trout's teeth would cut through the snell of the hook. The   hook would imbed itself in his jaw. He'd bet the trout was angry. Anything   that size would be angry. That was a trout. He had been solidly hooked. Solid   as a rock. He felt like a rock, too, before he started off. By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of.      

Nick climbed out onto the meadow and stood, water running down his   trousers and out of his shoes, his shoes squlchy. He went over and sat on the   logs. He did not want to rush his sensations any.      

He wriggled his toes in the water, in his shoes, and got out a cigarette from   his breast pocket. He lit it and tossed the match into the I:ast water below the   logs. A tiny trout rose at the match, as it swung around in the fast current.   Nick laughed. He would finish the cigarette.      

He sat on the logs, smoking, drying in the sun, the sun warm on his back,   the river shallow ahead entering the woods, curving into the woods, shallows,   light glittering, big water-smooth rocks, cedars along the bank and white   birches, the logs warm in the sun, smooth to sit on, without bark, gray to the   touch; slowly the feeling of disappointment left him. It went away slowly, the   feeling of disappointment that came sharply after the thrill that made his   shoulders Iche. It was all right now. His rod lying out on the logs, Nick  tied a new hook on the leader, pulling the gut tight until it crimped into itself  in a hard knot.      

He baited up, then picked up the rod and walked to the tar end of the logs to   get into the water, where it was not too deep. Under and beyond the logs was   a deep pool. Nick walked around the shallow shelf near the swamp shore until   he came out on the shallow bed of the stream.      

On the left, where the meadow ended and the woods began, a great elm tree   was uprooted. Gone over in a storm, it lay back into the woods, its roots   clotted with dirt, grass growing in them, rising a solid bank beside the stream.   The river cut to the edge of the uprooted tree. From where Nick stood he   could see deep channels like ruts, cut in the shallow bed of the stream by the   flow of the current. Pebbly where he stood and pebbly and full of boulders   beyond; where it curved near the tree roots, the bed of the stream was marry   and between the ruts of deep water green weed fronds swung in the current.      

Nick swung the rod back over his shoulder and forward, and the line, curving   forward, laid the grasshopper down on one of the deep channels in the weeds.   A trout struck and Nick hooked him      

Holding the rod far out toward the uprooted tree and sloshing backward in the   current, Nick worked the trout, plunging, the rod bending alive, out of the   danger of the weeds into the open river. Holding the rod, pumping alive   against the current, Nick brought the trout in. He rushed, but always came,   the spring of the rod yielding to the rushes, sometimes jerking under water,   but always bringing him in. Nick eased downstream with the rushes. The rod   above his head he led the trout over the net, then lifted.      

The trout hung heavy in the net, mottled trout back and silver sides in the   meshes. Nick unhooked him; heavy sides, good to hold, big undershot jaw   and slipped him, heaving and big sliding, into the long sack that hung from his   shoulders in the water.      

Nick spread the mouth of the sack against the current and it filled, heavy with   water. He held it up, the bottom in the stream, and the water poured out   through the sides. Inside at the bottom was the big trout, alive in the water.      

Nick moved downstream. The sack out ahead of him sunk heavy in the water,   pulling from his shoulders.      

It was getting hot, the sun hot on the back of his neck.      

Nick had one good trout. He did not care about getting many trout. Now the   stream was shallow  and wide. There were trees along both banks. The trees of the left bank made short shadows on the current in the forenoon sun. Nick knew there were trout in each   shadow. In the afternoon, after the sun had crossed toward the hills the trout   would be in the cool shadows on the other side of the stream.      

The very biggest ones would lie up close to the bank. You could always pick   them up there on the Black. When the sun was down they all moved out into   the current. Just when the sun made the water blinding in the glare before it   went clown, you were liable to strike a big trout anywhere in the current. It   was ahllost impossible to fish then, the surface of the water was blinding as a   mirror in the sun. Of course, you could fish upstream, but in a stream like the   Black, or this, you had to wallow against the current and in a deep place, the   water piled up on you. It was no fun to fish upstream Fitly this much current.      

Nick moved along through the shallow stretch watching the balks for deep   holes. A beech tree grew close beside the river, so that the branches hung   down into the water. The stream went back in under the leaves. There were   always trout in a place like that.      

Nick did not care about fishing that hole. He was sure he would get hooked in   the branches.      

It looked deep though. He dropped the grasshopper so the current took it   under water, back in under the overhanging branch. The line pulled hard and   Nick struck. The trout threshed heavily,  half out of water in the leaves and   branches. The line was caught. Nick pulled hard and the trout was off. He   reeled in and holding the hook in his hand walked down the stream.      

Ahead, close to the left bank, was a big log. Nick saw it was hollow, pointing   up river the current entered it smoothly, only a little ripple spread each side of   the log. The water was deepening. The top of the hollow log was gray and   dry. It was partly in the shadow.      

Nick took the cork out of the grasshopper bottle and a hopper clung to it. He   picked him off, hooked him and tossed him out. He held the rod far out so   that the hopper on the water moved into the current flowing into the hollow   log. Nick lowered the rod and the hopper floated in. There was a heavy   strike. Nick swung the rod against the pull. It felt as though he were hooked   into the log itself, except for the live feeling.      He tried to force the fish out into the current. It came, heavily.      

The line went slack and Nick thought the trout was gone. Then he saw him,   very near, in the current, shaking his head, trying to get the hook out. His   mouth was clamped shut. He was fighting the hook in the clear flowing   current.      Looping in the line with his left hand, Nick swung the rod to make the line   taut and tried to lead the trout toward the net, but he was gone, out of sight,   the line pumping. Nick fought him against the current, letting him thump in   the water against the spring of the rod. He shilted the rod to his left hand,   worked the trout upstream, holding his weight, fighting on the rod, and then   let him down into the net. He lifted him clear of the water, a heavy half circle   in the net, the net dripping, unhooked him and slid him into the sack.      

He spread the mouth of the sack and looked down in at the two big trout alive   in the water.      

Through the deepening water, Nick waded over to the hollow Iog. He took   the sack off, over his head, the trout flopping as it came out of water, and   hung it so the trout were deep in the water Then he pulled himself up on the log and sat, the water from his trouser and boots   running down into the stream. He laid his rod down moved along to the   shady end of the log and took the sandwiches out of his pocket. He dipped   the sandwiches in the cold water. The current carried away the crumbs. He   ate the sandwiches and dipped his hat full of water to drink, the water running   out through his hat just ahead of his drinking.      

It was cool in the shade, sitting on the log. He took a cigarette out and struck   a match to light it. The match sunk into the gray wood, making a tiny furrow.   Nick leaned over the side of the log, found a hard place and lit the match. He   sat smoking and watching the river.      

Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp. The river became smooth   and deep and the swamp looked solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together, their   branches solid.  It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that.   The branches grew so low. You would have to keep almost level with the   ground to move at all. You could not crash through the branches. That must   be why the animals that lived in swamps were built the way they were, Nick thought.      

He wished he had brought something to read. He felt like reading. He did not   feel like going on into the swamp. He looked down the river. A big cedar   slanted all the way across the stream. Beyond that the river went into the   swamp.      

Nick did not want to go in there now. He felt a reaction against deep wading   with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in  places impossible to land   them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together   overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep   water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was   a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He didn't want to go up the stream any   further today.      

He took out his knife, opened it and stuck it in the log. Then he pulled up the   sack, reached into it and brought out one of the trout. Holding him near the   tail, hard to hold, alive, in his hand, he whacked him against the log. The trout   quivered, rigid. Nick laid him on the log in the shade and broke the neclc of   the other fish the same way. He laid them side by side on the log. They were   fine trout.      

Nick cleaned them, slitting them from the vent to the tip of the jaw. All the   insides and the gills and tongue came out in one piece They were both males;   long gray-white strips of milt, smooth and clean. All the insides clean and   compact, coming out all together. Nick took the offal ashore for the minks to   find      

He washed the trout in the stream. When he held them back up in the water, they looked like live fish.  Their color was not goneyet.  He washed his hands and dried them on the log.  Then he laid the trout on the sack spread out on the log, rolled them up in it, tied the bundle and put it in the landing net.  His knife was still standing, blade studk in the log.  He cleaned it on the wood and put it in his pocket. 

Nick stood up on the log, holding his rod, the landing net hanging heavy, then stepped into the water and splashed ashore.  He climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground.  He was going back to camp.  He looked back.  The river just showed through the trees.  There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.



Last updated:
February 27, 2004
| Home |