One of the two fishermen of the title is Michael Foster, a young journalist for a small-town newspaper called the Examiner who wants to work for a metropolitan paper instead. The other fisherman, K. Smith, has come to town to execute the well-liked Tom Delaney, who fought, was hurt by, and killed his wife’s molester.
The story falls into two parts. The first part takes place in the evening; Foster finds Smith, borrows a boat, and rows him out onto the lake. They share a bottle and grow “neighborly.” “Smitty” amusingly talks about his wife and children and then begins to discuss his work, “knowing he ought to be ashamed.” Next day, soon after the execution, the two meet again. Smith, now formally dressed, gives Foster two fish he caught before dawn that morning. An upset crowd approaches and pelts Smith, and a flying rock cuts Smith’s head. The inefficient sheriff intervenes and saves Smith. An irate citizen notices Foster’s fish, grabs them, and hurls them toward Smith. Smith stares at his gift, in the dust; Foster, backing away, feels “hot with shame” for “betraying Smitty.”
This story concerns injustice, friendship’s limits, disloyalty, and the sad separation of work and play. Tom should not be hanged. Foster makes and loses a friend. Smith endures his job partly so he can fish in different places. The serenity of the lake implicitly mocks the characters’ common inhumanity. A bleeding head, betrayal, and fish provide twisted Christian symbolism. When asked to select one of his stories for inclusion in This Is My Best, a 1942 collection of works by famous authors, Callaghan submitted “Two Fishermen.” He might easily have chosen any of a dozen other splendid stories, but he rightly held this one in high regard.