Hortons Bay had been a lumber town. The sounds from the mill by the lake were always audible. Then, the logs stopped appearing. The machinery was taken out of the mill building. The mill and the complex that surrounded it lay abandoned. Ten years later, only the foundations were still visible to Nick Adams and Marjorie as they row along the lake shore, fishing. Nick says that he can only barely remember the mill working. Marjorie loves nights like these, fishing with Nick. She says the fish are feeding, but Nick counters that they will not strike and be caught. The two pull the boat up on a shore and cut up the perch that they have caught for bait. They go back out to set the lines. Then, the two pull up on shore again. Marjorie asks Nick if something is wrong, but he claims not to know what is bothering him.
They make a fire and put down a blanket. She summons him to eat their picnic, even though he says he does not feel like eating. They eat in silence. Then, they make a little conversation. Nick teases Marjorie, and she becomes frustrated. She asks again what is wrong, and, after some prodding, he finally tells her that he is not having fun anymore. She asks whether love is any fun, and he says no. She leaves without a goodbye. Nick lies there for a while. Bill arrives and asks whether she is gone. Nick tells him that she is and that there was no scene. When Bill asks how he feels, Nick tells him to go away. Bill takes a sandwich and goes to inspect the fishing rods.
The title of this story refers to two things: the end of Hortons Bay as a prosperous town and the end of Nick and Marjories relationship. Both endings are important because they signal the end of an old-fashioned way of doing things. In the nineteenth century, many American towns grew up around mills or factories. But, in the early twentieth century, such enterprises were being consolidated, so that small mills in remote locations were forced to close. People in these small towns then needed to find new, more modern ways of making a living. Therefore, the mill closing is bringing Nick and Hortons Bay into a modern life. The end of the relationship does a similar thing because in an earlier time, Nick and Marjorie might have gotten married younger or never considered leaving each other. Nick, however, like many young men of his era, is restless and wants to move on.
The fishing in this story serves as an extended metaphor. In this metaphor, Nick is a fish, for whom biting would be deciding to marry. Marjorie, then, is hopeful that the fish are feeding and will become attached to her line. Yet, Nick is trying to tell her, as gently as possible, that the fish are not interested in making that kind of commitment. This metaphor is broadened when the two are sitting on the picnic blanket. As they awkwardly move toward the end of their relationship, fire glints off of the reels of the fishing poles. The reel takes the line back up when a fish does or does not strike. In this case, the focus on the reel indicates that Marjorie should wind her line back in, because Nick is not going to take her bait.